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Goldman Sachs 'Super-Spike' Report Warns of $13/MMBtu Gas, $105/bbl Crude

A new research report from Goldman Sachs sent energy prices through the roof on Thursday by warning investors that the oil markets are entering into a "super-spike" period that could see crude prices as high as $105/bbl. In addition, the firm said Henry Hub natural gas prices could soar to $13/MMBtu by 2007.

After the report hit the street on Thursday, the energy futures complex popped higher. At one point during the session, May crude was $2.11 higher than Wednesday's $53.99 settle. Likewise, May natural gas peaked at $7.74, up 28 cents. April heating oil hit a high during the day of $1.67, up 6.34 cents.

"We believe oil markets may have entered the early stages of what we have referred to as a "super spike" period -- a multi-year trading band of oil prices high enough to meaningfully reduce energy consumption and recreate a spare capacity cushion only after which will lower energy prices return," said Arjun N. Murti, an analyst with Goldman Sachs and one of the authors of the report. "Resilient demand has caused us to revise up our super-spike range to $50-$105 per bbl up from $50-$80 per bbl previously."

Murti pointed out that the new super-spike range conservatively corresponds to gasoline spending in the United States that reaches 3.6% of the forecasted Gross Domestic Product, 5.3% of consumer expenditures, and 5% of personal disposable income. "If we were to assume that gasoline spending needs to reach the heights of the 1970s, our upside super-spike estimate would be $135 per bbl for WTI," he said.

Some market experts said the report definitely contributed to the "background noise" that helped futures contracts such as natural gas higher (see related story). "Part of the background noise is this asinine projection by somebody at Goldman Sachs that crude oil could hit $105/bbl," said Ed Kennedy of Commercial Brokerage Corp. in Miami. "They better watch themselves. If there is even a hint of them trying to manipulate market prices they are in deep trouble. I've been a technician for 35 years... You cannot predict a super-spike! I have no idea what they are talking about."

Advest Inc.'s Jay Levine said the upside risk in the whole energy complex has been here for longer than many would believe. "Now, you have everyone and his mother -- literally -- jumping on board the panic-train as the screen screams higher, leaving many behind and just as many left scratching their heads," he said. "The media, through no fault of their own, adds fuel to what already is a fire in progress helping to make this a self-fulfilling prophesy whether it's fundamentally justified or not."

Goldman Sachs also raised its base case forecast for Henry Hub spot natural gas for 2005 and 2006 to $6.73/MMBtu and $7.00/MMBtu, up from $6/MMBtu in both years, respectively. However, under the super-spike potential, Goldman Sachs said prices could be as high as: $6.75 in 2005; $9 in 2006; $13 in 2007; $9 in 2008; $6.50 in 2009; and $4.50 in 2010.

"Note, our Henry Hub forecast does not rise as much as our WTI estimate due to relative weakness in residual fuel oil pricing -- a key alternative fuel to natural gas," Murti said in the report.

The analyst added that the significant increase in WTI oil prices in recent years has been primarily driven by fundamental factors and geopolitical turmoil, including:

The analyst said it is possible that the revised price forecast could still be conservative. "The strength in oil demand and economic growth, especially in the United States and China, following a year of $40-50 per bbl WTI oil has surprised us," Murti said. "Looking back at the late 1970s and early 1980s, we see that U.S. gasoline spending was a much higher percentage of the U.S. economy and consumer spending than it is today, likely explaining the lack of impact we have seen thus far from what otherwise appear to be high crude oil and gasoline prices. Our new 'super-spike' range assumes a level of gasoline spending relative to the economy and consumer spending that is still below the heights reached in 1980-1981, suggesting our new range could prove conservative, especially if there is a supply disruption in a major oil exporting country."

As for the subject of oil supply, Murti said he doesn't believe the spigot is running dry. "We are not subscribers to the theory that global oil supply has hit some magical inflection point that will result in permanent supply declines at some point in the near future," he said. "Though we recognize that the nature of oil is such that it will be difficult for anyone to definitively prove or disprove such theories, it appears to us that there exists a large 'known' quantity of both conventional and unconventional oil resources to develop."

He pointed out that the real issue is that a large portion of the resources are effectively off limits to western investment due to either outright prohibitions or restrictions on investments placed by host governments in the Middle East, Russia, and Venezuela. "Until the political landscape changes to allow for significant increases in investment either by the host countries themselves (through state-owned oil companies) or by foreign oil entities, we believe the current tight supply/demand environment will persist until demand destruction materializes," Murti said.

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