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Last Updated: April 11, 2016
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Shipping, rather than commodity prices, can often be a good barometer of the overall health of China’s manufacturing and of international trade, so it was quite a surprise to see a large number of empty container berths in the vast, sprawling container terminals of Singapore last week.

 

When driving in from Changi airport at night, the first indicator was the large number of container gantry cranes with their booms up, rather than down and working cargo. It may have been dark, but each crane is lit, so as not to be a hazard to aviation, so they were clear to see.

As my taxi drew nearer to the Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Brani terminals, my eyes were not deceiving me and it was crystal clear that there were few ships in port. As we drove further west towards my final destination, near the new Pasir Panjang terminal, capable of handling the largest container ships in the fleet, the skyline was filled with upward pointing container crane booms.

 

Normally in Singapore, as soon as a ship comes off a berth, another is in place to quickly move alongside to take its place; but not so in the third week of March.

A large percentage of the container traffic in Singapore carries manufactured goods from China. The big ships come in, discharge thousands of containers that are destined to be transshipped onto smaller vessels better suited for trading to the Indian subcontinent and parts of the Middle East. Singapore also handles a large volume of empty containers on their way back to China.

 

Nowadays, when the bigger ships do come in, it is clear they are carrying far fewer containers than usual. Some say the high rates charged by the Port of Singapore are to blame, but several sources in the container business argue that Singapore has little competition as such a major transshipment point in southeast Asia and can, therefore, justify charging high rates compared with many other large, mainline container ports.

 

The statistics speak for themselves and confirm what the eye sees. In January, Singapore handled 2.49 million containers, down 10.4% from the 2.78 million that passed through the port in January 2015, according to the port’s own data. In February, Singapore handled 2.41 million containers, down 7.3% from 2.6 million a year earlier.


While Lunar New Year was in the first week of February, shipping is a 24/7 business, 365 days a year, and this year is a leap year, meaning that February had one more day compared with February 2015, yet the throughput still fell.

 

Given that we know China’s real slowdown began in late 2014 and gathered pace in 2015, it is not surprising that we see this reflected in the annual container throughput in Singapore in 2015 compared with 2014. In 2015 Singapore handled a total of 30.92 million containers, down 8.7% from 33.87 million in 2014. The 2014 total is clearly the high-water mark over the last 10 years and was up from 32.6 million mt in 2013.

 

With data in for just two months of 2016 so far, it is too early to tell whether this downward trend will continue. In the first two months of this year, throughput is down 8.85% year on year. If the trend continues, total throughput could fall to around 28.1 million containers, making 2016 the slowest year since 2010, when Singapore handled 28.43 million containers.


Some analysts argue that China is transitioning from being a manufacturing economy to one based on services and consumerism. If true, it implies the port throughput figures in Singapore could be in long-term decline, unless it becomes an import-dependent economy. But it is highly unlikely China as a service economy will succeed in keeping hundreds of millions of people employed. Only manufacturing can do that, which suggests that, at some point, Chinese manufacturing and exports will recover, and the container throughput in Singapore will also.


Given China’s demand for raw materials has such a significant bearing on the price of industrial commodities from crude oil to base metals, a visible recovery in international trade will be of interest to the broader commodities complex.

Asia China Dry Bulk Dry Freight Freight Imports/Exports Markets Supply/Demand Trading Transportation
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Financial Review: 2019

Key findings

  • Brent crude oil daily average prices were $64.16 per barrel in 2019—11% lower than 2018 levels
  • The 102 companies analyzed in this study increased their combined liquids and natural gas production 2% from 2018 to 2019
  • Proved reserves additions in 2019 were about the same as the 2010–18 annual average
  • Finding plus lifting costs increased 13% from 2018 to 2019
  • Occidental Petroleum’s acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum contributed to the largest reserve acquisition costs incurred for the group of companies since 2016
  • Refiners’ earnings per barrel declined slightly from 2018 to 2019

