IMF hikes oil price forecast by 20%

April 11, 2011, 7:00 PM UTC

This year’s oil price spike has dragged the IMF kicking and screaming into the world of overstressed energy markets.

The International Monetary Fund said Monday that it expects the global oil price to average $107 a barrel this year and $108 next. That’s 20% above its previous forecast, thanks to stronger-than-expected global petroleum growth in 2010 and a less than enthusiastic supply response.

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Global oil demand rose 3.4% last year, the IMF said in the latest release of chapters from its semiannual World Economic Outlook report. That’s the fastest pace since 2004 and double the rate IMF forecasters projected at the start of 2010.

Meanwhile, the supply of crude oil “is responding sluggishly to the ongoing pickup in demand, largely reflecting the policy stance of OPEC,” the IMF said.

The IMF said it believes the high prices, if sustained at current levels, should have only a “mild effect” on global economic growth. But it conceded that “the key downside risk to growth relates to the potential for oil prices to surprise further on the upside because of supply disruptions.”

We have seen a few of those in recent months, to the IMF’s apparent surprise. The agency predicted last fall that the oil price would average $78 this year. After an early year spike spurred by the political meltdown in Egypt, it raised that forecast to $89 in January.

But now, oil is trading at $112 in New York and $126 in London, even as Middle East anxiety recedes — along with U.S. gasoline demand. And the IMF is warning that another supply shock-driven surge in prices could undo a fragile global recovery.

To that end, the IMF ran a stress test on the global economy to determine how it might deal with oil at $150 a barrel. The summer spike to $147 in 2008 is widely seen as having dealt a blow to economic activity, though it’s hard to say for sure how big a hit that was since the financial system was coming undone at the same time.

The IMF said a surge to that level in 2011, with prices falling back next year, could wipe 0.75 percentage point off its forecast for economic growth in advanced economies, which it currently sees expanding 2.5% this year. The impact would be varied elsewhere, with Asia and Latin America slowing but the Middle East gaining as oil export revenue rose.

That is sort of a best-case worst-case scenario, however. “Global output losses would be much larger in the event of a permanent shock to oil supply,” the IMF warns.

The IMF hints at one possible source of such a disruption – the prospect that the rest of the world is overestimating the capacity of OPEC nations led by Saudi Arabia to boost production to meet growing global demand. If OPEC’s spare production cushion is thinner than we think, prices are going to be much more apt to surge any time we see a flare-up in an oil-producing country.

“The acceleration in OPEC crude oil production in December 2010 and January 2011 — when oil prices were closing in on the $100 a barrel threshold — suggests that OPEC members remain concerned about accelerated price increases,” the IMF writes. “Nevertheless, the absence of an elastic production response when prices moved beyond the $70–$80 range has led to some uncertainty in markets about OPEC producers’ implicit price targets.”

To say there’s some uncertainty over OPEC’s intentions, let alone its capabilities, is something of an understatement.

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