Possibly discontent with the (lack of) progress with China over a new trade deal, US President Donald Trump is turning its sights elsewhere. After slapping tariffs on steel from close allies in North America and the European Union and embarking on an ever-escalating trade war with China, it is now the turn of Mexico.
In a surprise move, President Trump announced that imports of all Mexican goods into the US would now be subject to a 5% tariff. And this would rise unless Mexico stops the flow of illegal immigration across the Rio Grande, with US officials confirming that the tariffs would reach to 25% by October. This came as a blindside to the market. Not only was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) successfully renegotiated only recently, some American manufacturers had only just recalibrated their supply chains away from China to Mexico as a result of the trade war. The new tariffs on Mexico have been described as ‘very disruptive’, threatening a symbiotic relationship that has largely benefitted the USA.
Most of all in energy. US refineries along the Gulf Coast have long been geared to process heavy crude from Mexico, Venezuela and Canada. With Canadian oil sands stuck in Alberta over a lack of pipeline infrastructure and Venezuela being persona non grata, Mexican oil is increasingly prized by refineries owned by ExxonMobil, Chevron, Marathon Oil and more. Some 630,000 b/d of Mexican crude is shipped to US refineries that are too finely calibrated for those grades to be easily replaced. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the tariffs will add about US$3/b to the cost of Maya crude to the US, slashing current refining margins by half. This will be passed on to the American consumer, just ahead of the summer driving season. And these Gulf refineries also send more than a million barrels of fuels back to Mexico (which has a net fuel deficit), worth some US$20 billion in revenue. Natural gas trade will also be affected – threatening the 20 pipelines sending some 5 bcf/d across the southern border, along with new LNG projects in Mexico that are dependent on American shale gas.
While Mexico has made overtures to mitigate the flow of illegal immigration, it is not likely to just take the bullet. Reprisal tariffs are likely, mainly on US fuels and, crucially, US corn that impacts the two key America industries supporting Trump: energy and farming. Crude prices have already tumbled in response to the Mexican tariffs, with fears that it could cut the legs off already weak global energy demand.
And there’s more. President Trump has ordered that India’s status as a preferential trade partner be removed, which would result in the imposition of tariffs on a package of currently 2,000 duty-free products. While India is in a weaker bargaining position than China in capitulating to American demands, it is currently a major destination for American crude after sanctions on Iranian crude and the flourishing US LNG export industry is also banking on increased demand from India. Reprisal moves from India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just won a resounding election victory, must be expected, particularly since Modi campaigned on a nationalist campaign reminiscent of a diluted Trump message.
And if it is China, India and Mexico today, who else will it be tomorrow? The US’ trade war stance may score short-term political points but it adds much more fragility to the market. In the meantime crude oil imports from Mexico will be subject to a 5% tariff, which will rise to 10% on July 1 and continue rising towards 25% in October, if the immigration issue is not resolved.
US Trade War Tariff Targets:
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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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