Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: January 29, 2020
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Business Trends
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The dust has settled after two years of tit-for-tat tariffs and incendiary accusations. At least for now. On 15th January 2020, the USA and China signed a landmark trade deal. Landmark because it extracts some concessions from China to redress the trade imbalance between the world’s two economic superpowers, and also because it halts the escalation of the trade war. Call it a trade truce, but the Phase 1 trade deal – as it has been called – also does not undo the previous two years of tariffs. In fact, it enshrines them at least until a Phase 2 deal is agreed.

But that’s very far away. For now, the headlines are all about the US getting China to buy almost US$200 billion more of US products over 2020 and 2021 across four key industries, in exchange for not raising tariffs on Chinese imports even further, including energy. Those are lofty promises. Verging on the unrealistic. But they make for great headlines, and good rhetoric for the White House. For energy, China has agreed to increase its buying of US energy products – including crude oil, LNG, refined products and coal – by US$18.5 billion in 2020 and US$33.9 billion in 2021, relative to the 2017 levels. That’s the promise. Can it be achieved?

Let’s take the base year. In 2017, the US exported some US$9 billion of energy products to China. On the oil side, this translated into 450,000 b/d of products – half of which was crude, another third was natural gas liquids (ethane and butane) and the remainder refined products. On the natural gas side, the US is estimated to have shipped 103 billion cubic feet of LNG to China in 2017. Across 2018 and 2019, exports of both oil and gas fell – and in the case of 2019, drastically as China slapped import tariffs of 5% on US crude and 25% on US LNG and NGLs. Which is why 2017 was chosen as the base year, representing a normal market before trade barriers kicked in. On a surface level, this would means that China would need to triple its purchases of US oil and gas to meet its Phase 1 trade pledges.

Is that realistic? US crude represented only 3% of Chinese crude imports in 2017, with LNG representing roughly the same portion. For LNG, China enjoys good relations with Australia, Qatar, Malaysia and Indonesia – all of which provide more competitive pricing given their proximity. For crude, it isn’t just volumes but also quality. Most Chinese refineries are designed around Middle Eastern and Russian crude – heavier and sourer than US crude. US crude could supplant existing volumes taken by China from West Africa and North Sea, but the Gulf of Mexico is once again at a distance disadvantage. A supply glut means China is awash with refined oil products, which leaves NGLs – which could be a bright spark as feedstock for Chinese petrochemicals producers. There is definitely room to grow, but expecting a tripling of volumes over two years seems highly unlikely unless strictly enforced.

Crucially, China has provided itself a safety clause. Buried in the text of the trade deal, is that these purchases – while representing minimum purchase requirements – are subject to ‘market conditions’ in China. These ‘market conditions’ are then further defined as being influenced by actual domestic Chinese demand, relative pricing of US goods vs comparable goods from other nations or supply availability, or all of the above. This crucial clause takes the purchase pledges by China from the realm of optimistic promises to fantasy. Emphasised throughout the trade deal document – and repeated again in the energy section – this essentially means that China’s pledge is not mandatory. China will continue to source its commodities based on ‘market conditions’ at the best availability and price; and if those suppliers happen to be American, good. US energy producers won’t be able to depend on a guaranteed deposit of demand from China – and they wouldn’t be able to produce all those required volumes anyway – but must continue to compete with established energy powerhouses like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Australia, Iraq, Malaysia and more… just like they do now.

To expect China to be able to meet its pledges to increase US energy purchases by the required amounts is a fool’s game. Increases will happen, but even then, not by as much as expected given that the existing tariffs are still in place. The Phase 1 trade deal seems to be full of hot air.  It will make the negotiations for a broader Phase 2 trade deal tougher – given that progress on the targets will be expected – but that’s a question for the future, and possibly a different government. For now, not much has changed. Don’t call it a trade deal, call it what it is, which is a stalemate.

