Time to Plunge Into Oil Futures? - TheStreet

Call these days of intensified uncertainty in the high stakes oil futures game, where investors put down sometimes huge investments that amount to bets on where crude oil prices are heading, often over the next three months, sometimes much further out. Lately, too, sentiment has been rising that oil is about to tick up in price. "Right now the psychology is bullish," said Vic Sperandeo, president and CEO of EAM Partners, which is known for its futures research.

"It is the interest of the oil producers to work together to raise the price," said Sperandeo.

Here's the tantalizing fact: crude oil now trades for a hair over $50 per barrel - but the oil producers (a small club, 14 nations belong to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, and they control about 40% of current production but perhaps 80% of proven reserves) very much want a price hike.

Understand: in 2011 and 2012, oil typically sold for over $120 per barrel. So several OPEC nations - notably Venezuela, but to a degree also Nigeria, Algeria, Libya and even Saudi Arabia - are wrestling with substantial domestic economic issues as they cope with low prices. Oil for most of them is their only business.

Why doesn't OPEC just willy nilly set a steep price and tell the world to take it or leave it? For years OPEC did pretty much that but that creates its own risks. Raise the price of oil too high, too fast and recession may result (as it did in the U.S. in 1973 to 1975 and 1980 to 1981). A sputtering economy means less energy consumption which puts immediate downward pressure on oil prices.

Then, too, the reason oil is priced as it is is that there just is too much production, said Tim Hynes, a credit analyst at DebtWire who focuses on distressed oil companies. "Supply outstrips demand," said Hynes.

To make an OPEC price hike stick the members have to agree on reducing production and by how much, said Robert Minter, investment strategist with Aberdeen Asset Management. That is a lot easier to talk about than to enforce, especially given deep rivalries - even enmities - within OPEC. Iran and Iraq are at each other's throats, the Saudis also have no affection for Iran and probably everybody is leery of Libya. "This gets very political," said Sperandeo.

Then, too, times have changed. OPEC has power but it is not a solo act. The U.S. in particular has vast petroleum resources in oil shale formations that presently are not significantly exploited, but, said Minter, at $60 per barrel for oil, shale becomes attractive.

So may other - currently too expensive - kinds of U.S. oil production and that matters to OPEC because the U.S. (after China) is the world's second biggest oil importer. When the U.S. turns to more homegrown product that is bad news for OPEC. The U.S. now ranks as the planet's biggest oil producer, and it has the capacity to produce much more if the price of oil rises.

Canada (the fifth biggest oil producer) also may ramp up production, particularly in oil sands, if prices rise.

OPEC strategists know they cannot lose track of the possible U.S. and Canada production spikes triggered by higher prices.

The third reason: non-OPEC member Russia ranks as the third biggest oil producer, and it has a big say in the price of oil. And exactly where Russia stands in regard to cuts is unknown. That's because Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that he is fine with going along with an OPEC price hike associated with production cuts. Meanwhile, Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, Russia's state owned oil company, has said no, he does not want to cut production.

What will Russia - the pivotal player in oil's future - do? Those who believe Putin will prevail are buying futures accordingly. Those who think Sechin will prevail aren't. Forecasting Russia's actions are not for the unwary.

What should individual investors do with their own money? Hynes said in this market, with its many uncertainties, he would not recommend buying futures. "Invest in individual companies instead," he said.

Sperandeo, by contrast, is bullish about oil futures - in a measured way. He said: "My bet is that oil rallies from here. To the mid 50s, possibly 60. I would be a buyer in a small way." He stressed: "This is a treacherous market." And he said emphatically: "I am not saying bet the farm."

But, sift through the variables, and very probably there will be upward price movement - which means the real guess is, will it happen inside the three month timeframe of a typical futures contract? Place your bets.