Low and Behold

Making the Most of Cheap Oil

After dropping from close to $150 in the summer of 2008 to under $34 last winter, the price of oil had more than doubled by the spring and was hovering around $60 in July. It is unlikely to rise to last summer's peak anytime soon. To the contrary, there are good reasons to believe that lower prices are here to stay for a while. Last year's high prices and the recession have severely damped demand, and the growth of new production capacity, especially in Saudi Arabia, is buoying supplies.

The rapid fall and then rebound in oil prices over the past year surprised many people. But it was not unusual: commodities markets are cyclical by nature and have a history punctuated by sudden turning points. Although this generally makes it difficult to forecast prices, it is safe to say that commodities markets will remain lower over the next few years than they have been over the past five. In the oil industry, the most important new factor that accounts for low prices is the return of surplus production capacity among the members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for the first time since 2002-3.

Most oil industry analysts expect high prices to return soon, along with economic recovery. This is probably a mistaken view; more likely, the prices for oil and other commodities will be range-bound again. This would be a happy development, as it would provide unusual opportunities to tame the volatility in prices. An extended period of low prices could reverse the trend toward resource nationalism, the tendency of producing countries to concentrate control over their resources in the hands of state-run entities, that has characterized energy politics for most of the last decade. It would also translate into new chances for constructive diplomacy with oil producers and set the stage for more balanced relationships between energy producers and their buyers.

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