Phase 1 Trade Deal in Summary:

  • Chinese pledges in the Phase 1 US-China trade deal over 2020 and 2021*
  • Increase purchases of US manufactured goods by US$75 billion
  • Increase purchases of US agricultural goods by US$40 billion
  • Increase purchases of US services by US$35-40 billion
  • Increase purchases of US energy goods by US$52 billion
  • *All subject to prevailing ‘market conditions’

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Pricing-in The Covid 19 Vaccine

In a few days, the bi-annual OPEC meeting will take place on November 30, leading into a wider OPEC+ meeting on December 30. This is what all the political jostling and negotiations currently taking place is leading up to, as the coalition of major oil producers under the OPEC+ banner decide on the next step of its historic and ambitious supply control plan. Designed to prop up global oil prices by managing supply, a postponement of the next phase in the supply deal is widely expected. But there are many cracks appearing beneath the headline.

A quick recap. After Saudi Arabia and Russia triggered a price war in March 2020 that led to a collapse in oil prices (with US crude prices briefly falling into negative territory due to the technical quirk), OPEC and its non-OPEC allies (known collectively as OPEC+) agreed to a massive supply quota deal that would throttle their production for 2 years. The initial figure was 10 mmb/d, until Mexico’s reticence brought that down to 9.7 mmb/d. This was due to fall to 7.7 mmb/d by July 2020, but soft demand forced a delay, while Saudi Arabia led the charge to ensure full compliance from laggards, which included Iraq, Nigeria and (unusually) the UAE. The next tranche will bring the supply control ceiling down to 5.7 mmb/d. But given that Covid-19 is still raging globally (despite promising vaccine results), this might be too much too soon. Yes, prices have recovered, but at US$40/b crude, this is still not sufficient to cover the oil-dependent budgets of many OPEC+ nations. So a delay is very likely.

But for how long? The OPEC+ Joint Technical Committee panel has suggested that the next step of the plan (which will effectively boost global supply by 2 mmb/d) be postponed by 3-6 months. This move, if adopted, will have been presaged by several public statements by OPEC+ leaders, including a pointed comment from OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo that producers must be ready to respond to ‘shifts in market fundamentals’.

On the surface, this is a necessary move. Crude prices have rallied recently – to as high as US$45/b – on positive news of Covid-19 vaccines. Treatments from Pfizer, Moderna and the Oxford University/AstraZeneca have touted 90%+ effectiveness in various forms, with countries such as the US, Germany and the UK ordering billions of doses and setting the stage for mass vaccinations beginning December. Life returning to a semblance of normality would lift demand, particularly in key products such as gasoline (as driving rates increase) and jet fuel (allowing a crippled aviation sector to return to life). Underpinning the rally is the understanding that OPEC+ will always act in the market’s favour, carefully supporting the price recovery. But there are already grouses among OPEC members that they are doing ‘too much’. Led by Saudi Arabia, the draconian dictates of meeting full compliance to previous quotas have ruffled feathers, although most members have reluctantly attempt to abide by them. But there is a wider existential issue that OPEC+ is merely allowing its rivals to resuscitate and leapfrog them once again; the US active oil rig count by Baker Hughes has reversed a chronic decline trend, as WTI prices are at levels above breakeven for US shale.

Complaints from Iran, Iraq and Nigeria are to be expected, as is from Libya as it seeks continued exemption from quotas due to the legacy of civil war even though it has recently returned to almost full production following a truce. But grievance is also coming from an unexpected quarter: the UAE. A major supporter in the Saudi Arabia faction of OPEC, reports suggest that the UAE (led by the largest emirate, Abu Dhabi) are privately questioning the benefit of remaining in OPEC. Beset by shrivelling oil revenue, the Emiratis have been grumbling about the fairness of their allocated quota as they seek to rebuild their trade-dependent economy. There has been suggestion that the Emiratis could even leave OPEC if decisions led to a net negative outcome for them. Unlike the Qatar exit, this will not just be a blow to OPEC as a whole, questioning its market relevance but to Saudi Arabia’s lead position, as it loses one of its main allies, reducing its negotiation power. And if the UAE leaves, Kuwait could follow, which would leave the Saudis even more isolated.

