There are things brewing within OPEC. At a meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan last week – which was meant to set the stage for a formal meeting in April to review the current supply deal among the 24-country OPEC+ block – the conclusion of the meeting was that the April meeting would be deferred. The review will now take place at OPEC’s regular meeting in Vienna in June, which is mere days before the current supply deal is scheduled to end. That’s cutting it close, but more interesting for market observers is that it points to the Saudi Arabia-Russia bromance souring.
Prior to the meeting, Saudi Arabia had gone on record to state that the Kingdom believed that OPEC’s job in rebalancing the oil market was far from over and that output cuts were necessary to continue into the second half of 2019. Defying US President Donald Trump’s Twitter tantrums – especially with the Kingdom implicated in the assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi – Saudi Arabia is firmly behind continuing restricted supply. In the past, Saudi Arabia would most likely to be able to bully its way into an OPEC consensus. But now, it has to deal with an equally powerful 20-ton gorilla in the same room: Russia.
The success of the OPEC+ club over the past two years has been down to this close relationship between the world’s two largest oil producers. This had allowed crude prices to recover from sub-US$50/b levels. But the latest meeting is also the latest sign that all may not be well in the friendship. First, a joint Saudi-Russia meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos was called off. Second, February data showed that while Saudi Arabia and its allies were doing far more than necessary to cut their crude production, Russia was shuffling its feet with less than 50% adherence, claiming that it needed more time to implement the cuts. And last week, despite Saudi Arabia lobbying for an extension to the cuts and general backing from members including Iraq, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak was in opposition. The official reason was that OPEC+ would need clarity on market situation before planning the next move, given the disruption brought about by ongoing and developing American sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. In the absence of necessity, the two crude powerhouses have drifted back to their default positions: Saudi Arabia’s aggression and Russia’s conservatism.
So while the world waits and watches for OPEC+’s next move, the market is analysing the potential impact of a strained Saudi-Russia relationship. But necessity might bring the two back together again, since they now face a common foe – rising US crude production. OPEC’s secretary general recently met with key executives in the US shale oil industry. This was billed as a ‘friendly conversation on current industry trends’ and interpreted as an attempt to cajole American shale producers in a mutually-beneficial stabilisation of the market. It is ridiculously unlikely for the US to ever join the OPEC+ club, but if the move could convince US shale firms to temper their expansion to prevent global oversupply, it might be worth it. Because OPEC has accompanied the olive branch with a threat – if OPEC does all the work to stabilise markets only to have American shale take advantage of the situation, it could very well reverse its stance and turn the OPEC tap on full to swamp the market once again. It’s a classic example of game theory, and one to watch as the power dynamics of global oil continue to change.
Key upcoming dates for OPEC:
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On 10 December 2021, if all goes to plan Royal Dutch Shell will become just Shell. The energy supermajor will move its headquarters from The Hague in The Netherlands to London, UK. At least three-quarters of the company’s shareholders must vote in favour of the change at the upcoming general meeting, which has been sold by Shell as a means of simplifying its corporate structure and better return value to shareholders, as well as be ‘better positioned to seize opportunities and play a leading role in the energy transition’. In doing so, it will no longer meet Dutch conditions for ‘royal’ designation, dropping a moniker that has defined the company through decades of evolution since 1907.
But why this and why now?
There is a complex web of reasons why, some internal and some external but the ultimate reason boils down to improving growth sustainability. Royal Dutch Shell was born through the merger of Shell Transport and Trading Company (based in the UK) and Royal Dutch (based in The Netherlands) in 1907, with both companies engaging in exploration activities ranging from seashells to crude oil. Unified across international borders, Royal Dutch Shell emerged as Europe’s answer to John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire, as the race to exploit oil (and later natural gas) reserves spilled out over the world. Along the way, Royal Dutch Shell chalked up a number of achievements including establishing the iconic Brent field in the North Sea to striking the first commercial oil in Nigeria. Unlike Standard Oil which was dissolved into 34 smaller companies in 1911, Royal Dutch Shell remained intact, operating as two entities until 2005, when they were finally combined in a dual-nationality structure: incorporated in the UK, but residing in the Netherlands. This managed to satisfy the national claims both countries make on the supermajor, second only to ExxonMobil in revenue and profits but proved to be costly to maintain. In 2020, fellow Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever also ditched its dual structure, opting to be based fully out of the City of London. In that sense, Shell is following the direction of the wind, as forces in its (soon to be former) home country turn sour.
