In any war, there are winners and losers. Sometimes surprising ones. As the price war between friends-turned-foes Saudi Arabia and Russia rumbles on without any sign of a thaw or a possibility of halting without external intervention, oil producers globally are hurting badly as crude oil prices plunged by nearly 50% over less than a month. This will wreak havoc with the economies and budgets of many countries, particularly at a time when demand is extremely soft given the global Covid-19 pandemic. But in any war, there are opportunities for profit, and that has given a boost to a sector of the industry that had previously been suffering.
With the dramatic drop in prices, and a super-contango structure appearing in the crude oil price future curves, crude cargoes are available on cheap. Part of this buying is coming from entrenched buyers such as India (which took in some cargoes that were turned away by China in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic). Part of this is coming from government purchases, to fill up strategic petroleum reserves in an effort to support domestic producers (although a US plan to do so was scuppered due to lack of federal funding). But most is this is coming from global oil traders, eager to cash in cheap oil by betting that prices will eventually have to rise somehow. Whether that is in a month, three months or longer, the traders are preparing for this.
The problem is storage. Where does one store millions of barrels of crude? Onshore storage is estimated at a practical upper limit of some 1.2 billion barrels of capacity; much of this is already utilised, with not much room to grow. And what room there is is becoming expensive.
Enter floating storage.
In 2008 during the Great Financial Crisis and again in 2015 when crude prices retreated dramatically, the same scenario presented itself. The solution then, as it is now, was to charter ships to serve as floating storage. Millions upon millions of crude oil barrels sat sloshing in the hulls of VLCC and other crude-carrying ships off the coast of Singapore, Fujairah, the US Gulf and Guangzhou in 2009, waiting for traders to assess an opportune moment to seize a trade.
That is repeating itself now. At the start of March, VLCC charter rates hovered at around US$40,000 per day for delivery from the Middle East to China. As charter rates go, that’s not that bad, and certainly far better than rates of less than US$10,000 day in mid-2019 that caused a world of pain to the oil shipping industry. At the dramatic about-face in Vienna when the OPEC+ alliance splintered, VLCC charter rates jumped up to US$190,000 per day as the price for Brent dropped 30% in a single day. Charter rates continued to spike, up to a peak of US$275,000 per day, as it became very apparent that Saudi Arabia and Russia were engaging in more than just a game of brinkmanship. Prices did calm down, after the initial rush of bookings, but have started to rise again as Brent drifts dangerously close to the US$25/b mark.
Reports suggest that since the price war began, more than three dozen supertanker bookings have been made by the world’s largest oil traders, including Vitol, Shell and Litasco. The largest of them all, Glencore has chartered Europe, one of the world’s two ULCCs (Ultra Large Crude Carriers) that can store 3 million barrels of oil for an indefinite period. The traders are also competing with an unlikely party: Saudi Arabia and its allies that sparked a bidding war for supertankers in a bid to flood the market. That this is happening against a backdrop of weak demand is, frankly, ridiculous. But that is what is happening now, and expect it to go on with Russia entering the fray. While all this drama plays out, the real immediate winners are shipowners. While the traders are betting on the possibility of a profitable trade in the future, shipowners are making profits hand over fist now with the bookings, a great change after terrible 2019 when shipowners were gloomily talking about decommissioning tankers.
How long will this last? It is anyone’s guess. There are two main variables: the length of the oil price war and the length of the Covid-19 pandemic. The most optimistic scenario points to things returning to relative normality by July 2020; the worst could see the depression continuing into 2021. But, as they say, there is no time like the present. And shipowners are now happy to keep their supertanker bellies full of oil and money in the bank, even if those ship remain anchored and that oil is going nowhere soon.
Recent VLCC Freight Rates
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Recent headlines on the oil industry have focused squarely on the upstream side: the amount of crude oil that is being produced and the resulting effect on oil prices, against a backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is just one part of the supply chain. To be sold as final products, crude oil needs to be refined into its constituent fuels, each of which is facing its own crisis because of the overall demand destruction caused by the virus. And once the dust settles, the global refining industry will look very different.
Because even before the pandemic broke out, there was a surplus of refining capacity worldwide. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, global oil demand was some 99.85 mmb/d. However, this consumption figure includes substitute fuels – ethanol blended into US gasoline and biodiesel in Europe and parts of Asia – as well as chemical additives added on to fuels. While by no means an exact science, extrapolating oil demand to exclude this results in a global oil demand figure of some 95.44 mmb/d. In comparison, global refining capacity was just over 100 mmb/d. This overcapacity is intentional; since most refineries do not run at 100% utilisation all the time and many will shut down for scheduled maintenance periodically, global refining utilisation rates stand at about 85%.
