The Next Price to Watch for After $100 Oil

Predictions abound that the price of crude oil could go much higher.

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Now that oil has closed at $100.01 a barrel, what is the next benchmark to watch for on the way to potential global energy crisis?

Well, the price of oil still has to rise about $1.70 more to surpass its all-time inflation-adjusted peak of $101.70, as calculated by the International Energy Agency. As we've noted here, there are a lot of different calculations for that all-time high, since the futures market in oil did not exist when oil hit its old apex in 1980.

Or, you could wait until oil hits $105, which was the original "superspike" prediction by Goldman Sachs analyst Arjun Murti back in March 2005, when oil was trading at about $55 a barrel. Murti said the world may have entered "a multiyear trading band of oil prices high enough to meaningfully reduce energy consumption and re-create a spare capacity cushion only after which will lower energy prices return."

At the time, some analysts thought the market could reach such heights only if there were a major supply disruption from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. Well, although there's been saber-rattling by Hugo Chávez in Caracas, no one has turned off any spigots. But some of the same analysts now think the oil market is much more vulnerable. One is John Kilduff of futures broker Man Financial, who was quoted last fall as saying, "We're only a headline of significance away from $100 oil."

Apparently, it didn't even take a headline of significance, just some further signs of the already evident fact that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was not concerned about high oil prices.

But if you want a longer benchmark to keep an eye on, look at "The Coming Triple-Digit Oil Prices" (.pdf) by petroleum economist Philip Verleger, published last fall in the International Economy magazine. Writing during the summer, when oil was in the $70s, Verleger noted six factors that would lead to higher oil prices: demand created by economic growth, underinvestment, nationalism in oil-exporting countries, investment uncertainty, disruptions from global conflicts, and issues of scale—"efforts to substitute away from hydrocarbons or to conserve will be hampered by the problem's enormity."

"Indeed, looking forward," Verleger wrote, "it appears that triple-digit oil prices may become a regular feature of the global economy within three or four years, and soon the first digit may become something other than one."