This article first appeared at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Monday, October 65, 2014:

Saudi Arabia’s announcement last week that it was cutting prices to its Asian, European, and US customers by between $.40 and $1.00 a barrel represents a major capitulation and recognition of reality. It also represents a major departure in its role as the leading member of the OPEC cartel, proving once again that every cartel eventually blows up as its members seek their own interests over those of the cartel.

For decades, the role of the OPEC cartel has been to protect the cash flow of its members by manipulating prices through changes in production levels. If prices got too high and demand started falling as a result, the cartel would increase the supply of crude to the world markets. If prices got too low, on the other hand, it would gladly restrict those supplies to bring prices back up to a level acceptable to the cartel.

Those days now appear to be over.

By bringing its prices down below prices charged by OPEC member Qatar and non-OPEC member Oman, Saudi Arabia is setting the stage for an international price war. Futures traders, who have gotten hammered as crude oil prices have dropped almost 20% since June, are holding their collective breath to see if Qatar and Oman jump ship and reduce their prices as well. Energy analysts like John Kilduff with Again Capital are estimating that crude oil prices will consequently drop to the low $80s, while Fadal Gheit at Oppenheimer is predicting prices dropping into the low $70s. Gheit explained:

It’s both supply and demand. It’s basically the perfect storm that brought all these prices down. You have plenty of supply, which you never thought possible, and all of a sudden demand is shrinking: China is slowing down [and] Europe never recovered.

Gheit is a realist. He stated what every observer already knows: the OPEC cartel “is held together by scotch tape. They hate each other.” Now that the leader of the pack has decided to leave the pack, it’s going to be much easier for other OPEC members to join the fray and drive prices down even further.

Part of that perfect storm is the shale oil revolution that has driven crude production in the United States to levels not seen in 50 years. Part of it is Russia’s increase in crude oil production to nearly post-Soviet era records as well. In addition, production from Kurdistan over the next 15 months is expected to more than provide China’s increased demands for energy, thus assuring that world supply will continue, in the short run at least, to outpace world demand.

Saudi Arabia’s admission of reality is already having welcome impacts. Gas prices in the United States have fallen to $3.32 a gallon on average, with more than half the states having at least one gas station selling gas for less than $3 a gallon. It’s also pulling the legs out from under the justification of adventurism abroad in order to protect the supply of energy which America is now almost capable of providing all by herself.

As prices decline, consumers are able to redirect into other areas, helping along the modest economic recovery from the Great Recession. It may also prove to skeptics that, once again, Warren Buffett is right. His much ballyhooed announcement of his purchase of Van Tuyl Group, the nation’s largest US auto dealership chain, should help his company, Berkshire Hathaway, ride the wave of cheaper gas and the consequent willingness of customers to replace their aging fleet of vehicles with new ones.

It is possible, however, that prices may drop too far, causing capital that is currently flooding into the energy exploration business to go elsewhere where it will be treated better in the years to come. As Stephen Leeb, a writer at Forbes, put it: “It takes energy to get energy.” In the early 1950s, it took the energy from one barrel of to harvest five barrels. Today, because of improvements in technology, it takes about one barrel to produce nine in conventional fields.

But in unconventional fields – i.e., shale fracking – it takes the energy of one barrel of oil to discover, develop, and lift just four barrels, which, according to State University of New York Professor Charles Hall, isn’t enough to keep America’s modern industrial society operating at peak efficiency. The proper ratio, according to Hall, is that one barrel of energy must generate at least five barrels of new production, preferably more.

If the Old Farmers Almanac’s prognostications are correct, the US should enjoy another relatively mild winter, reducing chances of a spike in demand that would drive crude prices higher. For the time being then, Saudi Arabia’s capitulation and potential blowing up of OPEC will be enjoyed by American drivers and consumers. In the longer run, however, capital may be redirected away from the oil patch to more profitable areas if the price of crude stays too low, too long. In the meantime, America will once again enjoy the view from the catbird seat.

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Sources:

Commerzbank: ‘OPEC Appears to Be Gearing Up for Price War’

CNBC: Saudi signals price skirmish as oil heads to bear market

Bloomberg: Brent Oil Falls to Lowest Since June 2012 on Ample Supply

The Old Farmers Almanac: 2014–2015 Winter Weather Forecast Map (U.S.)

Forbes: Dangerous Times As Energy Sources Get Costlier To Extract

Auto Blog: Warren Buffet buys largest private US car dealership chain

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