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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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
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