Here's Why Energy Bulls Will Likely Be Disappointed

Patrick Watson  |

Energy stocks jumped after the November election because investors thought new management in Washington would be their ticket to wealth. But what if it’s not?

On the surface, the stars seem lined up for Big Oil & Gas. President Trump promised to reduce the industry’s regulatory burden and open more federal land and offshore areas to drilling.

Furthermore, lower taxes and friendlier regulation will unleash animal spirits, boosting economic growth—and energy demand with it.

Maybe it will work that way, but simple economics tells me it won't be so easy.

So here’s what we know: Energy production is a highly regulated industry, and Trump will make it less so. The president demonstrated this last week when he revived the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline projects, which had been stalled by his predecessor.

Also, Trump’s key appointees should be a boon for the industry:

Reducing compliance headaches will make life much easier for oil and gas companies. All other things being equal, it should translate into higher profits.

There’s just one problem: All other things aren’t equal.

As the available supply of a good or service increases, its price will normally fall unless demand also increases. When supplies fall, the opposite happens: prices rise unless demand falls, too.

However, the seller’s cost to acquire the goods isn’t part of this equation. It is an indirect factor. Lower costs let sellers supply more, thereby pushing the unit price lower.

This is the oil industry’s present problem. The very same factors that reduce their costs will also lead to higher supply. In the absence of higher demand, lower prices will follow.

So what about that demand growth? Will we use more energy in the coming years?

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Yes, says the new BP Energy Outlook, an exhaustive report from the former British Petroleum. BP thinks world energy consumption will grow 1.3% per year from 2015 to 2035.

That’s impressive until you consider that it grew 2.2% a year from 1995 to 2015.

Why? The amount of energy it takes to generate economic growth, or “energy intensity,” is shrinking fast. Today’s vehicles and technology are far more fuel-efficient than those of the past. BP believes world GDP can double in the next 20 years with energy usage growing only 30%.

Worse, the demand growth isn’t happening here. It will be flat or even decline in the OECD countries (the US and other developed markets). Most growth will happen in China, India, the rest of Asia, and Africa. You can see it in the chart below from BP.

Source: BP

The energy mix is changing too. Renewable sources like solar are growing fast in much of the world. Depending on location, in many places solar is now economically on par with fossil fuels, even without government subsidies. And these technologies will only improve.

So if demand for oil, gas, and coal is flat or rising slowly, producing more of these energy sources will keep prices steady at best, and more likely push them lower.

You may have heard that oil reserves have grown steadily since 1980. But in reality, the oil supply is not growing at all. Whatever is down there is what we have. So when you hear that supply is rising, it means we’re finding more… thanks to improved technology.

The chart below ought to terrify energy bulls.

Source: BP

Even if the entire world stopped exploring for oil right now, the amount we’ve already located is more than twice the cumulative projected demand from 2015 to 2050.

So if you own some of those untapped reserves, this tells you to bring your oil to the surface as fast as you possibly can. Then sell it to someone while they still have a use for it. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a stranded asset nobody wants.

That’s what is happening too, despite the oil price falling sharply since 2014.

Debt-financed energy producers keep producing even when the oil price is below their production cost, just to cover their debt service. They literally can’t afford to stop—and that’s capping the oil price in the $50–$60 range.

Meanwhile, new technologies are pushing production costs even lower by automating the dangerous work formerly done by well-paid humans.

Lower production costs mean the supply curve can shift even more, letting producers supply the same quantity at a lower price. If that happens in a declining-demand environment, the price can drop even lower—and almost certainly will.

Similar trends are underway in coal and natural gas. All these energy sources face abundant supply, falling production costs, and lower demand.

In my book, that doesn’t add up to a sustainable bull market.

I am not predicting doom for the energy sector by any means. There is still plenty of opportunity to earn good revenue and even boost it.

But in the aggregate, the extractive energy sector faces serious headwinds, and there’s nothing President Trump and/or Congress can do to change it.

If you’re a nimble trader, you might be able to extract some profits in the next year or two. I’ve recommended natural-gas pipeline plays in both of my publications, the income-focused Yield Shark and its big brother, Macro Growth & Income Alert, a premium alert service for advanced income investing.

Opportunities exist—for now. But in 5–10 years, it'll be a different story.

If Donald Trump gets a second term as president, the energy industry will be dramatically smaller than it was when he started.

Don’t let energy stocks drain your portfolio. Keep on the forward edge of Big Oil, Trump’s energy agenda, and more every week in Connecting the Dots. In this free newsletter, Patrick Watson identifies budding macro trends long before mainstream investors catch on, and explains how they’ll affect your life and your portfolio. Click here to subscribe for free.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer.

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