Economic bright spot: energy prices
Gasoline and some heating costs are expected to be relatively low in 2009.
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Making OPEC's goal even tougher is new production coming on stream from non-OPEC nations such as Brazil and the United States. This adds about 410,000 barrels a day to global supply, the EIA estimates.Skip to next paragraph
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"OPEC is really the swing supplier, or has been," Lidderdale says. "As demand falls, it's up to OPEC to cut supplies to stabilize prices."
Indeed, demand continues to fall. Worldwide demand for crude oil will drop 500,000 barrels per day to 85.3 million barrels per day, the EIA estimates. The drop is already much greater in the US. In November, the API reported, demand was down 6 percent for the year – just over 1 million barrels per day.
The bullish psychology that pushed oil prices to a high of about $145 a barrel in July has turned in the oil markets. "Clearly, in this past summer there was more speculation in the oil markets than we thought," says Mike Fitzpatrick, director of research at MF Global in New York. "It might have been worth $50 to $60 a barrel."
Going into the new year, Mr. Fitzpatrick says, the oil markets are fixated on how low prices can go. "People are watching demand drop in China, and that weighs on prices."
China energy watchers expect demand in the country to continue to slide over the next several months. Paul Ting of Paul Ting Energy Vision in Short Hills, N.J., is monitoring fuel-oil consumption, used for electrical production, as an indication of the strength or weakness of the Chinese economy.
"What I am seeing is weak electrical demand, which says GDP growth is weak," he says.
With electrical demand off, he says, fuel-oil production is down about 20 percent in China. "November was extremely weak, weaker than anyone thought," he says. "Looking ahead next year, the first half will be a continuous difficult environment."
Declining consumption also means rising heating-oil inventories in China. Historically, he says, the Chinese have carried less than 10 days of inventory coverage. That is now up to more than 30 days. "It reflects the fact supply is way in excess of demand," he says.
Back in the US, consumers will get a break this winter on their heating bills. For those who use natural gas, winter bills are expected to decline by only 1 percent. But home heating oil in the Northeast is now about 75 cents a gallon lower than in December last year, EIA surveys are finding. For the entire heating season, fuel-oil bills could be 24 percent lower, depending on the weather, Lidderdale estimates.
Over the next 10 days, temperatures over the Northeast should moderate, says Scott Bernhardt, a meteorologist with Planalytics, a weather forecasting service for business in Wayne, Pa. But winter will return later in January and February, he warns.
"We can expect some cold weather and some very fast-moving storms," he says. "Merchants don't need to put out the shorts yet."