Friday, February 4, 2011

Why isn't oil soaring on MIddle East unrest?

Before things blew up in Egypt, pundits and market mavens were predicting $100/barrel, even $200/barrel oil coming very soon. Two weeks into the uprising in the country that controls the Suez Canal, oil has barely budged and is currently at around $90. What's the deal?

Well, perception and emotion can be very powerful, but reality usually wins, especially in a market that's as "just in time" as the petrol market. It's much cheaper to leave oil in the ground than it is to store it, long term, in tanks above ground. For that reason, there's not a lot of "extra" petrol sitting around, so when you get a spike in demand, you can get a rapid spike in price as immediately available supplies dry up. By the same token, if demand drops even a bit, you can find yourself with a lot of excess inventory and nowhere to put it. Prices can drop just as fast as supply is unloaded on the cheap.

There is a threat of supply cut off, but it hasn't yet materialized. In addition, the historic cold snap in the U.S. has caused thousands of flight cancellations, school cancellations, business closings and has kept a lot of people who would otherwise be traveling, hunkered down at the house. The increase in energy being used for heat is not offsetting the huge amounts of petrol that are not being used for transportation.

If the situation in Egypt simmers down without anyone disrupting operations at the Canal (and there doesn't seem to be any party that would benefit from such a move), expect to see oil drop 5-10% in a hurry. If the canal is shut down, a huge spike up, and in the meantime a very gradual downward trend as what is actually happening slightly beats out what might happen.

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