Brent plunged nearly 6% from its 42-month high settle of $79.80 at the beginning of the week after the energy ministers of Saudi Arabia and Russia, de facto leaders of the OPEC and non-OPEC producers cutting output, said on May 25 that they had agreed on the need to raise supply by 1 million b/d. The market had been overly squeezed due to unintended output reductions in recent months and crude prices were overheated, was the shared view from their meeting in St. Petersburg.
However, by mid-week, doubts set in that all the OPEC and non-OPEC ministers were on board with the idea and would agree to ease the cuts when they meet in Vienna on June 22. The combined curbs by OPEC and its 10 non-OPEC collaborators, aimed at suppressing about 1.72 million b/d of supply, are currently valid until the end of December 2018.
The doubt not only arrested crude’s sell-off, but also prompted a nervous market to quickly rebuild some length — albeit in Brent, not WTI.
By Thursday’s market close, front-month ICE Brent futures had clawed back more than half of their $4.50/barrel drop from the 42-month peak but not WTI, which clung to its losses. The WTI/Brent spread blew out to more than minus $10/barrel, the widest since the US lifted its crude export restrictions in December 2015. There are forces at work on both ends — WTI is being weighed down by surging US supply running against pipeline capacity constraints, especially in the Permian region, while Brent is being propped up by an over-tightened OPEC production and an anticipated crimping of Iranian supply under US sanctions.
The OPEC/non-OPEC meeting later this month will likely be a contentious one, unless a consensus is forged in advance during closed-door negotiations, in which case those would be tough as well. The oil ministers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait were reportedly due to meet in Kuwait City this weekend to discuss production policy.
We expect the cuts to be relaxed, likely starting from July 1. With several producers in both camps unable to sustainably increase production, it could end up being an unconventional arrangement, involving bigger contributions by Russia and Saudi Arabia. The proposed 1 million b/d increment is conservative, in our view, as close to 1.5 million b/d has been removed from the market due to unavoidable declines in Venezuela, Mexico, Angola, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan as well as outages in Nigeria and Libya in recent months.
However, OPEC now probably has more price hawks than ever before, keen to preserve crude’s price gains and to prevent the market from tipping into oversupply again. These members could negotiate down the quantum of increase or push for phased hikes.
As the anxiety levels in Tehran continue to rise, it has been pushing the Europeans and even OPEC for support against US sanctions, while furiously lobbying its crude buyers to stay put. But China and India, the biggest buyers of Iranian crude, are prepared to cut back, anticipating major shipping insurance and payment problems.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 February 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
Midstream & Downstream
Global liquid fuels
Electricity, coal, renewables, and emissions
2018 was a year that started with crude prices at US$62/b and ended at US$46/b. In between those two points, prices had gently risen up to peak of US$80/b as the oil world worried about the impact of new American sanctions on Iran in September before crashing down in the last two months on a rising tide of American production. What did that mean for the financial health of the industry over the last quarter and last year?
Nothing negative, it appears. With the last of the financial results from supermajors released, the world’s largest oil firms reported strong profits for Q418 and blockbuster profits for the full year 2018. Despite the blip in prices, the efforts of the supermajors – along with the rest of the industry – to keep costs in check after being burnt by the 2015 crash has paid off.
ExxonMobil, for example, may have missed analyst expectations for 4Q18 revenue at US$71.9 billion, but reported a better-than-expected net profit of US$6 billion. The latter was down 28% y-o-y, but the Q417 figure included a one-off benefit related to then-implemented US tax reform. Full year net profit was even better – up 5.7% to US$20.8 billion as upstream production rose to 4.01 mmboe/d – allowing ExxonMobil to come close to reclaiming its title of the world’s most profitable oil company.
But for now, that title is still held by Shell, which managed to eclipse ExxonMobil with full year net profits of US$21.4 billion. That’s the best annual results for the Anglo-Dutch firm since 2014; product of the deep and painful cost-cutting measures implemented after. Shell’s gamble in purchasing the BG Group for US$53 billion – which sparked a spat of asset sales to pare down debt – has paid off, with contributions from LNG trading named as a strong contributor to financial performance. Shell’s upstream output for 2018 came in at 3.78 mmb/d and the company is also looking to follow in the footsteps of ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP in the Permian, where it admits its footprint is currently ‘a bit small’.
Shell’s fellow British firm BP also reported its highest profits since 2014, doubling its net profits for the full year 2018 on a 65% jump in 4Q18 profits. It completes a long recovery for the firm, which has struggled since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, allowing it to focus on the future – specifically US shale through the recent US$10.5 billion purchase of BHP’s Permian assets. Chevron, too, is focusing on onshore shale, as surging Permian output drove full year net profit up by 60.8% and 4Q18 net profit up by 19.9%. Chevron is also increasingly focusing on vertical integration again – to capture the full value of surging Texas crude by expanding its refining facilities in Texas, just as ExxonMobil is doing in Beaumont. French major Total’s figures may have been less impressive in percentage terms – but that it is coming from a higher 2017 base, when it outperformed its bigger supermajor cousins.
So, despite the year ending with crude prices in the doldrums, 2018 seems to be proof of Big Oil’s ability to better weather price downturns after years of discipline. Some of the control is loosening – major upstream investments have either been sanctioned or planned since 2018 – but there is still enough restraint left over to keep the oil industry in the black when trends turn sour.
Supermajor Net Profits for 4Q18 and 2018
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$6 billion (-28%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$20.8 (+5.7%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$5.69 billion (+32.3%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$21.4 billion (+36%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.73 billion (+19.9%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$14.8 billion (+60.8%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.48 billion (+65%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$12.7 billion (+105%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.88 billion (+16%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$13.6 billion (+28%)