In this week's oil industry insider report, we will be looking at some of the most important oil market movers and how they influence oil prices. We will also have a look at the recent changes in the oil market fundamentals, and how they point toward oil market balance.
We will then look at the current events and developments taking place in the oil industry and we will end the report with an answer to the question "is there still any hope for a successful meeting in Doha?"
Oil prices fell sharply to one-month low this Monday as investors doubted the possibility of a successful output freeze meeting in Doha, Qatar following the comments from Prince Mohammed Bin Salman that Saudi Arabia will not freeze output without Iran and other major producers doing so. Another factor that has contributed to the sharp fall in oil prices this week was a stronger than expected U.S. jobs report which raises the prospects of interest rate rise. Brent crude fell 2.5 percent to $37.69 a barrel, and U.S. crude settled down $1.09 or nearly 3 percent, at $35.70 a barrel.
Fortunately, the fall in oil prices didn’t continue further through the week. And despite the decision of Saudi Arabia to freeze oil output only if Iran does too, on Tuesday, oil prices edged up on Kuwait's insistence that major oil producers will agree to freeze output with or without Iran's participation. While the gains in crude prices were limited at first as traders awaited U.S. oil inventories data which analysts polled by Reuters expected to have risen by 3.2 million barrels, it then jumped 5 percent on Wednesday as a result of a surprise decrease in U.S. crude stockpiles.
According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. crude oil inventories decreased by 4.9 million barrels from the previous week at At 529.9. While the EIA report contained some bearish data such as a sudden increase in gasoline stockpiles, traders -who are looking for any spark of hope- chose to focus on the bullish side of the report. This is an important point that we should be looking at, which represents the current emotional state in the oil market.
A state where traders are more focused on the positive aspects of the oil market despite some bearish sentiments. It is an emotional state where hope is more dominant than desperation and depression. Understating the current emotional state of market analysts, traders and speculators helps to understand what influence their decisions and better figure out the near term trends in the oil market.
Technically, the unexpected fall in U.S. stockpiles signaled an important shift in the fundamentals of oil market. Supported by a continuous fall in U.S. oil production and rig count, the fall in U.S. stockpiles if continued, it will not only prevent the market from going lower in the near term but also it will sustain the oil prices rally and gives it a momentum.
Based on Baker Hughes rig count data, it is definitely obvious that U.S. rig count roller-coaster is still on the run. U.S. rig count was down 14 at 450 for the week of April 1, 2016. The number of rotary rigs for oil was down 10 at 362 and the number of rig count for gas was down 4 at 88. U.S. rig count is at its lowest level since Baker Hughes started its rig count service in 1944. In a similar trend, the international rig count was down 33 at 985 on March 2016 according to the Baker Hughes rig count service.
The number of rig count will still experience a falling trend at least for a few weeks from now as the oil market is in a critical time in which more decrease in rig count and oil production is needed to create the balance in supply and demand. While rig count has decreased sharply in the past months, the use of new and advanced technology and improved efficiency enabled oil companies to offset the impact of falling rig count on oil production.
Oil Supply & Demand
In terms of oil supply, a notable addition of oil into the international market came from Iran. According to its oil minister, Iran increased its oil and condensate exports by 250,000 barrels per day in March. The country is determined not to participate in the coming oil output freeze deal until its exports reach to pre-sanctions levels. This means adding around 1 million barrel per day to its export total.
While such news could drive oil prices down giving the fact that the oil market is still oversupplied, we don’t see much negative impact for it in the oil market. This is happening due to three reasons.
First of all, Iran is trying to gain back its own position in the oi market. A position that was filled by other producers who are supposed to cut back their outputs after the return of Iran into the international oil market. The second reason lays on the fact that the oil market is more concerned and focused on Doha's meeting to the point that other events taking place in the oil market are not given much attention. The last and most important reason is the fact that the intensity of fundamentals pointing toward oil market balance is increasing as shale oil production continues to fall, and signs of growing demand are becoming more obvious.
In the demand side, more positive signs of growing oil demand are appearing. A bullish outlook for the oil markets that was issued by the investment bank Credit Suisse which stated that oil demand is alive and well. In general, oil demand is correlated with the industrial demand. As industrial demand is slow and global economy is very fragile, demand for oil is less. But Credit Suisse pointed out to emerging market middle classes that are well and consequently fueling consumption of oil as they buy new vehicles.
