Archive for June, 2014

June 20, 2014

Gold And Oil Prices Surge As Tensions In Iraq Escalate



With tensions in Iraq escalating to the point that President Obama said he would deploy up to 300 military advisers to the country, investors sent prices of gold and oil surging in Thursday trading. Gold, the classic safe-haven trade, reached its highest point in two months as oil, whose Iraqi production could see pressure if ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants move the conflict to the south of Iraq, surged to its highest price of the year.
Bolstered by a drop in the dollar and the Federal Reserve’s reticence to raise interest rates — not to mention the situation in Iraq — gold gained 3.7% in Thursday trading and surged to its highest price in two months. Gold futures, which hit as high as $1,322 an ounce during its regular trading session, settled at $1,314.10 for the day, its highest level since April 14. Spot prices, too, closed at $1,314 an ounce.
Surging even more than gold on Thursday was oil: brent crude hit $115 a barrel, its highest price of the year, as WTI crude oil finished the day at more than $106 a barrel, a dollar short of the 52-week high it hit last week.
The ETFs that track these commodities – SPDR Gold Shares, United States Oil and iPath S&P GSCI Crude Oil Index — saw gains roughly commensurate with those of the commodities themselves. GLD finished Thursday trading with a 3.5% gain, US Oil clos
ed 0.3% up and the iPath index finished the day with an 0.4% uptick.
Stateside, oil’s increases paired with the impending summer months and summer travel in the U.S. to send prices at the pump for a surge of their own. The national average for one gallon of gas in the U.S. is $3.68, up from $3.60 a gallon this time last year and the highest levels consumers have seen at the pump in June since 2008.
“Oil is the lifeblood of a modern economy. Estimates vary, but each $10 increase per barrel can knock off about 0.2% from economic growth,” Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial Network, said in a note Thursday. “With U.S. growth currently expected to fall in the 3-percent range, this is significant. Oil prices have risen by about $3 over the last month, and they could be headed higher as the conflict worsens.”
The reason for the price surge in the wake of violence in Iraq is that the country produces a not-insignificant amount of oil, and if Iraqi oil fields are taken over and closed, global oil supply could shrink and send prices even higher. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) recently projected that Iraq would be accountable for 3 million barrels of oil production a day for the second half of 2014, ranking the country as OPEC’s second-largest producer. The somewhat good news is that most of Iraq’s production occurs in the southern part of the country, and with the exception of the Baiji refinery (115 miles outside of Baghdad) — which Iraqi officials say they do have control over — ISIS has not ventured in this territory.
“[We do not] expect ISIS to make much headway in the south, where the Sunni extremist group would be running into the Shi’ite heartland,” wrote Citi analyst Seth Kleinman in a note on Thursday. He noted that investors are on edge “for good reason, as the world would struggle to replace the lost oil volumes if Iraq were to go the way of Libya.” However, he pointed to accelerating exports in the Kurdish region as well as the low likelihood that ISIS reaches the south of Iraq as reason to be less concerned about oil’s future price.
“Iraq’s key oil fields are southeast of Baghdad, and Citi does not expect ISIS to get as far as Baghdad. Some oil companies are removing non-essential staff but Basra operations and exports continue, and continue to make new highs with July loadings set at 2.8 million barrels of oil per day,” Kleinman said.
If ISIS does venture south, however, prices could rise rapidly.
“Given how fast everything has transpired, if this were to spread into the south and impact exports it could be very dramatic,” said Chad Mabry, a director and oil and production analyst at MLV and Company, in a phone interview. “This isn’t hyperbole, it could easily send global markets back into recession with the impact. We could be looking at a significant rise in prices if those barrels were taken off the world market.”
Mabry notes that due to sanctions that have limited production in Iran and violence that has limited production in Libya, “you don’t have much room for error within OPEC anymore because the burden then falls on Saudi Arabia to make up that delta.”
If there’s one bit of good news amongst all the Iraqi turmoil, it’s this: the U.S. has increased its production of oil and energy independence since the start of the last Iraqi conflict (which began in 2003), so the market’s reaction is not as bad as it would have been if this were to have happened even five years ago.
“The U.S. economy is significantly more energy efficient than it used to be, so the effects of price changes are simply smaller,” says Commonwealth’s McMillan. “Energy consumption per dollar of GDP has been cut almost in half since 1970. Although the relationship isn’t linear, any effect from rising oil prices should be materially less than it has been in the past.”