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Last Updated: December 20, 2018
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The decline in oil prices since the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2018 is of similar magnitude to the fourth-quarter price decline in 2014. After the fourth-quarter 2014 price decline, prices dropped further in 2015 amid high volatility for several years, which contributed to bankruptcies, consolidations, and closures within the industry. When comparing the financial positions of U.S. oil producers as of the third quarter of 2018 with the third quarter of 2014, most measures of profitability and balance sheet fitness indicate companies should be able to weather the recent price downturn. Oil price volatility and uncertainty remain high, however, and financial pressures could increase if prices continue to decline.

The percentage price decline from the beginning of the fourth quarter of 2018 through December 18 followed a similar path when compared with the same period starting at the fourth quarter of 2014 (Figure 1). From October 1 through December 18, front-month West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices declined 39%. In 2014, they declined 40% during the same period. A key difference in assessing the financial position of U.S. oil producers in 2014 compared with 2018, however, is that oil price levels were significantly higher in the years leading up to the 2014 price declines compared with 2018. In addition, in 2014 oil prices had already declined 15% from their highs in June by the start of the fourth quarter. In 2018, the start of the fourth quarter marked the highest prices of the year.

Figure 1. WTI crude oil price

Given the different price levels, oil company revenues per barrel were significantly lower in the third quarter of 2018 compared with the third quarter of 2014. According to the third-quarter 2018 financial results of 40 U.S. oil companies, their median upstream revenue was $45.33 per barrel of oil equivalent (BOE). This same set of companies in the third quarter of 2014 had median upstream revenues of $64.57/BOE (Figure 2). The 44 companies included then have been reduced to 40 companies because of consolidation through mergers and acquisitions. Another evident difference between these two periods is that the companies have significantly reduced production expenses since 2014, ultimately contributing to higher profitability despite the decline in revenues. Median company production expenses declined from $13.97/BOE in the third quarter of 2014 to $9.87/BOE in the third quarter of 2018. In fact, the median company's production expenses in the third quarter of 2014 would have been in the 75th percentile of production expenses in the third quarter of 2018, highlighting a broad reduction in production expenses among U.S. oil producers.

Figure 2. Upstream revenue and production

In contrast to the different operating environments of the two periods, measures of leverage (debt) and liquidity (ability to pay short-term liabilities quickly) do not appear to have significantly changed between 2014 and 2018. After the oil price decline of 2014, many companies restructured their balance sheets through debt consolidation, asset impairments, and asset sales. In the third quarters of 2014 and 2018, nearly all of the companies had long-term debt-to-asset ratios of less than 50%, meaning most of their assets were financed by the owners of the companies (Figure 3). Although no defined standard for an appropriate long-term debt-to-asset ratio for oil and natural gas production companies exists, the financial risk of inability to repay loans typically increases as the ratio increases. Alternatively, a ratio that is too low can indicate an inefficient use of resources available for investment.

Even though measures of leverage between the two periods are comparable, this group of U.S. oil producers has slightly different measures of liquidity in 2018 compared with 2014. In the third quarter of 2018, 80% of the companies had a ratio of cash assets to short-term liabilities of less than 40%, compared with 66% of companies with this ratio as of the third quarter of 2014. Similar to leverage ratios, no standard ratio is considered adequate, but a higher ratio indicates that a company has more ability to weather financial downturns.

Figure 3. Financial comparison for U.S.

An important caveat with comparative analysis of oil companies in two different periods is the survivor bias inherent in company selection. In this case, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) cannot assess a company's financial position in 2018 if the company did not survive the 2014 price decline, either because the company restructured from bankruptcy, delisted from a public securities exchange, or closed entirely. Companies that survived the 2014 price decline may provide a more positive picture of the overall financial position of the oil industry in 2018. However, this possible bias could be small because many of the same companies reported in both periods.

As discussed recently in EIA's Short-Term Energy Outlook and previous editions of This Week in Petroleum, price volatility and uncertainty remain high. The recent decision for countries inside and outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to reduce production levels could stabilize prices, but other supply factors or lower-than-expected demand could put further downward pressure on oil prices.

U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices decrease

The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price decreased more than 5 cents from last week to $2.37 per gallon on December 17, 2018, down more than 8 cents per gallon from the same time last year. Rocky Mountain prices fell 8 cents to $2.58 per gallon, Midwest prices decreased nearly 8 cents to $2.14 per gallon, West Coast prices fell nearly 6 cents to $3.11 per gallon, Gulf Coast prices fell more than 4 cents to $2.03 per gallon, and East Coast prices decreased more than 3 cents to $2.35 per gallon.

The U.S. average diesel fuel price decreased 4 cents from last week to $3.12 per gallon on December 17, 2018, 22 cents per gallon higher than a year ago. Rocky Mountain prices fell more than 6 cents to $3.18 per gallon, West Coast and Midwest prices each decreased nearly 5 cents to $3.60 per gallon and $3.02 per gallon, respectively, Gulf Coast prices decreased more than 3 cents to $2.90 per gallon, and East Coast prices fell nearly 3 cents to $3.17 per gallon.

Propane/propylene inventories decline

U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 3.3 million barrels last week to 73.2 million barrels as of December 14, 2018, 5.6 million barrels (7.1%) lower than the five-year (2013–2017) average inventory level for this same time of year. Midwest inventories decreased by 2.5 million barrels, Gulf Coast and East Coast inventories each decreased by 0.4 million barrels, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decreased slightly, remaining virtually unchanged. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 6.4% of total propane/propylene inventories.

Residential heating oil prices decrease slightly, propane prices flat

As of December 17, 2018, residential heating oil prices averaged almost $3.19 per gallon, down 1 cent per gallon from last week's price but nearly 30 cents per gallon higher than last year's price at this time. The average wholesale heating oil price for this week averaged $1.96 per gallon, over 3 cents per gallon less than last week and nearly 4 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.

Residential propane prices averaged $2.44 per gallon, less than 1 cent per gallon higher than last week but 4 cents per gallon lower than a year ago. Wholesale propane prices averaged nearly $0.86 per gallon, almost 6 cents per gallon less than last week and nearly 18 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.

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High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.  

A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.

Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.

Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.

And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.

That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.

Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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