Based on the Credit Suisse outlook, oil demand should continue to outperform the long existed historic correlation with industrial production. They expect oil prices to hit $50 as soon as May and demand continues to grow at more than 2 percent on an annual basis.
Answer to Question of The Week
The bad luck of the oil industry lays on the fact that politics and immature politicians still play a huge role in setting the direction of the industry. Doha's OPEC and non-OPEC producers meeting is a simple example. The outcomes of the meeting and hence the end of the oil market downturn depends entirely on the decision of few producers who may or may not agree depending on what they see fit their geopolitical agenda.
While many have seen the recent decision of Saudi Arabia not to freeze oil production unless does too as a move against Iran, I don’t see it that way. In fact, if Saudi Arabia meant that move against Iran, it would have done it during February's meeting.
Saudi Arabia's main aim is squeezing shale oil producers out of the market. When it agreed to freeze its oil output during February's meeting, it was to prevent oil prices from falling further. And when it did, oil prices rebounded to $40 a barrel level, and many in the oil market expected more. But that is not what Saudi Arabia wants, because their market share war against shale oil producers didn’t really achieve its goals. Shale oil producers are still producing and their production is not decreasing as Saudi Arabia expected.
If Saudi Arabia agreed on freezing output on April 17's meeting, it would give a positive push to oil prices to go up to $50 a barrel, and that will give shale oil producers something to hold on for as it means the worse is over. That is not what Saudi Arabia wants.
I don’t expect the meeting to be successful and even if it did and Saudi Arabia changed its mind, I don’t expect the producers to hold on to the agreement. There will be some disturbance in order to keep oil prices at low levels at least above $35 a barrel for the near term in order to force many more of shale oil producers out of the market.
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Throughout much of its history, the United States has imported more petroleum (which includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other liquids) than it has exported. That status changed in 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) estimates that 2020 marked the first year that the United States exported more petroleum than it imported on an annual basis. However, largely because of declines in domestic crude oil production and corresponding increases in crude oil imports, EIA expects the United States to return to being a net petroleum importer on an annual basis in both 2021 and 2022.
EIA expects that increasing crude oil imports will drive the growth in net petroleum imports in 2021 and 2022 and more than offset changes in refined product net trade. EIA forecasts that net imports of crude oil will increase from its 2020 average of 2.7 million barrels per day (b/d) to 3.7 million b/d in 2021 and 4.4 million b/d in 2022.
Compared with crude oil trade, net exports of refined petroleum products did not change as much during 2020. On an annual average basis, U.S. net petroleum product exports—distillate fuel oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and motor gasoline, among others—averaged 3.2 million b/d in 2019 and 3.4 million b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that net petroleum product exports will average 3.5 million b/d in 2021 and 3.9 million b/d in 2022 as global demand for petroleum products continues to increase from its recent low point in the first half of 2020.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), February 2021
EIA expects that the United States will import more crude oil to fill the widening gap between refinery inputs of crude oil and domestic crude oil production in 2021 and 2022. U.S. crude oil production declined by an estimated 0.9 million b/d (8%) to 11.3 million b/d in 2020 because of well curtailment and a drop in drilling activity related to low crude oil prices.
EIA expects the rising price of crude oil, which started in the fourth quarter of 2020, will contribute to more U.S. crude oil production later this year. EIA forecasts monthly domestic crude oil production will reach 11.3 million b/d by the end of 2021 and 11.9 million b/d by the end of 2022. These values are increases from the most recent monthly average of 11.1 million b/d in November 2020 (based on data in EIA’s Petroleum Supply Monthly) but still lower than the previous peak of 12.9 million b/d in November 2019.
In the past week, crude oil prices have surged to levels last seen over a year ago. The global Brent benchmark hit US$63/b, while its American counterpart WTI crested over the US$60/b mark. The more optimistic in the market see these gains as a start of a commodity supercycle stemming from market forces pent-up over the long Covid-19 pandemic. The more cynical see it as a short-term spike from a perfect winter storm and constrained supply. So, which is it?
