The UK has just designated the Persian Gulf as a level 3 risk for its ships – the highest level possible threat for British vessel traffic – as the confrontation between Iran with the US and its allies escalated. The strategically-important bit of water - and in particular the narrow Strait of Hormuz – is boiling over, and it seems as if full-blown military confrontation is inevitable.
The risk assessment comes as the British warship HMS Montrose had to escort the BP oil tanker British Heritage out of the Persian Gulf into the Indian Ocean from being blocked by Iranian vessels. The risk is particularly acute as Iran is spoiling for a fight after the Royal Marines seized the Iranian crude supertanker Grace-1 in Gibraltar on suspicions that it was violating sanctions by sending crude to war-torn Syria. Tensions over the Gibraltar seizure kept the British Heritage tanker in ‘safe’ Saudi Arabian waters for almost a week after making a U-turn from the Basrah oil terminal in Iraq on fears of Iranian reprisals, until the HMW Montrose came to its rescue. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have warned of further ‘reciprocation’ even as it denied the British Heritage incident ever occurred.
This is just the latest in a series of events around Iran that is rattling the oil world. Since the waivers on exports of Iranian crude by the USA expired in early May, there were four sabotage attacks on oil tankers in the region and two additional attacks in June, all near the major bunkering hub of Fujairah. Increased US military presence resulted in Iran downing an American drone, which almost led to a full-blown conflict were it not for a last-minute U-turn by President Donald Trump. Reports suggest that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have moved military equipment to its southern coast surrounding the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is 39km at its narrowest. Up to a third of all seaborne petroleum trade passes through this chokepoint and while Iran would most likely overrun by US-led forces eventually if war breaks out, it could cause a major amount of damage in a little amount of time.
The risk has already driven up oil prices. While a risk premium has already been applied to current oil prices, some analysts are suggesting that further major spikes in crude oil prices could be incoming if Iran manages to close the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time. While international crude oil stocks will buffer any short-term impediment, if the Strait is closed for more than two weeks, crude oil prices could jump above US$100/b. If the Strait is closed for an extended period of time – and if the world has run down on its spare crude capacity – then prices could jump as high as US$325/b, according to a study conducted by the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre in Riyadh. This hasn’t happened yet, but the impact is already being felt beyond crude prices: insurance premiums for ships sailing to and fro the Persian Gulf rose tenfold in June, while the insurance-advice group Joint War Committee has designated the waters as a ‘Listed Area’, the highest risk classification on the scale. VLCC rates for trips in the Persian Gulf have also slipped, with traders cagey about sending ships into the potential conflict zone.
This will continue, as there is no end-game in sight for the Iranian issue. With the USA vague on what its eventual goals are and Iran in an aggressive mood at perceived injustice, the situation could explode in war or stay on steady heat for a longer while. Either way, this will have a major impact on the global crude markets. The boiling point has not been reached yet, but the waters of the Strait of Hormuz are certainly simmering.
The Strait of Hormuz:
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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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