The China factor card has been playing heavily in the markets these couple of months. Is China growing or stagnating, seems to be the million dollar question. Will the world’s second biggest economy continue to be a factor in the market?
The remarkable growth of oil demand, and indeed the world economy, since year 2000 can be summed up in a single word: China. A country of nearly 1.4 billion people, the rapid development of China in manufacturing and industry has made it the factory to the world and the fastest growing middle class as well. Flushed with wealth, the Chinese have bought cars and houses, travelled far and wide, underpinning an amazing boom in oil demand that jumped from just over 4 million b/d in 2000, to some 11 million b/d in 2015.
Where do we go from here? Chinese oil demand growth has been attributed as the reason for many things – US$100/b oil, regular smog in Beijing – but to expect it to continue at 10% growth rates indefinitely was always a fallacy. A slowdown was always coming, and has already happened. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t growth anymore, it just means the percentage gains aren’t as impressive numerically anymore, even though the absolute growth in numbers might be large.
China has a habit of wanting to do things itself. Chinese pride means the country will eventually want to be energy self-sufficient. It does not produce enough crude oil to feed its ravenous industrial belly, but instead of relying on imports, it is buying into foreign upstream assets strategically in hostile environments in African and the Middle East. Instead of importing refined oil products, it built its own massive refineries, including private teapot refineries that were allowed to import crude individually last year, becoming a net exporter in the process. It does not want to face crude shortage shocks, so it is filing up its massive strategic petroleum reserves. On this same vein, China is also looking to be a less hydrocarbon intensive in its future energy growth. High pollution problems in major cities have consistently been a political thorn and embarrassment to China’s shinning economic success. It has since embarked on a massive renewable energy initiative like no other country, optimising on its cheap manufacturing capability of solar panels and wind turbines.
So with a maturing, but still growing economy, and a massive build-up of domestic energy infrastructure, China now exerts influence in world oil markets in a different way now. Instead of being an ambitious upstart, it is now a calculating doyenne. The answer to China’s growth is no longer a simple equation of feeding booming demand, it is now a complex solution of strategic policies, acquiring assets and tactical partnerships. All this will need to be baked into the price curves for crude oil and upstream production; Chinese influence isn’t waning, it still carries a very large chunk of world demand. In 2030, Chinese oil demand will have probably risen only to 15-16 million b/d, hardly the tripling of the past 15 years, but within that gain is a huge array of development in quality, efficiency and utility.
Is there any country that can take China’s place, to replace it as a driver of demand? The immediate short answer is No.
However India is an obvious choice. India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Dharmendra Pradhan spoke to a group of investors this July 2016 proclaiming that “If you invest in India’s oil and gas sector, you will find that you have a market right here, and you don’t have to invest in export infrastructure”. Reflecting India’s has a vast domestic appetite for more hydrocarbon growth potential in the coming years. But despite its potential size, the very nature of its politics, government and private enterprise means it still lacks the top-down savvy of China to really drive growth in a sustained and controlled manner. Brazil is floundering in every way possible, and Russia is getting more isolated. None of the so-called ‘Next 11’ countries are big enough to ‘do a China’.
The Chinese oil miracle is a once in a generation event – much like post-WWII Europe and Japan in the 70s – and we are now in the flatter part of the future curve of oil demand. We may not yet have hit peak oil, but the Chinese boom is certainly one of the final basecamps before the summit. We need to accept this new reality.
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Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.
A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.
Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.
Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.
And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.
That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.
Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.
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