Oil is on the defensive again, retracing from resistance in recent days amid bearish U.S.-centric data of rampant production increases. Despite the Good Friday holiday, we get the EIA inventory report at the usual time tomorrow, but for now, hark, here are six things to consider in oil markets today:
1) As oil prices based on the Dubai-Oman benchmark remain more expensive than U.S.-based WTI, Latin American crude continues to be pulled towards Asia. This is displacing other flows, translating into lower U.S. imports. We are over halfway through the month, and imports from Central and South America are at the slowest monthly pace on our records.
Our ClipperData show that imports this month continue to drop from Brazil and Colombia, while Ecuadorian grades, Napo and Oriente, are completely absent. Only Venezuelan grades are showing strength versus the month prior:
2) The latest monthly IEA report has been interpreted as somewhat downbeat, despite the prognostication that 'the market is already very close to balance'. This is because demand growth has been adjusted lower by 200,000 bpd in Q1, and by 100,000 bpd for 2017 on the whole, to +1.3mn bpd.
While Asian fuel demand has been the backbone of oil demand growth for many a year, signs of stuttering from various parts of the region - including South Korea, Japan and India - means demand growth may not be as robust as we have come to expect.
The second piece of the puzzle is inventories. The agency reported that OECD oil and product stocks fell by a mere 8.1 million barrels in February after January's rise. This leaves them at 3.055 billion (beeelion) barrels, some 330 million barrels above the 5-year average (aka, the normalized level that is the goal of the OPEC production cuts).
Including the IEA's estimate for March, it projects that inventories still climbed on the aggregate through the first quarter of the year, up by 38.5 million barrels:
3) Yesterday's feature on NPR's Texas Standard addressed the issue of fracking sand, and how it is in a bull market. The interview can be found here, while here are some of the sand stats quoted:
--Fracking sand is used as a proppant in hydraulic fracturing, to hold open tiny fissures for oil and gas to pass through
--A total of 54 million tons of fracking sand were used in the U.S. in 2014. Demand is projected to rise to 80 million tons this year, and to 120 million tons in 2018
--Typically the fracking sector has been dominated by silica sand from Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well as from Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. But as more fracking sand is needed in Texas, more mines are starting up
--Nearly 20 times more sand is used per well compared to the peak of the last energy boom
--The largest wells now consume up to 25,000 tons, compared to from 1,500 tons in 2014
--It can take up to 1,000 truck loads to haul enough sand to frack a single large well
4) While so much focus remains on the oil boom in the Permian basin, it is important to note that according to the latest EIA drilling productivity report, natural gas production in the basin is set to reach a new milestone, clambering over 8 Bcf/d. This has prompted Blackstone Group LP to takeover EagleClaw Midstream Ventures for $2 billion. As crude production rises in the basin, more 'associated gas' is produced as a biproduct. With demand for natural gas set to continue on its upward trajectory due to a number of factors - power generation, industrial demand, pipeline and LNG exports - the future is looking bright for the Permian, for both oil and gas.
5) While on the topic of the Permian, the chart below is part of a study of 37 U.S. E&P companies by Bloomberg, showing that 32 of the 37 companies have hedged part of their production for 2017. As for Permian-focused companies, they have hedged 64 percent of their expected oil production for this year...and at a weighted average price of $49.43/bbl to boot. As efficiencies improve in the basin, a hedged price of around $50/bbl appears an attractive option. Only 21 of 37 have hedged anticipated production for 2018.
6) Finally, this piece out on RBN Energy references ClipperData, and how we are counting cargoes and using port agents to identify the quantity, type and quality of crude that is being imported into the U.S. on an almost real-time basis.
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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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