Until recently, technical analysts - those who plot charts and graphs of commodity movements - saw $51.20 as a fundamental breaking point for oil prices.

The $51.20 barrier has been breached yet, by all accounts, the market is as confused and volatile as before. And it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Despite pronouncements from those trying to calm the markets with words, market fundamentals are unavoidable.

Raging demand

"The market wants light sweet crude at the moment," said Frederic Lasserre of Societe Generale in Paris. "And we have two problems with this, both are strikes.

Demand increase has stretched
global oil supply lines to the limit

"One coming up, probably a short one in Nigeria but also another one in Norway. This is adding to the problems that we have because these two countries produce light sweet crude and this is the oil the market wants at the moment."

Raging demand increases over the past three years have stretched supply lines to the limit.

The nature of the market drives the desire for short-term gains from oil companies, shareholders, executives (who stand to earn performance bonuses), and producer countries hungry for extra cash. Those desires have meant a vested interest in high prices and low investment in supply capacity.

Markets have also been worried by a litany of problems that just will not stop coming. Reports of falling company production; strikes in Norway and Nigeria; conflicting Opec promises; fall in US heating fuel stocks; and rises in gas prices all are to blame for the unprecedented nervousness in the market.

Market baffled

This week two large American oil companies, Conoco Phillips and Marathon, both reported drops in production. Conoco, which has created a partnership with Russia's Lukoil in recent days, said it produced around 7% less oil in the third fiscal quarter. It blamed "scheduled maintenance", and a seasonal drop in demand.

Opec's promised extra supplies
of crude have yet to materialise

Marathon Oil, the fourth biggest US oil company, reported a 9.8% drop in production. It said this was due to the effects of Hurricane Ivan, problems with supply in Equatorial Guinea, and "unplanned downtime". Neither event was what traders wanted to hear.

Opec, meanwhile, continued to baffle the markets. The chairman of the 12-nation producer group, Chairman Purnomo Yusgiantoro, led the way in making seemingly conflicting statements.

First, Yusgiantoro said: "If prices continue to go up, there will be a danger to the global economy. I warn that high oil prices will result in the start of a recession."

Just a few days later, he said Opec did not just have their oft-quoted 1.5 million barrels of spare capacity, that in fact there was surplus global capacity "of 2.5 million barrels a day".

Traders worried

"No one is listening to Opec at the moment. They are only communicating, they are unable to take action. Opec cannot do anything about the current situation," Societe Generale's Lasserre said.

They may have spare capacity in Saudi Arabia, but it is oil the market does not want. Heavy sour crude is not the sort of oil that is needed to bring down prices. As a result, the market is not paying much attention to Opec."

Hurricane Ivan's effects on the
market were greatly overstated

Weekly US inventory figures - the stocks held in commercial hands - had grown slightly. But this was following eight out of nine straight falls.

Crude oil stocks rebounded by 1.1 million barrels, but perhaps more surprisingly, heating oil supplies actually fell 2.1mb. This is the time of year when the US normally sees an increase in heating oil stocks, used to fire oil-powered central-heating and air-conditioning systems.

The market is still blaming the effects of Hurricane Ivan. But US oil stocks fell right across the country, not just in the Gulf of Mexico. Also, self-evidently, not all US refineries are on the Gulf coast.

This has led analysts to further dismiss the claims of Opec that it can maintain supply. The promised extra supplies are simply not arriving.

Will supplies arrive?

"We have really lost those two weeks when Hurricane Ivan arrived," Lasserre said. "The market has not been able to recoup the time lost and as a result we are entering the American winter with low stocks.

"Again, the market wants oil that it can make into the heating oil or kerosene that the Americans want, but it is not there. This is driving the price up as well." 

"[Opec] are only communicating, they
are unable to take action. Opec cannot do anything about the current situation"

Frederic Lasserre,
Societe Generale,
France

At the same time, producer countries are raking in the dollars. Perhaps the best indicator of this is that Coutts Bank of London is to double its Middle Eastern arm staff in order to benefit "from oil cash".

Ordinary people in the US, however, will be part of that operation, but not beneficiaries like the banks or oil producers. They will be the ones who pay up this winter.

So says the US government's Energy Information Administration in its report Winter Fuels Outlook.

It foresees gas and oil heating prices as set to rise by anywhere from 11.2% to 28.8%. A household in the American north-east will pay nearly double the heating costs it paid in the winter of 2001/02.

If they are right, it is boom time for the oil barons and banks, but bad times ahead for the consumer.