Crude ended the week on a high note — with Brent closing above $67/ barrel and WTI above $63 — as sentiment in the global financial markets continued to recover from a fresh jolt Wednesday. US stocks gained the most at Friday’s market close after equities in Europe and Asia made modest recoveries. However, stocks remain vulnerable to volatility and more sell-off, which we expect to be mirrored in crude. Bullish bets by speculators in ICE Brent and NYMEX WTI crude futures dropped consistently from a record high in the two weeks to February 20 but remain well above historical norms.
Crude began reconnecting with its own fundamentals this week as the financial markets appeared to be consolidating after the previous two weeks’ extreme volatility. But the unease around inflation and interest rates, which maintained pressure on equities, was a driver in the crude markets too. This was especially evident in the intraday price movements of Brent and WTI futures round the clock, which were often in sync with the movements in the respective region’s stock indexes.
Understanding the ongoing relationship between the turmoil that racked the financial markets across the world starting February 2 and crude prices is important. As long as the financial markets remain volatile — current signals suggest continued turbulence — we see the linkage remaining intact. That means looking at just the usual oil price drivers will yield only part of the picture. The US dollar has re-established a strong inverse correlation with crude prices since December and will also be buffeted by the shifting expectations on interest rate hikes. That offers another reason to keep a close watch on the financial markets.
Fears over a more hawkish Fed re-emerged following the release Wednesday of the minutes of the January Federal Open Market Committee meeting. The minutes showed several members of the Fed policy-making body had revised up their forecasts for economic growth in the US and elsewhere in the near term compared with their outlook in the December 2017 meeting. The market interpreted that as bullish and confirming expectations of three quarter-point interest rate hikes by the Fed through 2018.
The benchmark US 2-year Treasury yield closed at 2.26% Wednesday, its highest in nearly a decade, and the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average indexes tumbled. The dollar closed at its highest level in a week. Brent settled a mild 17 cents higher on the day, while WTI eased 22 cents.
Crude climbed 1.5-1.8% Thursday after the US Energy Information Administration reported a surprise decline of nearly 1.62 million barrels in commercial crude inventories in the country for the week to February 16. However, Brent and WTI futures were alternating between green and red in intraday trading Friday, moving in step with the mood in each region’s stock markets, before being led to a strong finish by a rally in the US stocks.
Understand the mechanics of oil pricing. Learn how global benchmark oil prices are set and how that information percolates down to the price tag at the petrol pump.
Attend "What Determines the Price of Oil" - https://goo.gl/fz3YrL with Vandana Hari this March 2018 in Singapore
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Less than two weeks ago, the VLCC Navarin arrived at Tanjung Pengerang, at the southern end of Peninsular Malaysia. It was carrying two million barrels of crude oil, split equally between Saudi Arab Medium and Iraqi Basra Light grades.
The RAPID refinery in Johor. An equal joint partnership between Malaysia’s Petronas and Saudi Aramco whose 300 kb/d mega refinery is nearing completion. Once questioned for its economic viability, RAPID is now scheduled to start up in early 2019, entering a market that is still booming and in demand of the higher quality, Euro IV and Euro V level fuels RAPID will produce.
Beyond fuel products, RAPID will also have massive petrochemical capacity. Meant to come on online at a later date, RAPID will have a collective capacity of some 7.7 million tons per annum of differentiated and specialty chemicals, including 3 mtpa of propylene. To be completed in stages, Petronas nonetheless projects that it will add some 3.3 million tons of petrochemicals to the Asia market by the end of next year. That’s blockbuster numbers, and it will elevate Petronas’ stature in downstream, bringing more international appeal to a refining network previously focused mainly on Malaysia. For its partner Saudi Aramco, RAPID is part of a multi-pronged strategy of investing mega refineries in key parts of the world, to diversify its business and ensure demand for its crude flows as it edges towards an IPO.
