Trump to Blame for Oil's Recent Surge, Not OPEC

President Donald Trump, who is criticizing OPEC for higher oil prices, may himself be as much to blame for the recent surge in crude prices as the oil cartel, experts said. 

While the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has stuck to a production agreement that's managed to lift oil back from the mid-$40s in late 2016 to close to $70 a barrel today, the current surge has more to do with concerns that have risen since Trump became President, Morningstar Inc. commodities analyst Sandy Fielden said in an email to TheStreet. 

Those include the threats of a trade war with China, of real war in the Middle East, and the possibility that the U.S. will back out of an accord with Iran that could lead to lower exports from that country, Fielden said.

"All these bearish factors pushing prices higher are arguably directly caused by Trump administration policies," Fielden said. "Trump blaming OPEC for higher prices is definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black."

West Texas Intermediate crude prices had surged almost 8% in the past month from $63.40 a barrel to $68.29 a barrel by Thursday's close. Following Trump's tweet this morning, oil fell a fraction of a percent Friday. 

"Looks like OPEC is at it again. With record amounts of Oil all over the place, including the fully loaded ships at sea. Oil prices are artificially Very High! No good and will not be accepted!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

Several OPEC members denied that prices are being artificially propped up, Reuters reported. OPEC is set to meet again in June to determine whether it will once again extend its self-assigned limit on output that the oil cartel put in place in January 2017. 

Stratas Advisors commodities analyst Ashley Petersen noted that OPEC hasn't done anything in recent weeks to prompt higher prices. The same can't be said for the President.

"Part of the price rise is attributable to OPEC maintaining supply discipline, and markets taking a more bullish view, but the recent spike of the last ~2 weeks is clearly more linked to risk premiums than a fundamental change," Petersen said in an email to TheStreet.

It's possible that Trump is keeping an eye on gasoline prices as the summer driving season approaches. The U.S. Department of Energy expects gas prices to rise 33 cents a gallon by summer, up to $2.74 as the national average between April and September. 

But higher oil prices are the inevitable result of the oil markets healing, Petersen said. 

"[Trump] and every politician up for reelection are worried about higher prices at the pump this summer," she said. "What they should be focusing on is the fact that an industry which makes up a significant portion of the U.S. economy and employs a large number of people has survived the recent rough patch and is ramping back up."

To be sure, Trump's tweet this morning provided no details on any potential plans the president may have for curbing oil prices, and the White House did not respond to a request for comment from TheStreet.

One way might be for the president to sell crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which contains about 665 million barrels of crude in underground salt caverns along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. Its capacity is 713.5 million barrels.

Still, selling oil from the strategic reserve would probably not bring much lower prices. 

"Do I think there is credibility to the idea that he might think it would help cut prices? Certainly," Stratas' Petersen wrote. "Do I think it would actually help cut prices? No way."

That's because there isn't a supply problem at the moment, she said.

Stockpiles of crude oil are still above the five-year average, and independent U.S. producers are doubling down on drilling, with Baker Hughes (BHGE) reporting Friday that the number of rigs drilling for oil in the U.S. increased by five during the past week. 

Another strategy Trump could deploy involves limiting the export of gasoline, a power he has under the same legislation that allows him to control the export of crude oil. Trump could tell petroleum refiners including Valero Energy Corp. (VLO) and Phillips 66 Co. (PSX) that their gasoline sales abroad are forcing U.S. consumers to pay more at home. 

"Theoretically, pump prices are also high because they are competing with draws from Latin American markets, where the Gulf Coast sends a lot of product," Petersen explained. "Limiting exports of gasoline would force it to be consumed state-side, the same mechanic that forced the Brent-WTI differential to be so wide before crude exports were allowed. There are steps refiners would then take to minimize gasoline production, but we'd have effectively created artificial gasoline oversupply."

Of course, if you're a free-market believer like Petersen, this option would be heresy. But as Trump has demonstrated with recent tariffs on steel, aluminum and various Chinese goods, he suffers no such affliction.

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