Crude oil is down because there's a supply glut, right? But what if the decline is instead signalling a recession?
That's the question addressed on Tuesday by two strategists, David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff + Associates and Ed Yardeni of Yardeni Research. Neither sounded the alarm, but this is definitely a conversation worth having.
Mr. Rosenberg began his discussion with a statistic that is bound to raise a few eyebrows. The recent 40 per cent collapse in the price of oil has been seen just three times before; two of the oil-price meltdowns, in 2008-09 and 1990-91, coincided with recessions.
The exception was in 1985-86, when oil fell 66 per cent. However, that collapse came as the global economy was expanding between 3 per cent and 4 per cent – similar to today – and the supply of crude was rising as members of the OPEC cartel jostled for market share.
Mr. Rosenberg believes the current collapse is more like this older 1980s example, but with supply being driven by the U.S. shale revolution rather than OPEC's taps. That is good news for the stock market: A declining oil price of 25 per cent or more has tended to feed rallies.
But Mr. Rosenberg argued that energy investors should be worried: The near-term risks to the price of oil lean to the downside, given that the financial demand for oil could take a further beating as more speculators flee.
As he explains, the net long positions for noncommercial accounts on the NYMEX have already fallen 40 per cent from their highs. However, the number of net-long contracts is still well above levels seen during the lowest point in selloffs in 2009 and 1998.
"Bullish sentiment was far more wiped out at those troughs than is the case right now," he said in a note. "Tack on rising U.S. production – this is unlikely to change for at least a year once new investments get shelved – and the fact that OPEC does not intend to revisit the issue at a formal meeting for six months, and it is tough to identify a catalyst for the oil price."
Mr. Yardeni also believes that the decline in oil is probably due to too much supply – but nonetheless can't ignore signs that the global economy could be struggling.
"Could it be that the plunge in oil prices isn't just attributable to a supply glut?" he asks in a note. "Perhaps the global economy has turned much weaker since the summer than widely recognized."
Sure, the U.S. economy is expanding at a respectable pace, but there are things to worry about overseas.
Europe's economy has been weak for over a year, and is now feeling the effects from sanctions imposed on Russia. The price of copper – seen as a pretty good global economic indicator – has fallen sharply. And China's economic health remains a big unknown.
"Since 2011, the biggest drag on the global economy has been the Eurozone. This year, China also seems to be weighing on global growth," Mr. Yardeni said.
"The much-ballyhooed transition from an export-led economy to a consumer-led one is not so easy. The interest-rate cuts announced on November 21 by the central bank suggest that the government is concerned that the economy is slowing too much and too quickly."