Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: March 17, 2020
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Business Trends

There are two items dominating the headlines in the energy sector at the moment: the global Covid-19 pandemic and the alarming decision of Saudi Arabia and Russia to go head-to-head in a price war. Individually, either event is disastrous. Together, they are catastrophic. 

A global rout on equities and commodities has kicked in, with capital fleeing to safe havens while country after country announces lockdowns to halt the contagion. Covid-19 and the oil price war are our current truths. But how long will they last? And what does this mean for the energy industry?

Scenario 1:
Fast Covid-19 containment, Quick resolution to the price war

Covid-19 will be with us for at least another 2 months. Taking China as an example – which enforced a total lockdown on the pandemic’s epicentre in Wuhan in late January – cases and deaths have been slowing down since the start of March. After spiking suddenly, South Korea too seems to be coming under control. All of this took a month or so. If that holds true, then the current spread in Europe could be halted by early April. Immediate resumption of normality won’t happen immediately; China took two months to restart, so the best case scenario is that the world will resume normal service in early May. That’s optimistic, but still possible; especially given how serious governments worldwide are treating the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia can be prone to grandstanding, and its opening salvo to lower the price of its crude dramatically could be seen as a shock-and-awe tactic to remind Russia of just how potent its spare capacity of 2-3 mmb/d is. Russia has alluded to the possibility of the OPEC+ alliance continuing, so talks between the two leading oil producers must still be going on in hopes of striking a deal. The current OPEC supply deal expires on 31 March 2020; there is still time for the two oil giants to agree that the industry’s needs is greater than the sum of theirs, and avoid a flood of cheap oil swamping a fragile global economy.

Brent price forecast (June 2020): US$45-50/b

Scenario 2:
Fast Covid-19 containment but slow resolution to the price war or Prolonged Covid-19 pandemic but fast resolution to the price war

World governments are panicking, particularly in Europe, where a second wave of cases emanated from Italy to the rest of the continent, sparing no one. European governments have responded by issuing travel lockdowns, reinstating border controls and funding emergency medical services to contain the pandemic. But the health system is strained, and it may already be too late. Europe has neither the authoritarian power of China or the meticulous plans that South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore put in place to deny the virus traction. It may already be too late. With trouble brewing in the USA as well, where the healthcare system is even more unfriendly to pandemics like this and a second wave of infections emerging across the rest of the world, it may very well be 2021 before the virus has truly be contained.

In a war, everyone loses. In a classic instance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and an illustration of potent Game Theory, Saudi Arabia and Russia should be working together (along with the rest of OPEC+) to keep prices steady. US$50/b oil is better than US$30/b oil, after all. The rise of the US shale patch has its limitations, so ceding some ground to US producers is still acceptable in the context of a growing market. But for various reasons, a desire to wipe out US shale, a want to power-play Saudi Arabia and Russia are at odds on how to proceed. So they may dig their heels in, choosing the path of most benefit for themselves but resulting in a sub-optimal result for the whole industry. A prolonged price war will not be pretty, and there will be many corporate casualties along the way.

Brent price forecast (June 2020): US$35-45/b

Scenario 3:
Prolonged Covid-19 pandemic and slow/no resolution to the price war

The nightmare scenario. Airlines worldwide have said that the global airline industry is at risk of bankruptcy by May, without any state or institutional support. With lockdowns, people are driving less, consuming less and productivity is way down, impacting energy and power consumption. Governments will do their best to keep the economy going, but they are at the mercy of an unsympathetic foe. Some medical experts are already suggesting that Covid-19 may never be fully contained, and could join influenza as a permanent seasonal disease. It took several years for the world to recover from the Spanish Flu in 1918; the same might apply here.

If Saudi Arabia and Russia hold true to their threats to massively increase crude output, there will be a tsunami of crude oil travelling around the world at a time when the world needs less. This is a battle for market share at the expense of profits. Many players that were banking of the cushion of US$50-60/b oil prices will be wiped out, with ramifications for LNG as well. The remaining players will be stronger for the death of competition, though their shareholders will not be happy campers, especially the shareholders of Saudi Aramco. If oil gets pumped without restraint over the rest of 2020, there is only so much that can go into strategic storage. The glut will only be erased when demand recovers. With Covid-19 still a major question mark, there is no telling what the timeline for recovery is.

Brent price forecast (June 2020): US$30-35/b

Read more:
covid-19 china italy korea oil gas russia opec coronavirus oil markets saudi
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