Crude oil prices fell from their three-month highs after Iran indicated that it would not agree to a production freeze until it reached four million barrels per day in production. After the announcement, crude oil prices fell nearly 8% to $36 per barrel by March 15 as traders speculated that the move could be a deal breaker. Prices rebounded a few days later after OPEC officials indicated that an Iranian exemption would not be a deal breaker.
The big question on the minds of investors is whether or not Iran will be a deal breaker after all and if not, how much Iranian production will influence a crude rally. With the OPEC meeting set back to April 17, there’s still ample time for more volatility in the commodity’s price.
Iran Refuses to Cut Production
On Sunday, March 13, Iranian officials made it clear that they have no intention of freezing their crude oil production. Oil prices fell nearly 8% lower over the subsequent days as the market worried that OPEC members wouldn’t agree to a freeze without Iranian support.
“I have already announced my view regarding the oil freeze and I’m saying now that as long as we have not reached four million barrels per day in production, they should leave us alone,” said Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh on Sunday. “When we reach this level of production, we can then cooperate with them.”
Iranian officials understandably believe that a production freeze would be premature as the country is still working to bring its production online following Western sanctions. Freezing production at current levels would put it behind many other producers and well short of its historical production levels of greater than four million barrels per day before sanctions were imposed in 2012, dramatically hurting exports.
OPEC Says Iran Isn’t a Deal Breaker
Crude oil prices rallied on Wednesday after OPEC officials revealed that they may move ahead with a production freeze without Iran’s participation. According to Qatar organizers, approximately 15 OPEC and non-OPEC members, who account for more than 70% of global oil output, are supporting the initiative. OPEC officials also indicated that further actions – including a potential supply cut – could be introduced later this year to support prices.
“It’s a setback but it will not necessarily change the positive atmosphere that has already started,” an OPEC source from a major producer told Reuters.
Many countries have supported a production cut in order to bolster crude oil prices and fill gaps in public budgets left by the commodity’s dramatic decline. However, many of these commitments have come with the stipulation that other major producers agree to the same conditions. It’s unclear whether an Iranian hold out would constitute a hold out by a major oil producer, especially given the country’s extenuating circumstances.
Weighing Supply Versus Investment
The crude oil production cut should reduce the amount of excess supply hitting the market, which has reached critical levels this year. Before prices experience any meaningful rally, it’s likely that the market will have to work through the supply glut. Some members of OPEC believe that this could take until later this year if a production freeze is established or until late next year if a production freeze doesn’t materialize in April.
On the flip side, the low price of crude oil has taken a toll on the U.S. energy industry. Investment in new oil production has dried up considerably, which could create a supply shock when crude oil stocks are depleted. OPEC estimates that demand for crude oil will rise by up to 50% over the next 20-30 years, which will require $10 trillion in investments into the energy sector in order to meet these levels of demand.
The big question on the minds of investors is whether or not U.S. oil production will be able to come online rapidly, and if so, whether it will be fast enough to meet the shortfall. On the other end of the equation, the recent move to increase production has demonstrated OPEC’s resolve to take market share back from U.S. producers, but it’s unclear how far they would be willing to go in terms of lower state revenue.
The Bottom Line
Crude oil prices have been exceptionally volatile over the past month. After talks of production cuts picked up steam, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Russia, prices rebounded sharply from their lows made earlier this year. Iran’s announcement that it would not agree to a production freeze until it reached four million barrels per day in production put a temporary stop to the rally, but OPEC’s most recent announcement reignited the commodity.