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Oil watchers see US$70 a barrel in 2019 as recession fears fade

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The world's biggest banks are reckoning on a rebound in oil prices next year as fears of a recession prove misplaced.

[LONDON] The world's biggest banks are reckoning on a rebound in oil prices next year as fears of a recession prove misplaced.

The Brent benchmark will average US$70 a barrel in 2019, almost a third higher than its price on Thursday, according to a Bloomberg survey of oil analysts. Futures in London and New York plunged this quarter, with volatility soaring in its final week as crude tracked gyrations in equity markets.

Despite plans by Opec (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and its allies to limit production next year to prevent a glut from forming, oil's fortunes have increasingly been driven by moves in financial assets and concerns about the global economy. However, analysts expect markets are about to tighten as growth stays strong, Opec's supply cuts kick in, and unintended losses in Venezuela and Iran escalate.

"We could even see something similar to a V-shaped recovery next year, on two very important conditions," said Michael Cohen, head of energy and commodities research at Barclays in New York.

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"One, that the reduction in Opec exports leads to a reduction in inventories. And two, that we don't see a further deterioration in macroeconomic conditions."

The recent weakness in financial assets has been led by a darkening outlook for the global economy amid prolonged trade dispute between the US and China, and as the US Federal Reserve embarks on tightening monetary policy.

While the ensuing retreat in oil prices has brought relief to consumers, it's battered the shares of companies like Exxon Mobil Corp and BP, as well as the economies of producers like Saudi Arabia.

So far, though, most commentators aren't seeing an actual recession biting the oil market next year. The median forecast of 24 oil analysts in a Bloomberg survey projects that London-traded Brent will average exactly US$70 a barrel in 2019. The price on Thursday was about US$53.50 while the average so far in 2018 has been about US$72.

The median forecast for WTI (West Texas Intermediate) is US$61.13. The grade traded at about US$45.50 on Thursday.

"Fundamentally speaking, we believe that prices are nearing a bottom," said Michael Tran, commodities strategist at RBC Capital Markets LLC. "Global supply and demand should reach a fine balance next year."

In the absence of a severe economic slump, most analysts anticipate that world oil consumption will continue to expand at roughly the pace seen in recent years, powered by emerging economies such as China.

And although doubts remain that Opec will cut output deep enough to prevent a surplus, the survey shows analysts are confident that the group's strategy will ultimately succeed. Opec will begin implementing the curbs next month, and leading member Saudi Arabia has pledged to slash output by even more than it formally agreed to.

Some anticipate a vigorous rally. The most bullish forecasts in the survey, those of Morgan Stanley and Standard Chartered, project that Brent will average US$78 a barrel.

The Opec, along with allies such as Russia, announced in early December they would reduce supply by 1.2 million barrels a day in the first half of 2019.

"The production cut announced by OpecĀ is likely sufficient to balance the market in the first half of 2019 and prevent inventories from building," said Martijn Rats, managing director at Morgan Stanley.

But with uncertainty rife in both the political and economic spheres, the range of price estimates in the survey was, with a US$20 gap between the highest and lowest. For the most bearish, Citigroup, the relentless growth of US shale will keep a cap on prices.

"Oil hits US$70, US$75 a barrel and US production starts soaring," said Ed Morse, the bank's New York-based head of commodities research, who predicts that Brent will average US$59.50 next year, still about US$6 above its price on Thursday. "The so-called low-cost producers in Opec and non-Opec are losing market share."

US production will surge to 12.06 million barrels a day in 2019, according to Energy Information Administration data, more than the other two major global producers - Saudi Arabia and Russia - are currently pumping.

Yet the shale-oil industry may prove to be a victim of its own success. As prices in Midland, Texas - the heartland of US shale output - fell below US$40 a barrel this month for the first time since 2016, some have begun to cast doubts on how much US supply will grow next year.

"These weak prices are likely to force a slowdown in US growth in the second half of 2019," said Warren Patterson, senior commodities strategist at ING.

BLOOMBERG