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Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future

So said Niels Bohr yet despite this folks are always sticking their necks out – inevitably to be proven wrong.

The latest round of predictions come in the wake of recent events in Eqypt and concern what might happen to oil. Given oils significance within the industrialised world it is no surprise that pundits all over the place are desperate to have an opinion on what might possibly, maybe, perhaps might happen.

Below are some thoughts on the matter by oil pundit Charlie Maxwell in the latest issue of Barrons.

What’s the current capacity for global oil production?

We are producing about 87 million to 88 million barrels a day, and I would put global capacity at another five million barrels on top of that. So our capacity is about 92 million to 93 million barrels a day, and I see our capacity as reaching perhaps as much as 95 million barrels a day at the peak in about four or five years, probably around 2015. But I think production will go very modestly above that point, if at all, and, in effect, we will reach a plateau. It will be a little bumpy in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. But by 2020, the first signs will become very evident that we can’t go any higher than that in production. So we will begin to settle very slowly and gradually in a world in which we need more oil each year, but we can’t get more.

How high will the price of oil go?

By 2020, I’m looking for about $300 a barrel, which is closer to $225 a barrel in today’s dollars. So it reaches a production plateau around 2015 or 2016 and stays flattish on a bumpy plateau until about 2020, at which point output starts to recede slowly.

At what point do those price increases start to put too much pressure on the world economy?

Strangely enough, I don’t think that it would bring the economy down. Rather, it is the suddenness of change that does that. That rise we saw three years ago, where in one year it went from $62 a barrel on average to $100, created a huge amount of economic damage. On a more gradual scale, and giving the effect of inflation its due, we will probably simply walk away from two-tenths or three-tenths or four-tenths of a percentage point of potential gross-domestic-product growth, which we will give up by being caught in this energy vise. But the world economy will advance, and it won’t be brought down by this. However, it will touch off a huge effort to change the cars and the aircraft engines—and to use a greater amount of substitutes for oil, such as coal and natural gas. And, of course, this has a lot of positive aspects as well, because in the longer term, we would have to begin making these changes anyway. But it seems that we can’t be asked to do that. We must be forced to do that, and price is the means by which that force is applied.

However, there is a problem with this seemingly well reasoned argument. Charlie Maxwell has no idea – this is a guess backed up by a series of rationalisations in order to sound plausible. I have no idea where oil will be at the end of the decade but then nor does anyone else. But you dont get your name in Barrons if you simply say – I have no idea but the market will tell me when the time comes, all I have to do is listen.


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