Forecasters’ prediction for oil prices in 2011: Up, up, up

By Grant Smith and Mark Shenk
Bloomberg News

Oil demand increasing at almost twice the pace of supply is spurring the most-accurate forecasters to predict the second-highest price on record in 2011.

Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., whose estimate last January was within 1 percent of 2010’s mean price of $79.60 a barrel, says crude will average $90 this year. Natixis Bleichroeder Inc., which tied with Bernstein, sees $100 a barrel, 26 percent higher than in 2010. Global oil use will increase 1.7 percent to a record 87.8 million barrels a day this year, and output will rise 0.9 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

While economic growth in China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, will slow to 9 percent this year from 10 percent, that would still be three times the rate in the U.S. and six times Europe’s, according to the median estimate in Bloomberg surveys of economists. As oil prices rise, spare production capacity may drop the most since 2003 as exporters including the 12 members of OPEC boost supply, according to Bernstein.

“We expect OPEC to have to increase their production, causing a reduction in spare capacity, which to us is increasingly becoming a more important determinant of oil prices,” said Oswald Clint, who replaced Neil McMahon in August as Bernstein’s head oil analyst in London. “Since China became a more important part of the demand pie, the spare-capacity factor has become more important.”

Highest Since 2008

Crude futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange will average $87 in 2011, based on the median of 34 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That would be the highest since the record $99.75 reached in 2008 and 40 percent more than 2009’s average of $62.09.

Oil prices will average $93 a barrel this year and are “very likely” to climb above $100, Jason Schenker, president of Prestige Economics in Austin, Texas, one of the five most- accurate forecasters in 2010, said today in an interview with Deirdre Bolton on Bloomberg Television’s “InsideTrack.”

Exxon Mobil Corp., BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell Plc are forecast to report increased profit this year, according to analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Airline earnings may drop 40 percent partly because of increased fuel costs, the International Air Transport Association said Dec. 14.

Oil is likely to trade at $75 to $120 this year, said Roger Read, who since giving his forecast for an average of $100 has left New York-based Natixis Bleichroeder to join Morgan Keegan & Co. in Houston.

2010 Gain

Crude gained 15 percent last year, less than the 20 percent advance of the Standard & Poor’s GSCI gauge of 24 commodities. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index of stocks jumped 13 percent, while bonds as measured by Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Global Broad Market Plus Index returned 4.9 percent.

Spare production capacity in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is about 5.7 million barrels a day and sufficient to absorb this year’s projected consumption increase, according to Bernstein’s Clint.

Higher-than-average U.S. stockpiles will limit price increases this year, said Frank Schallenberger, head of commodities at Landesbank Baden-Wuerttember in Stuttgart, Germany, who predicts $87 oil this year. U.S. inventories were 339.4 million barrels as of Dec. 24, 7.6 percent above their five-year seasonal norm, the U.S. Energy Department said.

Too Much Oil

“There isn’t much for the bulls,” said Schallenberger, whose 2010 estimate of $78 was about 2 percent below last year’s average. “There’s still too much oil.”

This year’s projected average of $87 is 4.8 percent lower than the closing price of $91.38 on Dec. 31. Prices have almost tripled since reaching a low of $32.40 in December 2008, when OPEC agreed to record production cuts. The group acted after crude tumbled from an all-time high of $147.27 in July 2008.

Futures for February delivery climbed 17 cents to $91.55 a barrel in New York today, the highest settlement price since Oct. 3, 2008.

OPEC, which accounts for 40 percent of world production, may raise supply if needed, Secretary-General Abdalla El-Badri said on Dec. 11 at the group’s last meeting in Quito, Ecuador. Ali Al-Naimi, oil minister for Saudi Arabia, the group’s biggest producer, prefers $70 to $80, he said at the meeting.

“We subscribe to the notion that OPEC is the central bank of oil,” Schenker said. “If global growth continues to rise, even at a decelerated pace, there may very well be a need for OPEC to raise production quotas.”

OPEC Meeting

OPEC said Dec. 11 it will skip a regularly scheduled first- quarter meeting, a sign that it’s ready to let prices climb, said Lawrence Eagles, head of oil research at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. Crude will average $93 this year, according to Eagles, whose 2010 forecast was $78.25.

“At any point, OPEC could bring on extra supply and push the market down,” he said. “We don’t think they’ll do that.”

OPEC’S daily production capacity will shrink by about 1 million barrels to 4.7 million as countries outside the group struggle to make up the shortfall, according to Clint. Supply from Russia, the largest non-OPEC producer, will drop 2 percent this year, while output from Mexico, which provides about 13 percent of U.S. imports, will fall 9 percent, he said.

Shell’s earnings per share will rise to $3.71 this year from $3.03 in 2010, according to the mean of as many as 22 analysts’ forecasts compiled by Bloomberg. Exxon’s will climb to $6.55 from $5.92, based on 10 estimates. BP will post earnings per share of $1.12, compared with a loss of 23.3 cents a year earlier, according to 18 estimates.

Oil Earnings

Shell, based in The Hague and Europe’s biggest oil company, jumped 15 percent last year in Amsterdam trading. Irving, Texas- based Exxon, the biggest publicly traded crude producer, rose 7.6 percent in New York. BP, which agreed last year to a payment of $20 billion for its role in the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, fell 22 percent in London.

Airline profits will drop a total of $6 billion to $9.1 billion as fuel costs rise and passenger demand wanes, according to the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association.

Oil consumption will increase by 1.3 million barrels a day, or 1.5 percent, to a record 88.8 million in 2011, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Demand will fall 0.7 percent in Europe and be little changed in the U.S. China, which accounts for 11 percent of the global total, will consume 9.7 million barrels a day this year, 4.8 percent more than last year, the IEA said Dec. 10.

U.S. demand may also rise this year as the Federal Reserve purchases $600 billion of Treasuries through the first half of this year to sustain the recovery, according to JBC Energy, a Vienna-based consultant.

“The growth story is the primary focus,” said Prestige’s Schenker, whose 2010 forecast of $78 was about 2 percent below the annual average. “If speculative forces push crude markedly higher, it may be difficult for OPEC quota changes to significantly impact prices.”

—With assistance from Rachel Graham in London and Ayesha Daya in Dubai.

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