The first quarter of 2018 has proven to be a continuation of an upswing that settled in over 2017, at least according to the financial results of the supermajors. Aggressive cost-cutting from the past paired with a consistent rise in crude prices over the first quarter has contributed to revenue and net profit gains across the board.
In London, BP announced its highest profits in years, with net profits jumping to US$2.59 billion, even as the company continues to be burdened by payments over the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe from 2010. But investors still reacted well to the numbers, with BP’s share price reaching its highest levels since 2010 and it named a new chairman – Statoil’s Helge Lund – who will be tasked to continue this streak of growth. Fellow European supermajor Total continued its winning streak, beating expectations in both revenue and net profits, as did Shell, where net profits jumped 42% to US$5.32 billion. In fact, Shell has beaten the industry’s behemoth – ExxonMobil – in net profits for the past three quarters. ExxonMobil missed analyst expectations narrowly once again in the first quarter, although its US$4.7 billion net profit is nothing to be sniffed at. Yet, ExxonMobil shares remain on the downswing, with industry perception that new CEO Darren Woods have overseen a recovery that remains weaker than Shell’s and even Chevron’s.
The rise continues across the rest of the industry. Profits at Schlumberger are up 88%, promising a recovery in the service sector. Even Pemex, that beleaguered Mexican state oil firm, reported a 29% jump in net profits to US$6 billion. The impetus for the improvement has been rising crude prices, which averaged US$63/b over Q118 compared to US$53/b over Q117. In most cases, the magnitude of net profit increase has been matched by similar growth in revenue – which is a sign that the crude price rally is behind much of the profit gains. With crude prices trending even higher in Q218, industry financials are due for an even better quarter, though it is still too early to declare that the good times have come back for good.
Still, with numbers firmly in the black, analysts and investors are turning their eye towards more granular data to gauge performance. In this case, cash flow. Hoping that the increased profits will be passed on to shareholders through share buybacks, investors have rewarded firms that are embarking on buybacks – BP, Total – and punished those that have shied away. Shell’s share prices were hammered after it announced it was not proceeding with a US$25 billion stock repurchase program yet, and ExxonMobil still has no intention of returning to generous buybacks as of yet. The latter two argue that more work needs to be done to fortify operational foundations, but it seems that investors are getting impatient and want to be rewarded for their patience since 2015.
From a long term investment perspective, Reuters reports that “ investors remain wary that oil demand may peak due to eventual mass adoption of battery-powered cars and more curbs on fossil fuel emissions by industry to meet environmental targets. Some are hedging their bets, buying shares in battery companies and chipmakers involved in making electric cars while lessening their exposure to pure oil plays. But the shift to cleaner energy doesn’t necessarily mean investors are dumping the oil majors. Many are sticking with them but favouring companies which put more emphasis on renewables”. This seems to indicate that investors are still keen a growth story, that is sustainable from a long term perspective.
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International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.
First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.
For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.
The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.
So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.
For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.
How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.
End of Article
- Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b
- Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption
- This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule
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