This could be a tactic to increase the volume of the UAE’s voice in OPEC+, which has been dominated by Saudi Arabia and Russia. But it could also be a genuine policy shift. Either way, it throws even more conundrums onto a delicate situation that could undermine an already fragile market. Despite the positive market news led by Covid-19 vaccines and demand recovery in Asia, American crude oil inventories in Cushing are now approaching similar high levels last seen in April (just before the WTI crash) while OPEC itself has lowered its global demand forecast for 2020 by 300,000 b/d. That’s dangerous territory to be treading in, especially if members of the OPEC+ club are threatening to exit and undermine the pack. A postponement of the plan seems inevitable on December 1 at this point, but it is what lies beyond the immediate horizon that is the true threat to OPEC+.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$44-46/b, WTI – US$42-44/b
  • More positive news on Covid-19 vaccines have underpinned a crude price rally despite worrying signs of continued soft demand and inventory build-ups
  • Pfizer’s application for emergency approval of its vaccine is paving the way for mass vaccinations to begin soon, with some experts predicting that the global economy could return to normality in Q2 2021
  • Market observers are predicting a delay in the OPEC+ supply quota schedule, but the longer timeline for the club’s plan – which is set to last until April 2022 – may have to be brought forward to appease current dissent in the group

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November, 25 2020
EIA expects U.S. crude oil production to remain relatively flat through 2021

In the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) November Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts that U.S. crude oil production will remain near its current level through the end of 2021.

A record 12.9 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil was produced in the United States in November 2019 and was at 12.7 million b/d in March 2020, when the President declared a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak. Crude oil production then fell to 10.0 million b/d in May 2020, the lowest level since January 2018.

By August, the latest monthly data available in EIA’s series, production of crude oil had risen to 10.6 million b/d in the United States, and the U.S. benchmark price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil had increased from a monthly average of $17 per barrel (b) in April to $42/b in August. EIA forecasts that the WTI price will average $43/b in the first half of 2021, up from our forecast of $40/b during the second half of 2020.

The U.S. crude oil production forecast reflects EIA’s expectations that annual global petroleum demand will not recover to pre-pandemic levels (101.5 million b/d in 2019) through at least 2021. EIA forecasts that global consumption of petroleum will average 92.9 million b/d in 2020 and 98.8 million b/d in 2021.

The gradual recovery in global demand for petroleum contributes to EIA’s forecast of higher crude oil prices in 2021. EIA expects that the Brent crude oil price will increase from its 2020 average of $41/b to $47/b in 2021.

EIA’s crude oil price forecast depends on many factors, especially changes in global production of crude oil. As of early November, members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) were considering plans to keep production at current levels, which could result in higher crude oil prices. OPEC+ had previously planned to ease production cuts in January 2021.

Other factors could result in lower-than-forecast prices, especially a slower recovery in global petroleum demand. As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, some parts of the United States are adding restrictions such as curfews and limitations on gatherings and some European countries are re-instituting lockdown measures.

EIA recently published a more detailed discussion of U.S. crude oil production in This Week in Petroleum.

November, 19 2020
OPEC members' net oil export revenue in 2020 expected to drop to lowest level since 2002

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will earn about $323 billion in net oil export revenues in 2020. If realized, this forecast revenue would be the lowest in 18 years. Lower crude oil prices and lower export volumes drive this expected decrease in export revenues.

Crude oil prices have fallen as a result of lower global demand for petroleum products because of responses to COVID-19. Export volumes have also decreased under OPEC agreements limiting crude oil output that were made in response to low crude oil prices and record-high production disruptions in Libya, Iran, and to a lesser extent, Venezuela.

OPEC earned an estimated $595 billion in net oil export revenues in 2019, less than half of the estimated record high of $1.2 trillion, which was earned in 2012. Continued declines in revenue in 2020 could be detrimental to member countries’ fiscal budgets, which rely heavily on revenues from oil sales to import goods, fund social programs, and support public services. EIA expects a decline in net oil export revenue for OPEC in 2020 because of continued voluntary curtailments and low crude oil prices.

The benchmark Brent crude oil spot price fell from an annual average of $71 per barrel (b) in 2018 to $64/b in 2019. EIA expects Brent to average $41/b in 2020, based on forecasts in EIA’s October 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO). OPEC petroleum production averaged 36.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2018 and fell to 34.5 million b/d in 2019; EIA expects OPEC production to decline a further 3.9 million b/d to average 30.7 million b/d in 2020.

EIA based its OPEC revenues estimate on forecast petroleum liquids production—including crude oil, condensate, and natural gas plant liquids—and forecast values of OPEC petroleum consumption and crude oil prices.

EIA recently published a more detailed discussion of OPEC revenue in This Week in Petroleum.

November, 16 2020