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Last Updated: March 28, 2017
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Marine & Offshore
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A Bloomberg analyst pointed out that the recent share market rally in Singapore was underpinned by stocks of ship and oil rig-makers, despite the sectors’ fundamentals being weak. The rally, he concluded, was floating on a bit of foam.

Since the crash of oil prices in late 2014, the Singapore offshore services and engineering industry has been hit hard. Anticipating that the good times would continue – always a fallacy – all the capital expenditure and debt incurred from oil’s boom over 2009-2014 came back to haunt the sector after upstream work dried up in the past two years.

Singapore, being the nexus of much of the rig-building, offshore vessel and mechanical engineering contracting in Asia, has been hit the hardest. It came with a delay; the hope was that oil prices recover in 2016 after plunging in early 2015, but that never came. So when Swiber Holdings declared bankruptcy last August, it was a surprise to no one in the industry. In such a downturn, there are always casualties, and other companies – Swissco, Ezion Holdings, KrisEnergy – were also facing critical times. Debt holders of these companies, mainly Singapore banks, had to take a haircut. In response, the financial industry tightened up its portfolios while the Singapore government pledged to aid the industry, but stopped short to bailing the companies out.

The saga continued last week. Industry darling Ezra Holdings – once worth US$2 billion – filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the USA. The international filing is unusual, but it does offer legal and enforcement action protection worldwide, as it attempts to restructure. Also declaring Chapter 11 are related entities Ezra Marine Services and EMAS IT Solution, and possibly also circling the drain is Ezra Holdings’ debt-ridden subsidiary Emas Chiyoda Subsea, which owes the former some US$170 million. Ezra Holdings’ last published earnings declared losses of US$339.6 million, with US$1.51 billion of liabilities. Court filings show that its 20 largest creditors are owed some US$600 million; one – Norwegian shipowner Forland Subsea AS – has agreed not to pursue to repayment of a defaulted charter payment, but the rest are not being so patient.

As Ezra Holdings battles to survive, new concerns over the health of the industry have been cast. Though some argue that Ezra was poorly managed and over leveraged to begin with, it may not be reflective of all other players in the industry. However, investors seem sanguine for now. The banks, for example, have already identified Ezra as a threat, with DBS moving its US$270 debt owed to ‘non-performing’ while OCBC has been stress-testing the sector since Q32015. The financial industry, by and large, has already reduced its exposure to this murky pool, but turbulence beneath the surface still threatens the industry itself. Analysts and auditors are already looking for the next trouble – with Malaysian vessel builder Nam Cheong, Singapore’s Loyz Energy and Rickmers Maritime named as potential threats. Yet, there are those that are hunting for a bargain – British engineering specialists Subsea 7 has expressed interest in purchasing Ezra Holdings assets, as well as those of its embattled joint venture Emas Chiyoda Subsea.

With oil prices having recovered somewhat, the forecast might be brighter, but brace yourself, there are still squalls to come as the upstream industry further consolidates and reinvents itself. Oil companies are putting a lot more cost pressure across their supply chain, and offshore marine contractors are not excluded from this picture. Previous charters rates will certainly not re-appear in the medium terms at least hence the business model of vessel owners will need serious tweaking. Those willing innovate and put their re-engineering skills to use, may look at diversifying their business into offshore renewable energy and other seabed mining sectors. 

Easwaran Kanason

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High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

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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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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