To get to that point, let’s examine how crude oil prices have evolved since the start of the year. On the consumption side, the market is vacillating between hopeful recovery and jittery reactions as Covid-19 outbreaks and vaccinations lent a start-stop rhythm to consumption trends. Yes, vaccination programmes were developed at lightning speed; and even plenty of bureaucratic hiccoughs have not hampered a steady rollout across the globe. In the UK, more than 20% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccines, with the USA not too far behind. Israel has vaccinated more than 75% of its population, and most countries should be well into their own programmes by the end of March. That acceleration of vaccinations has underpinned expectations of higher oil demand, with hopes that people will begin to drive again, fly again and buy again. But those hopes have been occasionally interrupted by new Covid-19 clusters detected and, more worryingly, new mutations of the virus.
Against this hopeful demand picture, supply has been managed. Squabbling among the OPEC+ club has prevented a more aggressive approach to managing supply than kingpin Saudi Arabia would like, but OPEC+ has still managed to hold itself together to placate the market that crude spigots will remain restrained. And while the UAE has successfully shifted OPEC+ quota plan for 2021 from quarterly adjustments to monthly, Saudi Arabia stepped into the vacuum to stamp its authority with a voluntary 1 million barrels per day cut. The market was impressed.
That combination of events over January was enough to move Brent prices from the low US$50/b level to the upper US$50/b range. However, US$60/b remained seemingly out of reach. It took a heavy dusting of snow across Texas to achieve that.
Winter weather across the northern hemisphere seemed harsher than usual this year. Europe was hit by two large continent-wide storms, while the American Northeast and Pacific Northwest were buffeted with quite a few snowstorms. Temperatures in East Asia were fairly cold too, which led to strong prices for natural gas and LNG to keep the population warm. But it was a major snowstorm that swept through the southern United States – including Texas – that had the largest effect on prices. Some areas of Texas saw temperatures as low as -18 degrees Celsius, while electricity demand surged to the point where grids failed, leaving 4.3 million people without power. A national emergency was declared, with over 150 million Americans under winter storm warning conditions.
For the global oil complex, the effects of the storm were also direct. Some of the largest oil refineries in the world were forced to shut down due to the Arctic conditions, further disrupting power and fuel supplies. All in all, over 3 mmb/d of oil processing capacity had to be idled in the wake of the storm, including Motiva’s Port Arthur, ExxonMobil’s Baytown and Marathon’s Galveston Bay refineries. And even if the sites were still running, they would have to contend to upstream disruptions: estimates suggest that crude oil production in the prolific Permian Basin dropped by over a million barrels per day due to power outages, while several key pipelines connecting Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast were also forced to shutter.
That perfect storm was enough to send crude prices above the US$60/b level. But will it last? The damage from the Texan snowstorm has already begun to abate, and even then crude prices did not seem to have the appetite to push higher than US$63/b for Brent and US$60/b for WTI.
Instead, the key development that should determine the future range for crude prices going into the second quarter of 2021 will be in early March, when the OPEC+ club meets once again to decide the level of its supply quotas for April and perhaps beyond. The conundrum facing the various factions within the club is this: at US$60/b, crude oil prices are not low enough to scare all members in voting for unanimous stricter quotas and also not high enough to rescind controlled supply. Instead, prices are at a fragile level where arguments can be made both ways. Russia is already claiming that global oil markets are ‘balanced’, while Saudi Arabia is emphasising the need for caution in public messaging ahead of the meeting. Saudi Arabia’s voluntary supply cut will also expire in March, setting up the stage for yet another fractious meeting. If a snow overrun Texans was a perfect storm to push crude prices to a 13-month high, then the upcoming OPEC+ meeting faces another perfect storm that could negate confidence. Which will it be? The answer lies on the other side of the storm.
