The state investment firm Temasek Holdings has made an offer to purchase control of Singaporean conglomerate Keppel Corp for S$4.1 billion. News of this has reverberated around the island, sparking speculation about what the new ownership structure could bring – particularly in the Singaporean rig-building sector.
Temasek already owns 20.5% of Keppel Corp. Its offer to increase its stake to 51% for S$4.1 billion would see it gain majority shareholding, allowing a huge amount of strategic flexibility. The deal would be through Temasek’s wholly-owned subsidiary Kyanite Investment Holdings, offering S$7.35 per share of Keppel Corp, a 26% premium of the traded price at that point. The financial analyst community have remarked that the bid is ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’, and there appears to be no political headwinds against the deal being carried out with the exception of foreign and domestic regulatory approval.
The implications of the deal are far-ranging. Keppel Corp’s business ranges from property to infrastructure to telecommunications, including Keppel Land and a partial stake in major Singapore telco M1. Temasek has already said that it does not intend to delist and privatise Keppel Corp, and has a long-standing history of not interfering or getting involved in the operations or decisions of its portfolio companies.
This might be different. Speculation is that this move, if successful could lead to a restructuring of the Singapore offshore and marine industry. Since 2015, Singapore’s rig-building industry has been in the doldrums as global oil prices tumbled. Although prices have recovered, cost-cutting and investment reticence have provided a slower recovery for the industry. In Singapore, this has affected the two major rigbuilders – Keppel O&M and its rival Sembcorp Marine. In 2018, Keppel O&M reported a loss of over SS$100 million (although much improved from its previous loss of over SS$800 million); Sembcorp Marine, too, faces a challenging market, with a net loss of nearly 50 million. Temasek itself is already a majority shareholder in Sembcorp Marine.
Once Keppel Corp is under Temasek’s control, this could lead to consolidation in the industry. There are many pros to this, mainly the merging of rig-building operations and shipyards will put Singapore is a stronger position against giant shipyards of China and South Korea, which have been on an asset buying spree. With the overhang of the Sete Brasil scandal over as both Keppel O&M and Sembcorp Marine have settled corruption allegations over drillship and rig contracts, a merger is now increasingly likely. It would sort of backtrack from Temasek’s recent direction in steering away from fossil fuel investments (it had decided to not participate in the upcoming Saudi Aramco IPO for environmental concerns) but strengthening the Singaporeans O&M industry has national interest implications. As a representative of Temasek said of its portfolio – ‘(we are trying to) re-purpose some businesses to try and grasp the demands of tomorrow.’ So, if there is to be a tomorrow, then Singapore’s two largest offshore players need to start preparing for that now in the face of tremendous competition. And once again it will fall on the Singaporean government, through Temasek, to facilitate an arranged marriage for the greater good.
Keppel and Sembcorp O&M at a glance:
Keppel Offshore & Marine, 2018
Sembcorp Marine, 2018
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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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