There is a specific grievance that Royal Dutch Shell has with the Dutch government, the 15% dividend tax collected for Dutch-domiciled companies. It is the reason why Unilever abandoned Rotterdam and is now the reason why Shell is abandoning The Hague. And this point is particularly existentialist for Shell, since its share prices has been battered in recent years following the industry downturn since 2015, the global pandemic and being in the crosshairs of climate change activists as an emblem of why the world’s average temperatures are going haywire. The latter has already caused the largest Dutch state pension fund ABP to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby divesting itself of Royal Dutch Shell. This was largely a symbolic move, but as religious figures will know, symbols themselves carry much power. To combat this, Shell has done two things. First, it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of energy transition, announcing ambitious emissions reductions plans in line with its European counterparts to become carbon neutral by 2050. Second, it is looking to bump up its dividend payouts after slashing them through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating share buybacks to remain the bluest of blue-chip stocks. But then, earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s emissions targets were ‘not ambitious enough’, ordering a stricter aim within a tighter timeframe. And the 15% dividend tax remains – even though Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government has been attempting to scrap it, with (it is presumed) some lobbying from Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever.
As simplistic it is to think that Shell is leaving for London believes the citizens of the Netherlands has turned its back on the company, the ultimate reason was the dividend tax. Reportedly, CEO Ben van Buerden called up Mark Rutte on Sunday informing him of the planned move. Rutte’s reaction, it is said was of dismay. And he embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade Royal Dutch Shell to change its mind, by immediately lobbying his government’s coalition partners to back an abolition of the dividend tax. The reaction was perhaps not what he expected, with left-wing and green parties calling Shell’s threat ‘blackmail’. With democracy drawing a line, Shell decided to walk; or at least present an exit plan endorsed by its Board to be voted by shareholders. Many in the Netherlands see Shell’s exit and the loss of the moniker Royal Dutch – as a blow to national pride, especially since the country has been basking in the glow of expanded reputation as a result of post-Brexit migration of financial activities to Amsterdam from London. The UK, on the other hand, sees Shell’s decision and Unilever’s – as an endorsement of the country’s post-Brexit potential.
The move, if passed and in its initial stages, will be mainly structural, transferring the tax residence of Shell to London. Just ten top executives including van Buerden and CFO Jessica Uhl will be making the move to London. Three major arms – Projects and Technology, Global Upstream and Integrated Gas and Renewable Energies – will remain in The Hague. As will Shell’s massive physical reach on Dutch soil: the huge integrated refinery in Pernis, the biofuels hub in Rotterdam, the country’s first offshore wind farm and the mammoth Porthos carbon capture project that will funnel emissions from Rotterdam to be stored in empty North Sea gas fields. And Shell’s troubles with activists will still continue. British climate change activists are as, if not more aggressive as their Dutch counterpart, this being the country where Extinction Rebellion was born. Perhaps more of a threat is activist investor Third Point, which recently acquired a chunk of Shell shares and has been advocating splitting the company into two – a legacy business for fossil fuels and a futures-focused business for renewables.
So Shell’s business remains, even though its address has changed. In the grand scheme of things, never mind the small matter of Dutch national pride – Royal Dutch Shell’s roadmap to remain an investment icon and a major driver of energy transition will continue in its current form. This is a quibble about money or rather, tax – that will have little to no impact on Shell’s operations or on its ambitions. Royal Dutch Shell is poised to become just Shell. Different name and a different house, but the same contents. Unless, of course, Queen Elizabeth II decides to provide royal assent, in which case, Shell might one day become Royal British Shell.
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