See entire annual review

May, 26 2020
From Certain Doom To Cautious Optimism

A month ago, the world witnessed something never thought possible – negative oil prices. A perfect storm of events – the Covid-19 lockdowns, the resulting effect on demand, an ongoing oil supply glut, a worrying shortage of storage space and (crucially) the expiry of the NYMEX WTI benchmark contract for May, resulted in US crude oil prices falling as low as -US$37/b. Dragging other North American crude markers like Louisiana Light and Western Canadian Select along with it, the unique situation meant that crude sellers were paying buyers to take the crude off their hands before the May contract expired, or risk being stuck with crude and nowhere to store it. This was seen as an emblem of the dire circumstances the oil industry was in, and although prices did recover to a more normal US$10-15/b level after the benchmark contract switched over to June, there was immense worry that the situation would repeat itself.

Thankfully, it has not.

On May 19, trade in the NYMEX WTI contract for June delivery was retired and ticked over into a new benchmark for July delivery. Instead of a repeat of the meltdown, the WTI contract rose by US$1.53 to reach US$33.49/b, closing the gap with Brent that traded at US$35.75b. In the space of a month, US crude prices essentially swung up by US$70/b. What happened?

The first reason is that the market has learnt its lesson. The meltdown in April came because of an overleveraged market tempted by low crude oil prices in hope of selling those cargoes on later at a profit. That sort of strategic trading works fine in a normal situation, but against an abnormal situation of rapidly-shrinking storage space saw contract holders hold out until the last minute then frantically dumping their contracts to avoid having to take physical delivery. Bruised by this – and probably embarrassed as well – it seems the market has taken precautions to avoid a recurrence. Settling contracts early was one mechanism. Funds and institutions have also reduced their positions, diminishing the amount of contracts that need to be settled. The structural bottleneck that precipitated the crash was largely eliminated.

The second is that the US oil complex has adjusted itself quickly. Some 2 mmb/d of crude production has been (temporarily) idled, reducing supply. The gradual removal of lockdowns in some US states, despite medical advisories, has also recovered some demand. This week, crude draws in Cushing, Oklahoma rose for the second consecutive week, reaching a record figure of 5.6 million barrels. That increase in demand and the parallel easing of constrained storage space meant that last month’s panic was not repeated. The situation is also similar worldwide. With China now almost at full capacity again and lockdowns gradually removed in other parts of the world, the global crude marker Brent also rose to a 2-month high. The new OPEC+ supply deal seems to be working, especially with Saudi Arabia making an additional voluntary cut of 1 mmb/d. The oil world is now moving rapidly towards a new normal.

How long will this last? Assuming that the Covid-19 pandemic is contained by Q3 2020, then oil prices could conceivably return to their previous support level of US$50/b. That is a big assumption, however. The Covid-19 situation is still fragile, with major risks of additional waves. In China and South Korea, where the pandemic had largely been contained, recent detection of isolated new clusters prompted strict localised lockdowns. There is also worry that the US is jumping the gun in easing restrictions. In Russia and Brazil – countries where the advice to enforce strict lockdowns was ignored as early warning signs crept in – the number of cases and deaths is still rising rapidly. Brazil is a particular worry, as President Jair Bolosnaro is a Covid-19 skeptic and is still encouraging normal behaviour in spite of the accelerating health crisis there. On the flip side, crude output may not respond to the increase in demand as easily, as many clusters of Covid-19 outbreaks have been detected in key crude producing facilities worldwide. Despite this, some US shale producers have already restarted their rigs, spurred on by a need to service their high levels of debt. US pipeline giant Energy Transfer LP has already reported that many drillers in the Permian have resumed production, citing prices in the high-US$20/b level as sufficient to cover its costs.

