Latest Cuts Leave OPEC with Fewer Options

Last week, OPEC and its partners from OPEC+ agreed to deepen and extend their production cuts into the first quarter of 2024.The move, almost unanimously seen as a means to propping up oil prices, did not have the desired effect. After an initial jump, benchmarks slid again, with Brent crude dipping below $80 per barrel on Monday morning in Asia.

So, it seems that the cuts have, at least for now, failed in their purpose. Of course, the tighter supply may yet be felt on the market, but in the meantime, OPEC—and OPEC+—seems to be running out of options. And those that are left are painful ones.“The market is going to test Opec+ and whether $80 a barrel is really a floor they can defend,” Raad Alkadiri, an analyst with Eurasia Group, told the Financial Times. “The cuts being billed as ‘voluntary’ undermines the psychological impact for the market a little, but if the full cut is realised, its impact on the market should not be discounted.”

Indeed, part of the reason oil prices went lower rather than higher last week despite the OPEC+ announcement was the suspicion that some of the cuts will remain so only on paper. The suspicion emerged after reports that OPEC members had internal disagreements about the production level they should be free to pursue. The total cuts for the first half of 2024 are set at 2.2 million barrels daily, equal to about 2% of global supply. A few years ago, this would have been reason enough for traders to pile into oil futures. Now, this is not the case.

Some, such as Reuters’ Clyde Russell, argue that this indicates that oil demand is not as strong as OPEC says it is. Others, such as energy analyst Paul Sankey, suggest OPEC could do a U-turn and sink prices to neutralize the rising output of U.S. drillers. Physical oil demand and its relation to the oil futures market are at the heart of it all.

OPEC has been upbeat about that, just as the International Energy Agency has been increasingly pessimistic about it, recently forecasting peak demand growth before 2030. At the same time, there has been a multitude of reports and forecasts projecting weak economic growth for the world in the immediate future.With such projections, it is easy to understand why traders are turning bearish after the initial shock of the latest war in the Middle East wears out. It’s even easier to understand after Bloomberg reported that as much as a fifth of what we collectively think of as traders are actually computer algorithms.

Commodity trading advisors use algorithms to track the market and place bets on various commodities. In oil, the trading volume of these algorithm-driven trades constitutes 70% of the total daily average volume on a given day, per data from JP Morgan and TD Bank, cited by Bloomberg.

This means that the futures market has got even more divorced from the physical market for oil than before. And that, in turn, means that OPEC could be driven to desperation as algo traders, which Bloomberg notes are trend followers and trend exaggerators, ignore any attempt by the cartel to control oil supply, and, as a result, prices.

This would prove a dangerous situation, especially for U.S. producers that have set another production record this year even though growth has been slower and more moderate than in previous growth years. Indeed, this is what Paul Sankey suggested to CNBC last week: that Saudi Arabia may simply decide to reverse course and open the taps to flood markets with oil. The question is whether it can afford to do so with all its expensive energy transition plans.

On the other hand, OPEC in general, and Saudi Arabia specifically, can simply cut even deeper if the price of oil in the first quarter of 2024 comes across as unsatisfactory. It would be a risky move, given the market reaction to this latest cut. But it could be the less risky move compared to the above alternative.

According to Reuters’ Russell, a big part of the market’s skeptical reaction to the cuts was the news about internal disagreements in OPEC. Apparently, these suggest that not all members of the group would actually follow through with their cuts. On the other hand, many OPEC members have been underproducing even with their original quotas—and prices have still declined.It is certainly a complicated situation for OPEC. The more often it cuts production, the more traders would question the outlook on oil demand, as suggested by the latest cuts. On the other hand, there is a divide between the physical market and the futures market.

The physical market looks quite healthy based on seaborne oil volumes, which are up by 1.86 million bpd so far this year, per Kpler data cited by Russell. The futures market appears to be dominated by automatic trading, which affects prices in a major way. In any case, next year will be interesting to watch on the OPEC front.