Tensions have been escalating lately in the Middle East. Western countries have sought to contain Iran’s nuclear program by imposing new sanctions. Meanwhile, there’s a growing perception among market watchers that Israel has a dwindling window of time if it’s going to attempt any military action against Iran’s nuclear research. Elsewhere, the market has also had to contend with growing unrest in Nigeria, a country that produces two million barrels of oil daily.
So what could cause even higher prices? Should Israel attack Iran, it’s possible that Iran would at least attempt to prevent the passage of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow water way through which 20% of the world’s oil passes. If this happens, at least a temporary oil spike would probably occur. While it’s doubtful that Iran has the military capacity to close the Strait for any length of time, even an attempt would likely push oil north of $150 a barrel.
To be sure, it’s difficult to predict the odds of an Israeli strike and a major escalation in oil prices. But even in the absence of an attack, crude prices are likely to remain elevated for three reasons, supporting my view that investors should consider overweighting global energy companies through instruments like the iShares S&P Global Energy Sector Index Fund (NYSEArca:IXC).
First, it appears that most emerging markets are likely to engineer a soft landing. This is important as virtually all new demand for energy is currently coming from emerging markets.
Second, while Saudi Arabia and OPEC have spare capacity, this capacity will be stretched if Iranian production slows or an oil embargo takes place. It would likely not be able to adequately cover replacing Iranian and Nigerian production, as well as production from other smaller Gulf countries also experiencing unrest.
Finally, even if oil reaches more than $100 a barrel, many of the largest oil producers — including Saudi Arabia and Russia — are unlikely to ramp up production as they might have in the past. This is because the largest oil producers now require much higher oil prices to balance their budgets.
In short, even without a military confrontation in the Gulf, I expect oil prices to remain high for the near term and I continue to advocate an overweight to global energy companies.
Disclosure: Author is long IXC
In addition to the normal risks associated with investing, international investments may involve risk of capital loss from unfavorable fluctuation in currency values, from differences in generally accepted accounting principles or from economic or political instability in other nations. Narrowly focused investments typically exhibit higher volatility.
Russ Koesterich, CFA, is the iShares Global Chief Investment Strategist as well as the Global Head of Investment Strategy for BlackRock Scientific Active Equities. Russ initially joined the firm (originally Barclays Global Investors) in 2005 as a Senior Portfolio Manager in the US Market Neutral Group. Prior to joining BGI, Russ managed several research groups focused on quantitative and top down strategy. Russ began his career at Instinet in New York, where he occupied several positions in research, including Director of Investment Strategy for both US and European research. In addition, Russ served as Chief North American Strategist for State Street Bank in Boston.
Russ holds a JD from Boston College Law School, an MBA from Columbia Business School, and is a holder of the CFA designation. He is also a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Associated Press, as well as CNBC and Bloomberg Television. In 2008, Russ published “The ETF Strategist”(Portfolio Books) focusing on using exchange traded funds to manage risk and return within a portfolio.