RAPID won’t be alone. Vietnam’s second refinery – the 200 kb/d Nghi Son – has finally started up this year after multiple delays. And in the same timeframe as RAPID, the Zhejiang refinery by Rongsheng Petro Chemical and the Dalian refinery by Hengli Petrochemical in China are both due to start up. At 400 kb/d each, that could add 1.1 mmb/d of new refining capacity in Asia within 1H19. And there’s more coming. Hengli’s Pulau Muara Besar project in Brunei is also aiming for a 2019 start, potentially adding another 175 kb/d of capacity. And just like RAPID, each of these new or recent projects has substantial petrochemical capacity planned.
That’s okay for now, since demand remains strong. But the danger is that this could all unravel. With American sanctions on Iran due to kick in November, even existing refineries are fleeing from contributing to Tehran in favour of other crude grades. The new refineries will be entering a tight market that could become even tighter. RAPID can rely on Saudi Arabia and Nghi Son can depend on Kuwait, both the Chinese projects are having to scramble to find alternate supplies for their designed diet of heavy sour crude. This race to find supplies has already sent Brent prices to four-year highs, and most in the industry are already predicting that crude oil prices will rise to US$100/b by the year’s end. At prices like this, demand destruction begins and the current massive growth – fuelled by cheap oil prices – could come to an end. The market can rapidly change again, and by the end of this decade, Asia could be swirling with far more oil products that it can handle.
Upcoming and recent Asia refineries:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 8 October 2018 – Brent: US$84/b; WTI: US$74/b
Headlines of the week
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
As domestic production continues to increase, the average density of crude oil produced in the United States continues to become lighter. The average API gravity—a measure of a crude oil’s density where higher numbers mean lower density—of U.S. crude oil increased in 2017 and through the first six months of 2018. Crude oil production with an API gravity greater than 40 degrees grew by 310,000 barrels per day (b/d) to more than 4.6 million b/d in 2017. This increase represents 53% of total Lower 48 production in 2017, an increase from 50% in 2015, the earliest year for which EIA has oil production data by API gravity.
API gravity is measured as the inverse of the density of a petroleum liquid relative to water. The higher the API gravity, the lower the density of the petroleum liquid, meaning lighter oils have higher API gravities. The increase in light crude oil production is the result of the growth in crude oil production from tight formations enabled by improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Along with sulfur content, API gravity determines the type of processing needed to refine crude oil into fuel and other petroleum products, all of which factor into refineries’ profits. Overall U.S. refining capacity is geared toward a diverse range of crude oil inputs, so it can be uneconomic to run some refineries solely on light crude oil. Conversely, it is impossible to run some refineries on heavy crude oil without producing significant quantities of low-valued heavy products such as residual fuel.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production
API gravity can differ greatly by production area. For example, oil produced in Texas—the largest crude oil-producing state—has a relatively broad distribution of API gravities with most production ranging from 30 to 50 degrees API. However, crude oil with API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees accounted for the largest share of Texas production, at 55%, in 2017. This category was also the fastest growing, reaching 1.9 million b/d, driven by increasing production in the tight oil plays of the Permian and Eagle Ford.
Oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken formation also tends to be less dense and lighter. About 90% of North Dakota’s 2017 crude oil production had an API gravity of 40 to 50 degrees. The oil coming from the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) tends to be more dense and heavier. More than 34% of the crude oil produced in the GOM in 2017 had an API gravity of lower than 30 degrees and 65% had an API gravity of 30 to 40 degrees.
In contrast to the increasing production of light crude oil in the United States, imported crude oil continues to be heavier. In 2017, 7.6 million b/d (96%) of imported crude oil had an API gravity of 40 or below, compared with 4.2 million b/d (48%) of domestic production.
EIA collects API gravity production data by state in the monthly crude oil and natural gas production report as well as crude oil quality by company level imports to better inform analysis of refinery inputs and utilization, crude oil trade, and regional crude oil pricing. API gravity is also projected to continue changing: EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2018 Reference case projects that U.S. oil production from tight formations will continue to increase in the coming decades.