Based on this, even accounting for differences in definitions and calculations, global oil demand and global oil refining supply is relatively evenly matched. However, demand is a fluid beast, while refineries are static. With the Covid-19 pandemic entering into its sixth month, the impact on fuels demand has been dramatic. Estimates suggest that global oil demand fell by as much as 20 mmb/d at its peak. In the early days of the crisis, refiners responded by slashing the production of jet fuel towards gasoline and diesel, as international air travel was one of the first victims of the virus. As national and sub-national lockdowns were introduced, demand destruction extended to transport fuels (gasoline, diesel, fuel oil), petrochemicals (naphtha, LPG) and power generation (gasoil, fuel oil). Just as shutting down an oil rig can take weeks to complete, shutting down an entire oil refinery can take a similar timeframe – while still producing fuels that there is no demand for.
Refineries responded by slashing utilisation rates, and prioritising certain fuel types. In China, state oil refiners moved from running their sites at 90% to 40-50% at the peak of the Chinese outbreak; similar moves were made by key refiners in South Korea and Japan. With the lockdowns easing across most of Asia, refining runs have now increased, stimulating demand for crude oil. In Europe, where the virus hit hard and fast, refinery utilisation rates dropped as low as 10% in some cases, with some countries (Portugal, Italy) halting refining activities altogether. In the USA, now the hardest-hit country in the world, several refineries have been shuttered, with no timeline on if and when production will resume. But with lockdowns easing, and the summer driving season up ahead, refinery production is gradually increasing.
But even if the end of the Covid-19 crisis is near, it still doesn’t change the fundamental issue facing the refining industry – there is still too much capacity. The supply/demand balance shows that most regions are quite even in terms of consumption and refining capacity, with the exception of overcapacity in Europe and the former Soviet Union bloc. The regional balances do hide some interesting stories; Chinese refining capacity exceeds its consumption by over 2 mmb/d, and with the addition of 3 new mega-refineries in 2019, that gap increases even further. The only reason why the balance in Asia looks relatively even is because of oil demand ‘sinks’ such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Even in the US, the wealth of refining capacity on the Gulf Coast makes smaller refineries on the East and West coasts increasingly redundant.
Given this, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis will be the inevitable hastening of the current trend in the refining industry, the closure of small, simpler refineries in favour of large, complex and more modern refineries. On the chopping block will be many of the sub-50 kb/d refineries in Europe; because why run a loss-making refinery when the product can be imported for cheaper, even accounting for shipping costs from the Middle East or Asia? Smaller US refineries are at risk as well, along with legacy sites in the Middle East and Russia. Based on current trends, Europe alone could lose some 2 mmb/d of refining capacity by 2025. Rising oil prices and improvements in refining margins could ensure the continued survival of some vulnerable refineries, but that will only be a temporary measure. The trend is clear; out with the small, in with the big. Covid-19 will only amplify that. It may be a painful process, but in the grand scheme of things, it is also a necessary one.
Infographic: Global oil consumption and refining capacity (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019)
|Region||Consumption (mmb/d)*||Refining Capacity (mmb/d)|
*Extrapolated to exclude additives and substitute fuels (ethanol, biodiesel)
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Bloomberg L.P. data
Note: All prices except West Texas Intermediate (Cushing) are spot prices.
The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) front-month futures contract for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the most heavily used crude oil price benchmark in North America, saw its largest and swiftest decline ever on April 20, 2020, dropping as low as -$40.32 per barrel (b) during intraday trading before closing at -$37.63/b. Prices have since recovered, and even though the market event proved short-lived, the incident is useful for highlighting the interconnectedness of the wider North American crude oil market.
Changes in the NYMEX WTI price can affect other price markers across North America because of physical market linkages such as pipelines—as with the WTI Midland price—or because a specific price is based on a formula—as with the Maya crude oil price. This interconnectedness led other North American crude oil spot price markers to also fall below zero on April 20, including WTI Midland, Mars, West Texas Sour (WTS), and Bakken Clearbrook. However, the usefulness of the NYMEX WTI to crude oil market participants as a reference price is limited by several factors.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
First, NYMEX WTI is geographically specific because it is physically redeemed (or settled) at storage facilities located in Cushing, Oklahoma, and so it is influenced by events that may not reflect the wider market. The April 20 WTI price decline was driven in part by a local deficit of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity in Cushing. Similarly, while the price of the Bakken Guernsey marker declined to -$38.63/b, the price of Louisiana Light Sweet—a chemically comparable crude oil—decreased to $13.37/b.
Second, NYMEX WTI is chemically specific, meaning to be graded as WTI by NYMEX, a crude oil must fall within the acceptable ranges of 12 different physical characteristics such as density, sulfur content, acidity, and purity. NYMEX WTI can therefore be unsuitable as a price for crude oils with characteristics outside these specific ranges.
Finally, NYMEX WTI is time specific. As a futures contract, the price of a NYMEX WTI contract is the price to deliver 1,000 barrels of crude oil within a specific month in the future (typically at least 10 days). The last day of trading for the May 2020 contract, for instance, was April 21, with physical delivery occurring between May 1 and May 31. Some market participants, however, may prefer more immediate delivery than a NYMEX WTI futures contract provides. Consequently, these market participants will instead turn to shorter-term spot price alternatives.
Taken together, these attributes help to explain the variety of prices used in the North American crude oil market. These markers price most of the crude oils commonly used by U.S. buyers and cover a wide geographic area.
Principal contributor: Jesse Barnett