In just one week, oil prices skidded by more than 10 percent, sparking a sell-off in U.S. equities of 3.5 percent, a Treasury rally of more than 20 basis points, and global headlines of growth fears and tumult. Surprisingly, I’m not talking about this week. The week I’m referring to was in early December, and it is rather similar to the present oil price action and market response.
During the week of Dec. 8, oil fell 12.2 percent to around $58 a barrel, the yield on U.S. 10-year Treasuries approached 2 percent from around 2.30 percent, and equities declined over 3.5 percent. At that time, I published a commentary establishing a downside target for oil at $50 a barrel and said that the yield on the U.S. 10-year note would slip further to around 1.9 percent. Many of those predictions seemed pretty extreme at the time, but here we stand. At the time of writing, oil is around $48 per barrel, and the yield on U.S. 10-year Treasuries is 1.96 percent.
Technically speaking, after breaking through the support level of $50 a barrel, the measured move for oil is now $34 a barrel (based on the minimum downside potential price according to the rules used by market technicians). I believe we are in for a prolonged period where oil trades in the $40 to $50 range and possibly lower. In fact, I have the investment teams running stress tests based on oil trading at $25 a barrel for an extended period of time.
Twenty-five dollars a barrel? Isn’t that a bit extreme? I would guess, but so were our stress tests in 2008, which assumed short-term rates could go to zero for an extended period of time. The current bear market for oil is the result of a supply shock brought on by fracking. Based on the unwillingness of global oil producers to reduce production, the current supply shock will take a while to work its way through the system, and oil prices have yet to find a bottom. Better to evaluate the downside scenarios now than to be unprepared.
The difference between this bear market in black gold and the bear market of 2008 or the 1998 experience, which was associated with the Asian crisis, is that both of those were demand shocks. The best historical comparison to what we’re witnessing today in oil prices is actually the supply-shocked world of the mid-1980s.
The 1985-86 bear market in oil was the result of oversupply—too much oil was brought online relative to demand. During that period, prices declined more than 67 percent over four months or so. When oil prices started to rise again in April 1986, credit spreads started to tighten a few months later and within 12 months, the stock market was up over 20 percent. If history is any guide—and in this instance, I believe it may be—we are likely to see a similar situation play out today.
But investors beware in the near-term. Even at $48 per barrel, oil is still a falling knife—I believe there remains another significant downside move. If we hit the $34 a barrel price target, which I believe we could, that would be another 30 percent decline in oil prices. Typically, people would rightly characterize a 30 percent decline as a bear market. We’ve already had a decline of over 55 percent from the high, so we’ve already been in a bear market, but if we started over today we’re going to have another one.
With the development of fracking, we’ve had a huge increase in the supply of oil. By most estimates, fracking ceases to be profitable when oil prices hit somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 a barrel. Once the frackers stop drilling new wells, the following 24 months should see oil output gradually declining, allowing for prices to stabilize and ultimately rising to something viewed as normal above $60. Until supply begins to contract, oil will continue to languish. Between now and then, anything energy output-related should continue to suffer from weak oil prices.
Chart of the Week
Supply Shock Suggests More Downside Risk for Oil
Over the past 30 years, there have been six major declines in the price of oil (defined as a greater than 50 percent cumulative decline). The current decline now stands at around 55 percent, matching the magnitude of some of the worst historical oil crashes. However, most of the past declines have been due to faltering global demand, whereas the current slump is due to a glut of oil. Therefore, the best comparable decline is that of 1985-86, when a supply shock caused the West Texas Intermediate price to plunge by more than 67 percent over the course of four and a half months. With no near-term signs of supply letting up, oil prices could continue to fall.
Source: Haver, Bloomberg, Guggenheim Investments. Data as of 1/8/2015.
Economic Data Releases
Continued Strength in Payrolls but Wage Growth Falters
- Non-farm payrolls increased by 252,000 in December after an upwardly revised 353,000 in November.
- The unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percentage points in December to 5.6 percent, in part due to a lower labor force participation rate.
- Average hourly earnings slowed to 1.7 percent year-over-year growth in December, the slowest 12-month rate since October 2012.
- The ISM manufacturing index was weaker than expected in the December reading, falling to 55.5 from 58.7, a six-month low.
- The ISM non-manufacturing index missed expectations in December, falling to a six-month low of 56.2.
- Factory orders dropped in November, down 0.7 percent. Orders have now fallen for four straight months, the first such streak since 2012.
- The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index showed continued slowing home price growth in October, with the year-over-year reading declining to 4.50 percent from 4.82 percent.
- Pending home sales rose 0.5 percent in November, slightly better than expectations.
- Construction spending fell in November for the first time since June, down 0.3 percent. Public construction spending led the drop.
- The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index ticked up in December, rising to 92.6 from an upwardly revised 91.0. The present situation index experienced a large gain, but expectations fell.
- The trade deficit narrowed in November, contracting to -$39.0 billion, a nearly one-year low.
Euro Zone Enters Deflation
- The euro zone Consumer Price Index fell into deflation in December at -0.2 percent year over year, lower than forecasts had expected. The core CPI inched up to 0.8 percent.
- The euro zone manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index was revised lower in the final December estimate, but still recorded an increase from the prior month at 50.6.
- Euro zone retail sales beat expectations in November, up 0.6 percent for a second consecutive month.
- Germany’s December CPI dropped more than expected on a year-over-year basis, falling to a five-year low of 0.1 percent.
- German industrial production unexpectedly declined in November, down 0.1 percent.
- German exports decreased for a second consecutive month in November, falling 2.1 percent.
- Industrial production in France was down 0.3 percent in November. Production has not risen since July.
- The U.K. manufacturing PMI unexpectedly fell in December, down to 52.5 from 53.3.
- The U.K. services PMI dropped much more than expected in December, falling to a 19-month low of 55.8.
- China’s official manufacturing PMI fell for a third straight month in December, reaching an 18-month low of 50.1.
- China’s non-manufacturing PMI ticked up in December, increasing to a four-month high of 54.1.
- China’s HSBC services PMI ticked up for a second consecutive month in December, reaching a three-month high of 53.4.
- The Chinese Producer Price Index dropped more than expected in December, falling to 3.3 percent year over year.
- Chinese consumer prices inched up in December to 1.5 percent year over year.
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