Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
May 15th, 2011

Correctly Forecasting the Price of Oil

In a recent column, I expressed how, as a futurist, I often feel like I live in a déjà vu world. I am called upon to deliver forecasts about the future. I spend much time researching and thinking about trends as well as economic, social and technological dynamics so that when I make the forecast, I have “lived” its reality. That may sound odd, but it is often the way it seems to me.

Since 2006, I have been extremely accurate in my forecasting of the price of oil. I don’t know the natural gas, shale or coal markets at all, just oil. In 2006, I forecast that the price of oil would reach $125 a barrel in 2008. As it turns out, the price overshot my prediction by $22.

When I was on a nationally syndicated business TV program in early 2007, I said that oil would come close to but not cross $100 a barrel by the end of the year. The reporter, who is no longer with the program, smugly said that having heard from a futurist, it was then time to hear from a respected energy analyst who would give us a more “realistic” forecast. The analyst delivered his forecast that oil would trade between $50 and $70 a barrel for the next few years (it was at $55 at the time). In today’s society, analysts seem to be granted automatic authority; futurists, not so much. Ah, sweet victory!

In January 2009, with oil around $50 a barrel after the price collapse in the fourth quarter of 2008 – along with just about everything else – I forecast that oil would, over the course of all the trading days of 2009, trade within the range of $50-70 which was essentially correct.

In January of this year, I forecast in my Shift Age Trend Report that oil would largely trade within the $90 to $120 a barrel range and could very well cross over $100 in the first quarter. That was before the upheavals in the Middle East. Again, correct.

Okay, enough chest-thumping. Why have I been so consistently accurate?  First and foremost is my firm belief that we are moving into the decade of Peak Oil. I have written columns on this in years past. A good explanation of Peak Oil can be found in Wikipedia.

It has taken 150 years for humanity to burn through half of all the oil the earth has produced. Now that some 5 billion people use oil directly or indirectly every day, how long will it take to be largely depleted? Scientists who are much smarter than me suggest it will take between 30 and 60 years.  Technically, we will never fully exhaust all petroleum resources, but we will, in perhaps 20 years, reach the point when the amount extracted can no longer keep up with demand. In addition, the easy oil has been found. The oil that is harder to extract often comes with much higher environmental risks. So, Peak Oil is the overarching long-term reality.

Second, are the shorter-term realities of the marketplace of supply and demand. The growing demand for oil in developing countries far outstrips the conservation efforts in the developed countries, and that will continue to be the case for at least the next five years. As such, the demand curve favors prices staying high.

Third, oil specifically and commodities in general have become an integral part of most large investment portfolios. Interest rates are low, real estate is in general a sideways market, and the result is the elevation of oil futures as an acceptable speculative investment, with most activity on the long side.

Fourth, with the ongoing revolutions in many oil-producing Middle Eastern countries, the ruling elite now need to fund economic upgrades and opportunities for their populations – and they need to do so quickly. Billions and billions of additional revenue from oil is now needed to placate restless populations who demand opportunity. Saudi Arabia in particular has changed its tune. It once offered $70 a barrel as a fair price, but now it wants $90 to $100 a barrel. The ruling family simply needs additional revenue to spur economic investments that will create a larger middle class.

So, what will the price of oil be over the next few years? It will be at or above $100 a barrel in the vast majority of trading days for the next three years. There will be dips and spikes due to geopolitical events, but I think the reality is that the $100+ barrel is here to stay.

The good news in all of this is that people react to economic pain. In the United States, for the second time in three years, gasoline going over $4 a gallon has caused people to drive less, set up van pools, and buy smaller cars. In addition, investment funds are flowing into alternative energy companies as the economic playing field is being leveled. OPEC’s short-term gain will benefit all of us in the long term.

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In times of global uncertainty and disruption it takes a futurist to provide context and understanding.

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