The oil market can be very confusing to both the professional and individual investor, with large price fluctuations sometimes occurring on a daily basis. This article explains the forces driving the market and how to have a financial stake in oil-price fluctuations without opening a futures account.

Price-Driving Influences

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the International Energy Agency estimate the current world demand for oil at between 86 million to 87 million barrels per day in 2008. When the price of oil rises, this decreases demand in the United States, but demand from growing emerging market economies is expected to increase as these countries industrialize.(For related reading, see What Is An Emerging Market Economy?)

Some emerging market economies have fuel subsidies for consumers, and an estimated one-quarter of the world's demand for oil in 2008 comes from nations that have such subsidies. However, subsidies are not always beneficial to a country's economy, because although they tend to spur demand in the country, they may also cause the country's oil producers to sell at a loss. As such, removing subsidies can allow a country to increase oil production, thus increasing supply and lowering prices. In addition, cutting subsidies can decrease any shortage of refined products have been alleviated, since higher oil prices give refineries an incentive to produce products, such as diesel and gasoline.

On the supply side, in 2008, approximately 85 million to 86 million barrels of oil were produced each day. The discovery of new reserves in Brazil in 2007 is a bright spot, but the oil fields in Mexico and the North Sea are experiencing steep declines in production. (For more on oil production shortfalls and their implications, read Peak Oil: What To Do When The Well Runs Dry.)

In OPEC, most countries do not have the ability to pump out much more oil. Saudi Arabia, the one exception, has an estimated spare capacity of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day as of 2008.

Nigeria has also become important to the oil market, but the country has a history of instability and rebel attacks, which can severely curtail oil production in this country. These rebels, who, attacked a deep-water drilling vessels far offshore in June 2008, brought Nigeria's oil production to the lowest levels in 25 years. As a result of the attack, the country pumped out only 1.5 million barrels per day thereafter, instead of the 2.5 million barrels per day it could be producing. (For more on how supply and demand impact the price of oil, read What Determines Oil Prices?)

One of the major problems the oil market faces is the lack of high-quality "sweet" crude, the type of oil that many refineries need to meet stringent environmental requirements, particularly in the United States. Much of the high-quality oil imported into the United States comes from Nigeria and surrounding African nations; according to the U.S. Department of Energy, together, Nigeria and Angola exported more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia in 2007.

Aside from supply and demand factors, another force driving oil prices has been investors and speculators bidding on oil futures contracts. Many major institutional investors now involved in the oil markets, such as pension and endowment funds, hold commodity-linked investments as part of a long-term asset-allocation strategy. Others, including Wall Street speculators, trade oil futures for very short periods of time to reap quick profits. Some observers attribute wide short-term swings in oil prices to these speculators, while others believe their influence is minimal. (For more on trading oil futures, read Become An Oil And Gas Futures Detective.)

Investment Options
Regardless of the underlying reasons for changes in oil prices, investors who want to capitalize on energy price fluctuations have a number of options. One simple way for the average person to invest in oil is through stocks of oil drilling and service companies. (For help in how to choose specific companies in the industry, see Oil And Gas Industry Primer.)

Several sector mutual funds invest mainly in energy-related stocks as well. (For more information on sector mutual funds, see An Introduction To Sector Funds.)

Investors can gain more direct exposure to the price of oil through an exchange-traded fund (ETF) or exchange-traded note (ETN), which typically invest in oil futures contracts rather than energy stocks. Because oil prices are largely uncorrelated to stock market returns or the direction of the U.S. dollar, these products follow the price of oil more closely than energy stocks and can serve as a hedge and a portfolio diversifier. (Learn more about the advantages of ETFs and ETNs in Exchange Traded Notes - An Alternative To ETFs.)

Investors have a number of ETF and ETN options to choose from, such as a single-commodity ETF (e.g., oil only) or a multi-commodity ETF that will cover a variety of energy commodities (oil, natural gas, gasoline and heating oil). There are many choices for investors.(For more information on energy investment options, see ETFs Provide Easy Access To Energy Commodities.)

The Bottom Line
The oil market provides a diverse array of options for the potential investor. From indirect exposure via an energy-related stock to more direct investment in a commodity-linked ETF, the energy sector has something for almost everyone. As with all investments, make sure you do your research or consult an investment professional prior to committing your money, and remember the information outlined above when predicting price changes to help ensure a profitable investment.

For alternative-energy investment options, read The Biofuels Debate Heats Up.

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