Opec busts quotas to chase high oil price

By Margot Habib, Grant Smith

Opec is breaching its production limits the most in six years, signalling the world's biggest suppliers are ready to pump more crude next year as oil rallies towards US$100 ($133) a barrel.

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries excluding Iraq pumped 26.78 million barrels a day this year, exceeding the quotas by an average of 1.934 million a day, the highest level since 2004, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Crude rose 11 per cent in 2010 as demand recovered, trading at about US$90 for the first time in two years.

Options to buy at US$100 next December are near a five-month high.

Flouting quotas lets Opec, which provides about 40 per cent of the world's oil, boost profits without changing targets set when the first global recession since World War II caused prices to tumble 78 per cent.

Analysts say the rally may lead the 12- member group to raise output next year after leaving quotas unchanged at this weekend's meeting in Quito, Ecuador.

"Definitely $100, that would be a trigger," said Leo Drollas, the London-based director and chief economist at the Centre for Global Energy Studies, a market researcher founded by former Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani.

"Bells are ringing in the corridors already. If this carries on, if it's a really cold winter, we can see prices heading up to $100.

"At some stage even the Saudis will realise there's something going on here, and that they should respond. And they will."

Opec has maintained a production target of 24.845 million barrels a day since December 2008, the longest period that quotas have stayed unchanged since they were first used in 1982.

The 11 members with quotas pumped 26.7 million barrels a day last month, 1.9 million more than targeted, Bloomberg data show.

Wall St is raising its price forecasts for next year after crude on the New York Mercantile Exchange reached US$90.76 a barrel on December 7, the highest level since October 8, 2008.

Futures for January delivery settled at US$87.79 a barrel on December 10.

Oil is up 37 per cent from this year's low on May 20, though down 40 per cent from the record US$147.27 on July 11, 2008.

In June last year, Goldman Sachs had predicted oil would rally to US$85 by the end of 2009, though that level was not attained until this April.

JPMorgan Chase & Co said oil would average US$93 in 2011, increasing its estimate from US$89.75, and reach US$120 before the end of 2012.

"Opec will sequentially need higher revenues to pay for increasing social, investment and energy costs," analysts at JPMorgan led by New York-based Lawrence Eagles wrote.

"If the world economy can bear it, they will allow the acceptable price range to step up both in 2011 and 2012."

Options that give investors the right to buy December 2011 futures at US$100 rose to US$7.10 on December 7, the highest price since August, according to Nymex data. They averaged US$6.39 this year.

There are 44,981 outstanding contracts, the largest open interest for any oil-options contract in New York.

Higher prices are a tax on consumers that might stunt growth, Francisco Blanch, head of commodity research at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in New York, said in an October report.

Every US$10-a-barrel increase added US$42 billion to the cost of US imports, US$49 billion in Europe, US$19 billion for China and US$16 billion to Japan, Blanch said.

"Within about two weeks of oil being at US$100, I think you would get more consumer-nation pressure on Opec" to increase production, said Ann-Louise Hittle, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie in Boston. "Their number one concern is not to damage heavily the economic recovery that is under way."

Confidence among US consumers increased more than forecast in December to the highest level in six months at the same time Americans began stepping up holiday spending.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of consumer sentiment rose to 74.2 from 71.6 in late November.

Stockpiles in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations unexpectedly fell in the third quarter, dropping 11.5 million barrels, according to the International Energy Agency, compared with the five-year average gain of 38.6 million for that period.

Growth in demand last quarter was "giddy," with North America "remarkably strong", the Paris-based agency said in a December 10 report.

"Against a backdrop of much-stronger-than-expected global oil demand growth and oil prices above two-year highs, Opec may come under pressure to increase supplies to the market in the new year," the IEA said in its monthly Oil Market Report.

The narrowing difference between prices for futures of different maturities has pushed part of the market into so-called backwardation, where crude for earliest delivery is more expensive than for later months.

That is another sign dropping stockpiles will drive oil higher, according to Adam Sieminski, chief energy economist at Deutsche Bank.

Falling inventories made rallies "more sustainable", Washington-based Sieminski wrote on December 3, raising his 2011 average forecast to US$87.50 a barrel, from US$80.

Crude for December 2011 delivery closed at US$89.79 a barrel on the Nymex on December 10, 84c higher than December 2012 futures.

It was 87c less than the 2012 contract on November 30.

Opec's gathering in Quito two days ago was the seventh meeting with no change in output quotas. The group meets next in June. Asked what price level is appropriate, Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi told reporters: "How many times do I have to tell you. $70 to $80 is a good price."

An increase to US$100 might indicate "something wrong with fundamentals" in the market and lead Opec to act, Abdalla El-Badri, its secretary-general, said on December 9.

Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez told reporters after the December 11 meeting ended that US$100 was "fair" and he expected oil to reach that level next year.

Iraq will account for 54 per cent of the increase in Opec's supply capacity in the six years ending 2015, according to the IEA, replacing Iran as the biggest producer after Saudi Arabia.

Opec's members are Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.

The group agreed on a record 4.2 million barrel-a-day supply cut at the end of 2008 in response to the recession.

Adherence to that pledge peaked at 89 per cent in March 2009 and was 56 per cent last month, according to Bloomberg estimates.

"They could raise the quotas by a million and a half barrels a day and in theory it wouldn't matter," said Sieminski. "They'd still be [exceeding] their targets."

- Bloomberg

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