The recovery is ongoing. But what is likely to happen is an erratic recovery, with intermittent bouts of mini-booms and mini-busts. Consultancy IHS Markit Energy Advisory envisions a choppy recovery with ‘stop-and-go rallies’ over 2020 – particularly in the winter flu season – heading towards a normalisation only in 2021. It predicts that the market will only recover to pre-Covid 19 levels in the second half of 2021, and a smooth path towards that only after a vaccine is developed and made available, which will be late 2020 at the earliest. The oil market has moved from certain doom to cautious optimism in the space of a month. But it will take far longer for the entire industry to regain its verve without any caveats.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$33-37/b, WTI – US$30-33/b
  • Demand recovery has underpinned a rally in oil prices, on hopes that the worst of the demand destruction is over
  • Chinese oil demand is back to the 13 mmb/d level, almost on par year-on-year
  • News that development of potential Covid-19 vaccines are reaching testing phase also cheered the market
  • The US active oil and gas rig count lost another 35 rigs to 339, down 648 sites y-o-y

---------------####---------------

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May, 23 2020
EIA expects record liquid fuels inventory builds in early 2020, followed by draws

quarterly global liquid fuels productionand consumption balance

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020

As mitigation efforts to contain the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic continue to lead to rapid declines in petroleum consumption around the world, the production of liquid fuels globally has changed more slowly, leading to record increases in the amount of crude oil and other petroleum liquids placed into storage in recent months. In its May Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects global inventory builds will be largest in the first half of 2020. EIA estimates that inventory builds rose at a rate of 6.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in the first quarter and will increase by 11.5 million b/d in the second quarter because of widespread travel limitations and sharp reductions in economic activity.

After the first half of 2020, EIA expects global liquid fuels consumption to increase, leading to inventory draws for at least six consecutive quarters and ultimately putting upward pressure on crude oil prices that are currently at their lowest levels in 20 years.

As with the March and April STEO, EIA’s forecast reductions in global oil demand arise from three main drivers: lower economic growth, less air travel, and other declines in demand not captured by these two categories, largely related to reductions in travel because of stay-at-home orders. Based on incoming economic data and updated assessments of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders across dozens of countries, EIA has further lowered its forecasts for global oil demand in 2020 in the May STEO. The STEO is based on macroeconomic projections by Oxford Economics (for countries other than the United States) and by IHS Markit (for the United States).

changes in quarterly global petroleum liquids consumption

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020

In the May STEO, EIA forecasts global liquid fuels consumption will average 92.6 million b/d in 2020, down 8.1 million b/d from 2019. EIA forecasts both economic growth and global consumption of liquid fuels to increase in 2021 but remain lower than 2019 levels. Any lasting behavioral changes to patterns in transportation and other forms of oil consumption once COVID-19 mitigation efforts end, however, present considerable uncertainty to the increase in consumption of liquid fuels, even if gross domestic product (GDP) growth increases.

Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) agreed to new production cuts in early April that will remain in place throughout the STEO forecast period ending in 2021. EIA assumes OPEC members will mostly adhere to announced cuts during the first two months of the agreement (May and June) and that production compliance will relax later in the forecast period as stated production cuts are reduced and global oil demand begins growing.

EIA forecasts OPEC crude oil production will fall to less than 24.1 million b/d in June, a 6.3 million b/d decline from April, when OPEC production increased following an inconclusive meeting in March. If OPEC production declines to less than 24.1 million b/d, it would be the group’s lowest level of production since March 1995. The forecast for June OPEC production does not account for the additional voluntary cuts announced by Saudi Arabia’s Energy Ministry on May 11.

EIA expects OPEC production will begin increasing in July 2020 in response to rising global oil demand and prices. From that point, EIA expects a gradual increase in OPEC crude oil production through the remainder of the forecast and for production to rise to an average of 28.5 million b/d during the second half of 2021.

changes in quarterly global petroleum liquids production

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020

EIA forecasts the supply of non-OPEC petroleum and other liquid fuels will decline by 2.4 million b/d in 2020 compared with 2019. The steep decline reflects lower forecast oil prices in the second quarter as well as the newly implemented production cuts from non-OPEC participants in the OPEC+ agreement. EIA expects the largest non-OPEC production declines in 2020 to occur in Russia, the United States, and Canada.

May, 20 2020