Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are in the streets, Bedouins are threatening the Suez Canal, and one of the West's most reliable Arab allies is on his way out. As a result, oil prices soared last week by ... 23 cents a barrel.
That's right, folks. Oil traders turned Friday into a manic scene of futures buying -- trading on the U.S. side of the Atlantic was at an all-time high, according to Bloomberg -- yet did not push the oil price through $90 a barrel. In the United Kingdom, Brent crude butted up against $100 a barrel, but again did not penetrate the psychological barrier. As of this morning, oil prices are down.
The takeaway: We are again seeing the intersection of so-called "spare capacity" -- how much surplus oil can be produced above and beyond current demand -- and the base desire of oil traders to earn really big money really fast.
A lot of traders did do well on Friday by pushing up the price by 4 percent (which compensated for losses earlier in the week), though they did so by hammering hedge funds that had earlier bet the other direction, Bloomberg reports.
Officially, the world's oil producers have about 6 million barrels a day of spare capacity -- their daily productive ability above and beyond what the market needs. But a lot of observers think the official number is exaggerated - they think spare capacity is more like 4.5 million barrels a day. The belief in the lower number is what is allowing traders sometimes to push up prices in a crisis such as Egypt.
Over at OPEC, there is consternation over prices. In a speech in the United Kingdom, OPEC secretary general Abdalla el-Badri noted that oil inventories are above their five-year average, and repeated a complaint of other OPEC officials in recent years -- in effect, oil traders drive up the price, and OPEC gets the blame. Bloomberg quotes him:
OPEC has consistently said in recent times that prices are disconnected from the physical oil market and are increasingly subject to the paper market. Consequently the market is dominated by financial players, which is misleading when it comes to understanding the behavior of the oil market.
Few oil traders are actually worried about the Suez Canal, through which about 1.8 million barrels a day of oil and oil products flow. Here is a snippet from a note to clients sent by Helima Croft and Amrita Sen of Barclays Capital:
We believe the Canal does not appear to be under immediate threat from the current political crisis in Egypt. Although the industrial city of Suez has witnessed some of the worst violence during the past week, there have been no reported attempts to target ships. Even if Western companies become a major target for the protestors, we believe that shipping traffic through the Canal is unlikely to be seriously imperiled, though some individual ships docked in port might be at risk of attack if the situation deteriorates further. Even in the unlikely event that the there is an attempt by some groups to disrupt shipping traffic, it would not necessarily be easy to accomplish. There are no indications that the protesters in Egypt have yet developed the intent or capabilities to carry out organized attacks on tankers like that seen in the case of the USS Cole.
That final sentence of course refers to the 2000 al-Qaeda attack on a U.S. naval vessel in Yemen.
Instead, we are seeing classic casino behavior. Here is Frank Verrastro, director of the energy at the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington, in an email conversation over the weekend: "Even if no barrels were impacted, the bullish run on oil will use this or any other supply threat to push prices up. "
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.