The idea is to establish a full network of storage and pipeline infrastructure – possibly around Tokyo Bay – with full third-party access and transparency by 2025, the first LNG trading hub in the world.
That’s the idea, anyway, as Japan flexes its muscle as the largest consumer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in a bid to move the LNG market in Asia forward. The end goal is to establish Japan as the centre of Asian trade, creating a Japan benchmark price as a reference for the rest of continent; but for now, the current LNG supply glut is enabling Japan to take some bold steps forward today.
Japan’s hunger for LNG has driven much of the market over the past two decades, establishing long-term contracts locked in over decades at premium prices over the rest of the world, creating the so-called Asian premium for LNG. Japan was largely happy to pay this, but the contracts also locked in long-term price tags – requiring rates of, say, US$12-16 mmBtu for a 20-year Qatar LNG contract. Meanwhile, in the spot market, new gas from Australia and US shale has driven Asian spot prices down to US$4 mmBtu. That’s a huge gap and Japan is not happy about it.
It has clout. As the largest LNG importer for the foreseeable future, Japan can (and has) demanded revisions to contracts, beyond just lower prices. Also on the chopping block are clauses restricting shipments to specific ports, resale of shipments and removing the long-standing tradition of pegging LNG to crude prices. It also wants to move away for multi-decade contracts to shorter ones linked to spot LNG prices. All these little moves are setting the stage for an eventual Japan LNG hub – freeing up the market away from a restrictive, opaque one to being more transparent and dynamic. Japan’s moves have also emboldened other Asian LNG buyers – China, India and South Korea have all renegotiate long-term supply contracts recently.
The option to re-sell is particularly important, as it underpins the entire idea of a trading hub. In May, Tokyo Electric Power and Chubu Electric Power’s joint venture Jera Co inked a deal to re-sell up to 1.5 million metric tons of LNG to France’s Electricite de France for a period of 30 months beginning June 2018 at (cheaper) European prices. Instead of merely absorbing surplus fuel as required by their long-term contracts, the deal allows the two Japanese buyers to become sellers (albeit at a loss). It is the first such deal for a Japanese buyer, and there is more to come according to Jera.
Sellers, particularly in the Middle East, aren’t happy, but the current supply glut has switched the power dynamics to side of the buyers. With the gas flood expected to continue for three to four years, Japan has a small window to fundamentally shift the market now, before the supply/demand dynamics change again. And it is taking full advantage of that opportunity.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 March 2019 – Brent: US$66/b; WTI: US$56/b
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In 2017, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global – also known as the Oil Fund – proposed a complete divestment of oil and gas shares from its massive portfolio. Last week, the Norwegian government partially approved that request, allowing the Fund to exclude 134 upstream companies from the wealth fund. Players like Anadarko Petroleum, Chesapeake Energy, CNOOC, Premier Oil, Soco International and Tullow Oil will now no longer receive any investment from the Fund. That might seem like an inconsequential move, but it isn’t. With over US$1 trillion in assets – the Fund is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world – it is a major market-shifting move.
Estimates suggest that the government directive will require the Oil Fund to sell some US$7.5 billion in stocks over an undefined period. Shares in the affected companies plunged after the announcement. The reaction is understandable. The Oil Fund holds over 1.3% of all global stocks and shares, including 2.3% of all European stocks. It holds stakes as large as of 2.4% of Royal Dutch Shell and 2.3% of BP, and has long been seen as a major investor and stabilising force in the energy sector.
It is this impression that the Fund is trying to change. Established in 1990 to invest surplus revenues of the booming Norwegian petroleum sector, prudent management has seen its value grow to some US$200,000 per Norwegian citizen today. Its value exceeds all other sovereign wealth funds, including those of China and Singapore. Energy shares – specifically oil and gas firms – have long been a major target for investment due to high returns and bumper dividends. But in 2017, the Fund recommended phasing out oil exploration from its ‘investment universe’. At the time, this was interpreted as yielding to pressure from environmental lobbies, but the Fund has made it clear that the move is for economic reasons.
Put simply, the Fund wants to move away from ‘putting all its eggs in one basket’. Income from Norway’s vast upstream industry – it is the largest producing country in Western Europe – funds the country’s welfare state and pays into the Fund. It has ethical standards – avoiding, for example, investment in tobacco firms – but has concluded that devoting a significant amount of its assets to oil and gas savings presents a double risk. During the good times, when crude prices are high and energy stocks booming, it is a boon. But during a downturn or a crash, it is a major risk. With typical Scandinavian restraint and prudence, the Fund has decided that it is best to minimise that risk by pouring its money into areas that run counter-cyclical to the energy industry.
However, the retreat is just partial. Exempt from the divestment will be oil and gas firms with significant renewable energy divisions – which include supermajors like Shell, BP and Total. This is touted as allowing the Fund to ride the crest of the renewable energy wave, but also manages to neatly fit into the image that Norway wants to project: balancing a major industry with being a responsible environmental steward. It’s the same reason why Equinor – in which the Fund holds a 67% stake – changed its name from Statoil, to project a broader spectrum of business away from oil into emerging energies like wind and solar. Because, as the Fund’s objective states, one day the oil will run out. But its value will carry on for future generations.
The Norway Oil Fund in a Nutshell