President Joe Biden, battling the political consequences of the strongest inflationary surge in decades, has spent a good month trying to talk down the price of oil. And for now, it’s working.
Ever since late October — when crude prices topped $85 dollars a barrel and OPEC+ resisted his calls to ramp up production faster — Biden has been threatening to unleash oil from U.S. emergency reserves, asking bureaucrats to investigate the U.S. oil industry for price gouging and prodding other oil-consuming countries around the world to act. The administration has even explored the option of export controls.
Rising gasoline prices pose a political risk to any U.S. president, but Biden has added reason to worry: High energy costs, combined with rising prices for everything from meat and clothing to factory materials and cars, threaten an economic rebound from the pandemic and his ability to enact major social-spending legislation.
What’s remarkable about the president’s fight against high oil prices is that, so far, his administration has yet to take any real action. And yet, the speculation around what it might do has been enough to halt the rally.
U.S. crude futures have declined about 7% since Oct. 26 and were trading below $80 a barrel on Thursday. Gasoline prices at the pump remain near the highest levels in seven years, but they’ve stabilized for now. The president scored his biggest win yet overnight when, after a virtual summit between him and Xi Jinping, China — the world’s largest oil importer — announced plans to open its own strategic petroleum reserve for the second time this year.
His efforts may help prices move lower in the short term. But the greater significance lies in whether the world’s two leading powers will work to influence the oil markets together for the first time, and whether OPEC views this joint action as the harbinger of closer cooperation between the world’s two biggest oil consumers.
“If there is a coordinated U.S.-China release of SPR crude, it would be a new reality for OPEC,” said Robert Johnston, senior research scholar at the Columbia Center for Global Energy Policy. “Would they change their strategy on managing supply in the global markets? That the U.S. and China are starting to work together would be an eye opener, assuming this is not one off.”
At some point talk may not be enough, though, even as a Covid resurgence this winter and a stronger dollar bring inflationary relief in the short-term. Biden will need to follow through on a U.S. stockpiles release, or risk traders calling his bluff.
He also can’t keep opening the taps or the strategic reserve will quickly empty. And there’s the possibility that a coordinated strategic reserve release prompts OPEC and its partners to throttle back plans for gradual production increases.
“If there’s a coordinated SPR release by China and U.S., it might prompt OPEC+ to slow down their anticipated, ongoing monthly 400,000-barrels-a-day production increases,” said Johnston. OPEC+ would closely assess whether the releases risk a return to global imbalances, particularly if OPEC+ sees a return to U.S. shale growth and a softening of demand due to high prices, he said.
The overall dynamics of the oil market remains strong. Demand is recovering as the industrial economy booms and travelers take to the skies again. OPEC is finding it hard to meet its existing plan for modest monthly production increases, and the U.S. shale industry continues to put profit before volume.
But it’s hard to ignore the U.S. president.
Rebecca Babin, a senior energy trader at CIBC Private Wealth Management, estimates that about three-quarters of the recent decline in oil prices is due to the Biden administration’s potential SPR release. John Kilduff, founding partner at Again Capital LLC, has a similar view.
“I’d say half to 3/4 is the jawboning for the SPR release,” Kilduff said.
A recent recovery in U.S. crude stockpiles and an increase in COVID cases are also helping cool the rally.
As for gasoline, Americans have been paying about $3.40 a gallon on average at the pump, the most since 2014, according to data from auto club AAA.
White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain is blaming the oil industry.
“Oil prices are falling,” Klain said in a tweet on Thursday. “Now, when will the industry bring down gas prices????”
While they await some concrete action from Biden, oil traders and investors, who largely view the market as undersupplied, are grappling with wild price swings due to the administration’s comments over the past month and a half. Some say Biden is likely just buying time and hoping that, as trading activity drops in the holiday period, prices will ease on their own.
“The bark may turn out to be worse than the bite,” said Michael Tran, managing director of global energy strategy at RBC Capital Markets. “The strategy of talking down the market may end up having a larger impact than the element of surprise.”
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