After a rise, must come a fall. Chinese refinery runs in June 2017 reached the second highest level on record, jumping to 11.21 mmbpd, up from 10.98 mmbpd in May 2017 and up 2.3% y-o-y. Two of the highest monthly output statistics have occurred in the last nine months, the absolute highest being 11.26 mmbpd in December 2016. That’s a lot of fuel products sloshing around China, as the country moves into peak summer demand.
Possibly a little too much. Oil markets were roiled earlier this week as China announced its July production numbers. Output fell to 10.71 mmbpd, down by 500,000 barrels from June though marginally higher y-o-y by 0.4%. In absolute terms, that’s still a massive amount of fuel products. But lack of growth always spooks traders, particularly when China is involved, and that sent Brent and WTI some US$2/b lower. There was talk about how Chinese demand is slowing down, driving bearish concerns that the global supply glut will grow.
There is probably a small kernel of truth in that. Chinese demand has been slowing down, in relative growth terms. But that’s largely because larger growth jumps are harder to come by at higher levels of development - the potential for double digit growth has passed on to India; but even a 2% jump in Chinese demand is still massive in absolute terms, requiring an additional 1 million tons per month – or four more VLCCs. What is actually happening in China, however, is the same problem happening globally – oversupply.
Looking over data from the first six months of 2017, the jumps in crude throughput are linked to a recent phenomenon of independent ‘teapot’ refiners. Allowed to import crude for the first time last year, these private players have been responsible for the recent sterling growth in Chinese output. In the months where new import quotas in 2017 were granted, Chinese throughput soared. In the months when there were jitters about the quotas being granted, throughput was flat. Chinese state refiners have largely kept their throughputs flat y-o-y; all the growth has been from the teapots this year.
Perhaps too much growth. Less driven by concerns of national balances and more on immediate profits, it produced a major oversupply of fuels in China. Many of the teapots are petrochemical players, more interested in the naphtha portion of refining production, but still produce great amounts of gasoline and diesel in the process. Inventories reached record levels and even strong demand entering summer could not sap that. Much of this had been anticipated by the state refiners – they announced in June that some 10% of capacity will be shut down for maintenance in Q3, a necessary move to trim the overhang. Teapot production, however, may very well continue to max. Which is why the state refiners are also waging a war on two fronts with the independents – commercially, through a retail price war for market share that began in May, and institutionally, by lobbying the Chinese Politiburo to impose controls on the teapots as well as investigate them for tax and financial irregularities.
In many ways, this is the growing pains of the Chinese market developing. The teapots were allowed to flourish in China’s attempt to introduce competition in the refining industry. In a free market, this is what happens. Without the overarching national concerns that PetroChina and Sinopec face, the teapots’ approach to the industry to maximise profits. This development is symptomatic of nothing more than the Chinese refining industry adjusted to a new equilibrium. That’s the trouble with the free market sometimes – it will correct itself, but oftentimes it takes a little pain to get there. Even if that little pain is more drag on global crude prices.
P.S. for continuity of investments in the energy industry, making the right choices are key for future success. Read more about Scenario planning and the so what question a recent blog post by Henk Krijnen. Henk Krijnen will be in Kuala Lumpur this October 2017, presenting a very timely "Masterclass on Scenario Planning for Decision Making in the Energy Industry". Find out more https://goo.gl/tauq5x. If you are too busy during this period, check out our training series on “Training to Navigate Uncertainty in Oil & Gas”
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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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