Is oil just a big, fat bubble about to bust? Compared to tech stocks from back in the days of irrational exuberance, it would seem so.
A new analysis shows that the rise in the barrel price of oil has now surpassed the inflated values of technology stocks that crashed in 2000, leading to a short U.S. recession.
Bloomberg news service reports that crude has risen by 697 percent since November 2001, when it traded at a now-astonishing price of $17.45 a barrel.
It has set all-time record highs 28 times this year alone, hitting $139.12 before retreating in the past few days.
In comparison, Internet stocks traded on the Nasdaq exchange had pumped up by 640 percent, according to research by Bloomberg and Bespoke Investment Group.
After peaking in March 2000, those stocks fell by 78 percent.
Demand is clearly part of the equation, as the massive numbers of poor in China and India climb up from the bottom of the economic pile once and for all.
And supply has been questionable, particularly over the long term. The International Energy Agency recently sharply reduced its supply forecast, which spooked oil markets.
Global oil supplies could fall far short of need and expectations in the next 20 years, reports the agency. It long expected supply to rise to meet demand of 116 million barrels a day by 2030.
The IEA now expects oil output to struggle to reach 100 million barrels in that time frame.
But, equally important, in the views of some, has been the flow of speculative money hoping to cash in on those problems.
Hedge fund manager Mike Masters figures that since 2003 at least $250 billion has gone into index funds that follow commodities, Bloomberg reports.
"Index speculators' trading strategies amount to virtual hoarding via the commodities futures markets," Masters told the U.S. Congress in recent testimony.
"Institutional investors are buying up essential items that exist in limited quantities for the sole purpose of reaping speculative profits," Masters said.
Where to from here? Certainly, a slowing of the U.S. and Chinese economies will provide some relief, and evidence suggests that — in the near term at least — that there might actually be too much oil on the market.
If Masters is right, a quick exit by oil speculators will bust that bubble, and oil will fall like a rock.
Yet expert commodities traders — among them Jim Rogers — have said that the long-term view for oil is up, up, and away.
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