An OPEC logo sits on the wall of the OPEC Secretariat in Vienna, Austria. (Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg)

OPEC's Closing-Down Sale

(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- Like a retailer whose mid-season sale shades into an end-of-season clearance, and then into pre- and post-Christmas discount drives, OPEC's production cuts are becoming less an exception than the norm.

The latest reductions were pushed through by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and several other producers last November. They'll now be extended by at least three months from their planned end next March and possibly into the second half of 2018, people familiar with the matter told Javier Blas, Wael Mahdi and Grant Smith of Bloomberg News.

It's not hard to see why. A sharp recovery over the past three months has done little more than bring crude prices back to where they were when the cuts were first agreed upon. Curtailing output is meant to lift prices, not leave them standing still -- but maybe another crack at starving the market will succeed.

The risk of extending them, though, is the same that retailers face in a permanent sale. Consumers get used to the new shape of the market, leaving those on the sell side with an enduring disadvantage.

We can see that happening in the way non-OPEC producers have stepped up output in recent years. It's easy to forget, but the journey from $100 a barrel to around half that level started when Saudi Arabia boosted output in 2014 to snuff out the U.S. shale industry.

Far from repeating its 1986 success in drowning high-cost rivals, Saudi Arabia has found itself struggling to stay afloat. Current prices are well below the break-even levels at which Riyadh can balance its budget.

Meanwhile, the western hemisphere has boomed. OPEC forecasts output from Brazil will rise by 450,000 barrels a day between 2016 and 2018, and by another 380,000 barrels a day from Canada. The biggest winner, however, has been the U.S., which will add some 1.5 million barrels a day over the period, with 860,000 coming from Texas's Permian Basin alone. In other words, the oil cartel hasn't really squeezed the market by cutting output -- it's just handed share to arch-rivals.

The long-term picture is not much less alarming. Since the mid-1980s glut, oil supply and demand has grown at a remarkably consistent rate only a little bit slower than global gross domestic product. Dislocations have largely correlated with periods of economic weakness -- as in 1998 and the early and late 2000s -- or when oil prices have risen rapidly, choking off demand, as in the mid-2000s. 

Over the past year or so, we've seen something different. The global economy is growing at a relatively robust 3 percent to 3.5 percent, yet crude prices are treading water and output growth is only just cracking 2 percent again after flatlining for almost two years.

The optimistic explanation is that we're seeing a repeat of 1999's weak patch, the one notable occasion in recent years when oil prices and output both fell in the absence of a weakening global economy. China's voracious fuel demand turned that slide into a bonanza for the oil industry in less than a decade.

A more worrying possibility is that the peak in oil demand is closer than we think. BP Plc doesn't expect this until 2042 but Royal Dutch Shell Plc thinks the top could come by 2030; Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Boston Consulting Group both see the chance of a peak in 2024 or 2025 as electric vehicles supplant conventional ones and natural gas replaces crude as a petrochemicals feedstock.

Look at the world's fastest-growing economies and a worrying picture emerges: China is by far the most oil-intensive. Countries like India, Indonesia and Mexico, which are likely to dominate global growth over the coming decade in the same way that China did since 2000, use far less.

As Gadfly's Liam Denning has argued, Saudi Arabia's determination to sell a stake in the national oil company and loosen its economy's dependence on the commodity support the case for demand weakness. Should that be the case, expect more output cuts.

 That suggests another parallel between the oil market and your local shops: When a retailer's stock-clearance drives fail to juice the market, they have a nasty habit of turning into closing-down sales.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

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