The spread between the world’s two benchmark crude oil markers – Brent and WTI – is currently hovering at US$6/b. This is the widest gap between the two for a long while, first breaching the tight US$2/b spread range since 2015 in the run up to Hurricane Harvey as traders fretted that widespread refinery closures along the US Gulf would impact US crude consumption.
Those refineries have come back online, but the spread is still persisting. It is so large that India’s Reliance – an opportunistic buyer if there was any – bought a massive million barrel cargo of US crude oil last week. All across Asia, key buyers are taking advantage of this new arbitrage window to stock up on (cheaper) American crude, some for the very first time. Indian refiners – notably state refiners IndianOil, HPCL and BPCL – are leading the way, with buyers from South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore also in the fray. Chinese activity is still minor, but one has to imagine they can’t be that far behind.
When the Brent-WTI spread hit its all time high at US$28/b in September 2011, there was a similar enthusiasm for US crude. Volumes then, however, weren’t readily available. The WTI discount to Brent then was because oil generated from the burgeoning US shale revolution was trapped in Cushing, Oklahoma – the main price settling point for WTI – at a time when global demand was soaring. In other words, the discount was due to the inability of sufficient WTI volumes to make it into the wider market. The oil was there, but midstream infrastructure to ship it to Houston and from there to the wider world, was inadequate. A rush to expand existing pipelines and build new ones – transportation by train was even used at one point to clear volumes – occurred, and when it did by 2014, the Brent-WTI spread had decreased. The lifting of the US crude export ban in 2015 narrowed things even further, to a range of US$2-3/b.
In 2017, that lack of infrastructure is no longer there. Supply has caught up with the ability to meet demand, and as US oil exports soared, WTI prices have closed the gap with Brent, which is used as the main international marker, including Middle Eastern grades. In such a competitive scenario, we would expect both benchmarks to move towards parity.
But even before Hurricane Harvey reared its head, the Brent-WTI spread was already growing. The circumstances this time are different. On the Brent side, there is a ‘fear premium’ being priced in; tensions in the Middle East – between Qatar and the rest of GCC, tensions between Iraq and its Kurdish province – have been raising the spectre of supply disruptions. More significant though is that on the WTI side, there is now once again an abundance of supply. But unlike before, that supply can make it to market. Which is why we are seeing such strong volumes of US crude exports. Some six million barrels are earmarked to be shipped from the US to Asia for November so far; up from usual monthly shipments of 2-3 million barrels. The cheap prices are enticing, but Asian refiners are being forced to look further afield for crude as OPEC and some non-OPEC sellers have been cutting availability as part of their supply freeze.
US crude exports reached an all-time weekly high at the end of September. That jump in demand should naturally reduce the spread. The Brent physical market is tight, meaning that Brent’s strength is not artificial but demand driven. A break towards US$60/b appears possible soon. But a look over the future curve indicates that the current Brent-WTI spread will persist through October 2018, having doubled since May 2017. This suggests that the sheer amount of supply coming out of the US will negate demand drivers to keep WTI significantly lower than Brent, where supply is a lot steadier.
That’s good news for Asian buyers, as the avenue of cheaper US crude remains open to them for far longer. With OPEC likely to extend, or even deepen, the supply freeze beyond the current deadline of March 2018, Brent-linked crude volumes will be in short supply. The distance from Houston to Yokohama, Singapore or even Paradip is vast - VLCCs have to go through the Suez as the Panama Canal is too narrow – but at current and projected spreads, well worth the distance.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 November 2019 – Brent: US$62/b; WTI: US$56/b
Headlines of the week
The year’s final upstream auctions were touted as a potential bonanza for Brazil, with pre-auction estimates suggesting that up to US$50 billion could be raised for some deliciously-promising blocks. The Financial Times expected it to be the ‘largest oil bidding round in history’. The previous auction – held in October – was a success, attracting attention from supermajors and new entrants, including Malaysia’s Petronas. Instead, the final two auctions in November were a complete flop, with only three of the nine major blocks awarded.
What happened? What happened to the appetite displayed by international players such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Total and BP in October? The fields on offer are certainly tempting, located in the prolific pre-salt basin and including prized assets such as the Buzios, Itapu, Sepia and Atapu fields. Collectively, the fields could contain as much as 15 billion barrels of crude oil. Time-to-market is also shorter; much of the heavy work has already been done by Petrobras during the period where it was the only firm allowed to develop Brazil’s domestic pre-salt fields. But a series of corruption scandals and a new government has necessitated a widening of that ambition, by bringing in foreign expertise and, more crucially, foreign money. But the fields won’t come cheap. In addition to signing bonuses to be paid to the Brazilian state ranging from US$331 million to US$17 billion by field, compensation will need to be paid to Petrobras. The auction isn’t a traditional one, but a Transfer of Rights sale covering existing in-development and producing fields.
And therein lies the problem. The massive upfront cost of entry comes at a time when crude oil prices are moderating and the future outlook of the market is uncertain, with risks of trade wars, economic downturns and a move towards clean energy. The fact that the compensation to be paid to Petrobras would be negotiated post-auction was another blow, as was the fact that the auction revolved around competing on the level of profit oil offered to the Brazilian government. Prior to the auction itself, this arrangement was criticised as overtly complicated and ‘awful’, with Petrobras still retaining the right of first refusal to operate any pre-salt fields A simple concession model was suggested as a better alternative, and the stunning rebuke by international oil firms at the auction is testament to that. The message is clear. If Brazil wants to open up for business, it needs to leave behind its legacy of nationalisation and protectionism centring around Petrobras. In an ironic twist, the only fields that were awarded went to Petrobras-led consortiums – essentially keeping it in the family.
There were signs that it was going to end up this way. ExxonMobil – so enthusiastic in the October auction – pulled out of partnering with Petrobras for Buzios, balking at the high price tag despite the field currently producing at 400,000 b/d. But the full-scale of the reticence revealed flaws in Brazil’s plans, with state officials admitting to being ‘stunned’ by the lack of participation. Comments seem to suggest that Brazil will now re-assess how it will offer the fields when they go up for sale again next year, promising to take into account the reasons that scared international majors off in the first place. Some US$17 billion was raised through the two days of auction – not an insignificant amount but a far cry from the US$50 billion expected. The oil is there. Enough oil to vault Brazil’s production from 3 mmb/d to 7 mmb/d by 2030. All Brazil needs to do now is create a better offer to tempt the interested parties.
Results of Brazil’s November upstream auctions:
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