Two months ago, the crude oil market was abuzz with chatter that US$100/b oil was imminent. Fuelled by worries over the impact of American sanctions on Iranian crude exports, industry powerhouses from Glencore to JP Morgan to BP predicted that Brent would hit US$90/b by Christmas, and breach the three digit mark in Q12019. With just over a month to Christmas, Brent is now trading at US$65/b and WTI maintaining its steady discount at US$55/b. How did the market get it so wrong?
The main lynchpin is supply. Just as the sanctions went into effect on November 3, the USA issued surprise waivers to 8 key importers of Iranian crude, including China, India and South Korea. This had been bandied about in the lead up to November 3, with South Korea even eschewing all Iranian crude in September and India cutting down dramatically to qualify. The scope of the waivers was larger than expected, despite American rhetoric that the sanctions would be ‘tougher’ than Obama-era measures. Ostensibly, the waivers were issued due to the market being ‘fragile’, but also it also acknowledges the reality that it will be impossible to remove all Iranian crude trade without causing a supply crunch. So instead of reducing Iran’s exports ‘to zero’, the White House seems to have settled on reducing it to 1 mmb/d or so.
At the same time, President Trump’s Twitter demands that OPEC increase its supply was heeded. Saudi Arabia claimed that OPEC was in a ‘pump as much as we can’ mode, with the Kingdom’s crude exports rising to record highs, along with that other large producer Russia. With increased supply from OPEC more than offsetting losses in Iran, the market swung from fears of a supply crunch to oversupply. On November 13, Brent dropped by almost US$5/b as market dynamics changed course; it wasn’t just supply growing, but also demand retreating, as warned by the EIA and IEA. OPEC also commented that it was seeing ‘declining demand for its crude’, revising its demand forecast downwards for the fourth month in a row – news that spooked traders in the market, especially given that China’s overall economic growth is also slowing down.
So crude oil benchmarks are now trading at nearly 20% lower than they were a month ago. That’s officially a bear market. What happens next?
Probably to the chagrin of Donald Trump – although the issue is less vital now that American midterm elections are over – Saudi Arabia is looking to make a U-turn, proposing an output cut of some 1mmb/d ahead of the OPEC meeting in Vienna in two weeks. Other allies within the OPEC+ circle are less keen on changing course, with Russia stating that producers should look to avoid knee jerk reactions to momentary price signals. That said, Vladimir Putin has also stated that oil at ‘US$70/b suits us completely’, a sentiment echoed across OPEC. So instead of taming prices, OPEC now has the onerous task to propping them up. But it’ll be easier said than done; the current glut in the crude market is for light, sweet grades, not the heavier, sourer crudes produced by OPEC.
Will it happen? Yes, it will. Producers have gotten used to US$70/b oil and with signs showing that Brent could fall as low as US$60/b in the next few weeks, they will be eager to shore things up. The slate of new upstream projects approved in the second half of 2018 require relatively strong crude prices to be economic. US$80/b oil might be too high, US$60/b oil might be too low, but US$70/b oil seems just right. And now it is up to OPEC+ to see if they can convince the market to return to that point.
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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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