Much like the year itself, the final quarter of 2020 proved to be full of shocks and surprises… at least in terms of financial results from oil and gas giants. With crude oil prices recovering on the back of a concerted effort by OPEC+ to keep a lid on supply, even at the detriment of their market share, the fourth quarter of 2020 was supposed to be smooth sailing. The tailwind of stronger crude and commodity prices, alongside gradual demand recovery, was expected to have smoothen out the revenue and profit curves for the supermajors.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, losses were declared where they were not expected. And where profits were to be had, they were meagre in volume. And crucially, a deeper dive into the financial results revealed worrying trends in the cash flow of several supermajors, calling into question the ability of these giants to continue on their capital expenditure and dividend plans, and the risks of resorting to debt financing in order to appease investors and yet also continue expanding.
Let’s start with the least surprising result of all. For months, ExxonMobil had been signalling that it would be taking a massive writedown on its upstream assets in Q4 2020, which could lead to a net loss for the quarter and the year. Unlike its peers, ExxonMobil had resisted making writedowns on the value of its crude-producing assets earlier in 2020. At the time, it stated that it had already built caution in the value assessments of those assets, reflecting ‘fair value’; not so long after that bold statement, ExxonMobil has been forced to backtrack and make a US$20.2 billion downward adjustment. Unusually, that meant that non-cash impairments aside, ExxonMobil actually eked out a tiny profit of US$110 million for the quarter on the strength of margins in the chemicals segment, but a full year loss of US$22.4 billion: the first ever annual loss since Exxon and Mobil merged in 1998. This was better than expected by Wall Street analysts, who would also be cheering the formation of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, in which the group would pump some US$3 billion through 2025 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2016 levels. That acknowledgement of a carbon neutral future is still far less ambitious than its European counterparts, but is a clear sign that ExxonMobil is starting to take the climate change element of its business more seriously.
If ExxonMobil managed to surprise in a good way, then its closest American rival did the opposite. Chevron had been outperforming ExxonMobil in quarterly results for a while now, but in Q4 2020 retreated with a net loss of US$665 million. That was narrower than the US$6.6 billion loss declared in Q4 2019, but still a shock since analysts were expecting a narrow profit. Calling 2020 ‘a year like no other’, the headwinds facing Chevron in Q4 2020 were the same facing all majors and supermajors, despite gains in crude prices, refining margins and fuel sales were still soft. Chevron’s cash flow was also a concern – as was ExxonMobil’s – which prompted chatter that the two direct descendants of JD Rockefeller’s Standard Oil were considering a merger. If so, then there is at least alignment on the climate topic: Chevron is also following the trail blazed by European supermajors in embracing a carbon neutral future, with CEO Michael Wirth conceding that Chevron may ‘not be an oil-first company in 2040’.
On the European side of the pond, that same theme of lowered downstream performance dragging down overall performance continued. But unlike the US supermajors, the likes of Shell, BP and Total were somewhat insulated from the Covid-19 blows at the peak of the pandemic as their opportunistic trading divisions capitalised on the wild swings in crude and fuel prices. That factor is now absent, with crude prices taking on a steady upward curve. That’s good for the rest of their businesses, but bad for trading, which thrives on uncertainty and volatility. And so BP reported a Q4 net profit of US$115 million, Shell followed with a Q4 net profit of US$393 million and Total closed out the earning season with industry-beating Q4 net profit of US$1.3 billion, above market expectations.
The softness of the financials hasn’t stopped dividend payouts, but has also been used by Europe’s Big Oil to set the tone for the next few decades of their existence. Total and BP paid a hefty premium to secure rights to build the next generation of UK wind farms; Total joined the Maersk-McKinney Moller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping to develop carbon neutral shipping solutions and splashed out on acquiring 2.2 GW of solar power projects in Texas; BP signed a strategic collaboration agreement with Russia’s Rosneft to develop new low carbon solutions; and aircraft carrier KLM took off with the first flight powered by synthetic kerosene that was developed by Shell through carbon dioxide, water and renewables. That’s a lot of a groundwork laid for the future where these giants can be carbon neutral by 2050.
The message from Q4 seems clear. Big Oil has barely begun its recovery from the Covid-19 maelstrom, and the road to a new normal remains long and painful. But this is also an opportunity to pivot; to set a new destination that is no longer business-as-usual, but embraces zero carbon ambitions. Even the American supermajors are slowly coming around, while the European continues to lead. Will majors in Asia, Latin America and Africa/Middle East follow? Let’s see what that attitude will bring over this new decade.
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