The dramatic drop in the price of oil over the last few months is captivating the markets. It seems it is coming down to a giant game of chicken to see who will cry first: Shale producers, unstable oil dependent export countries such as Nigeria, Venezuela, Russia, or other unconventional sources such as deep-water and oil sands projects. A massive supply glut that has been building for the last few years has finally come to a head. On Thanksgiving Day, to the dismay of many OPEC members, the Saudis decided against a production cut and in favor of letting the price fall in order to maintain their market share. They have decided to let the market do the work in taking out the competition. The competition to OPEC from the so called unconventional sources (e.g. shale, deep water, oil sands) is responsible for most of the global production growth over the last few years.

There is no way to know where oil prices will bottom. The drop is in a spiral that has tremendous downward pressure in the short-term and trying to call the bottom is nearly impossible. Everyone is producing as fast as they can while they are still alive. This causes inventories to continue to build in the short-term thereby exacerbating the supply situation and causing the price to continue to fall further. Drilled wells are literally “sunk costs” and you might as well keep pumping and getting something for them. However, new wells are discouraged from coming online at these low oil prices. The economic effects are just starting to be felt on the oil producers and it will take at least a few quarters to play out. In the end it is as it has been said, the cure for low prices is low prices. Ultimately it is more of a question of how long rather than how low.

The Saudis can withstand the drop with a few caveats. They may act sooner if the price drop creates systemic effects that threatens themselves in a geopolitical manner. The dramatic drop in oil is now getting so low that it is causing tremendous pain for oil dependent countries like Venezuela, Iran, Nigeria and Russia. The contagion effect from a crisis in these countries is becoming a significant concern. If the concerns for economic stability become too great you could see OPEC act as it is in no one’s best interest to have a significant devastation to the global economy.

Ultimately, oil prices are unsustainable at these levels and lower. How does a one percent excess of inventory levels lead to a fifty percent drop in the price of oil? In the end low oil prices are self-correcting as the effect on high-cost producers reduces supply in the out months and years. The big question long-term is whether $80 oil will be the new $100. The oil market is currently oversupplied by 2 million barrels a day. The irony is it really doesn’t take much disruption to take out that oversupply – which would cause prices to ricochet back up. Nigeria, Libya and Venezuela, produce about 5 million barrels a day and all are fragile situations that are hurting significantly. Much of the U.S. shale production is on the ropes, especially among those who came late or in low quality areas. Cheap capital and high prices made the shale boom viable but now the situation is the opposite. Some shale production will always remain but much of it could fail. The majority of shale wells are depleted within two years requiring constant drilling to keep up production. The constant drilling requires continual capital infusions making it questionable even in good times. On December 11, Bloomberg reported that a Deutsche Bank analyst report predicted that about a third of junk rated energy companies may be unable to meet their obligations at $55 a barrel. When prices recover shale will not recover as quickly now that its weaknesses have been exposed.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, much of the energy boom in the U.S. has been financed with cheap credit to due to the easy money policies of the Federal Reserve. The process of normalization has caused the dollar to rapidly strengthen because our rates are higher relative to other developed countries. Since commodities like oil are priced in dollars a rising dollar pushes the effective oil price down. Rapid currency movements can create economic stress with major casualties. Normally the Fed could combat this by lowering interest rates but rates are already at zero.

Although the price of oil is down over fifty percent since last summer the current panic indicates that a bottom could be found in the first quarter of 2015, if not within the next few weeks. Whether that means it dips into the $20 or $30 range first is a real possibility. However, there is the very real probability that prices could recover quickly. Shale production growth will come off faster than expected. As mentioned previously, most of the current oversupply is due to shale production which can be brought online much quicker than conventional oil projects and requires constant drilling to maintain production. Now the lower price and higher financing costs will preclude new shale production from coming online thereby reducing the future supply growth. From a technical point of view, the price of oil itself is in a panic sell-off with extremely negative sentiment. As the supply/demand dynamics eventually change it could cause the price to snap back as quickly as it went down. As I mentioned earlier the surplus of oil is only one percent above daily demand. That is literally on a few hours of worth of consumption! Oil fields are always in a natural state of decline and so require new means of production to offset the declines. The demand for oil grows faster at $50 a barrel than $100 and demand was growing when the price was over $100. The net effect of lower oil prices is a stimulus to the economy.

So what is our current approach in regards to energy? We are currently altering our exposure in the energy space to reflect the new reality and opportunities. Along with everyone else, we have been surprised by the dramatic drop in oil. The impact on energy companies’ shares has had a negative short term effect on our performance but is also creating great opportunities as the quality assets get taken down along with the weak ones. The challenge in the short term is whether some version of a crisis develops because of the contagion effects of the economic damage done to energy producers or export dependent countries. We will use any continued drop to gain exposure to quality assets in the space but in a patient manner as a bottom has not yet been put in. We want to take advantage of the sell everything related to energy mindset that is currently unfolding. We favor conventional and well capitalized energy producers and servicers and will be moving our exposure in this direction.

Written by Nathan White, Chief Investment Officer of Paragon Wealth Management

Disclaimer Paragon Wealth Management is a provider of managed portfolios for individuals and institutions. Although the information included in this report has been obtained from sources Paragon believes to be reliable, we do not guarantee its accuracy. All opinions and estimates included in this report constitute the judgment as of the dates indicated and are subject to change without notice. This report is for informational purposes only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation with respect to the purchase or sale of any security. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.