Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: July 4, 2020
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Business Trends
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Officially, we are past the half point of 2020 and with that the end of the second quarter. And what a quarter it has been. WTI prices plunged into negative territory (as low as -US$37/b) then recovered to US$40/b as OPEC+ moved from infighting to coordinating the largest crude production cut in history. In between, the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc with the global economy, setting off a chain reaction within the oil world whose full impact is still unknown.

Opinions on a post-Covid oil world are divided. Some voices, the more optimistic ones, think that oil demand could recover to pre-Covid levels within a year or two. The more pessimistic ones think that this will never happen, that Covid-19 has hastened the trend away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy against the backdrop of climate change. Either way, this has thrown a spanner in the works of the giant, multi-billion oil and gas projects that were announced over the past two years as the energy world began to wake up from its post-2015 price crash investment hibernation. Those projects were made at a time when oil prices were at US$50-60/b. Since oil prices are now only at US$40/b, the current value and the future worth of these assets have now declined. Energy companies account for this by adjusting the value of their portfolios in accordance to the projected value of crude: an upward adjustment is known as a revaluation, and a negative one is known as an impairment.

This is a term that will crop up many times over 2020, as energy companies close their quarterly financial books and report their results to shareholders. The plunge in crude oil prices and the uncertain outlook for oil demand means that publicly-traded companies must account for this to their shareholders. Chevron was the first supermajor to book an impairment, in late 2019 when it took a US$10 billion hit to its oil and gas assets. It wasn’t the only one: firms all across the oil chain also reduced the value of their assets, from Repsol to Equinor.

Further impairments were made in April 2020 when the Q1 financial results were announced, mainly in response to the triggering of the OPEC+ price war (which saw crude prices halve from US$60/b to US$30/b) and the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating to a point where over half of the world’s population went into lockdown. But the major impact will come in Q2 2020, when the roil in the oil markets truly began to boil uncontrollably. BP has announced that it may take up to a US$17.5 billion impairment in its Q2 2020 financial results, while Shell has just admitted that it may have to shave US$22 billion from its asset value.

This has roots not just in the depressed demand for energy due to Covid-19, but also the ongoing conversation on climate change. Almost all supermajors have announced intentions to become carbon neutral by the 2050 timeframe. That may be good news for the planet, but it is bad news for the companies’ portfolio. Put simply, it means that some of the assets that they have invested billions in are now not only worth a lot less (due to Covid-19) but they may in fact be worth nothing at all, because climate change considerations mean that they will never be exploited. Challenging projects such as Total’s deepwater Brulpadda discovery in turbulent South African waters or Pertamina/ExxonMobil/Total/PTTEP’s beleaguered and complicated East Natuna sour gas asset in Indonesia may never be commercialised, either because of uneconomic prices or because they run counter to the goal of becoming carbon neutral. The Financial Times estimates that the amount of unviable or stranded hydrocarbon assets could reach as much as US$900 billion; that figure is pre-Covid, and could now become even higher.

There is one supermajor bucking the trend though. The biggest supermajor of all, in fact. Unlike its peers, ExxonMobil has not yet succumbed to impairments. If fact, it has not announced any negative revaluations at all over the past decade, even during the 2015 oil price crash. ExxonMobil claims that this is because it books the value of new assets ‘very conservatively’ and does not ‘adjust values to short-term price trends’, but critics say that it has an ongoing history of vastly overestimating its assets’ value. Along with Chevron, ExxonMobil does not disclose price assumptions in its financials. But unlike Chevron, ExxonMobil has not yielded to climate change through an official emissions target or asset revaluations.

On paper, that will make ExxonMobil look better than its supermajor brothers. But behind the scenes, this reluctance to admit that the future is less rosy than expected could be trouble waiting to be unleashed. Impairments are a necessary reality check: an admission by a company that things have changed and it is starting to adapt. Most have accepted that reality. ExxonMobil seems to be resisting. But even it is not immune. In pre-Q2 2020 results guidance that was just announced, ExxonMobil admitted that it expects to take a hit of some US$3.1 billion and slump to a second straight quarterly loss. In terms of Covid-19 impairments, that’s small. But it is, at least, a start.

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$40-44/b, WTI – US$38-42/b
  • A swathe of positive economic data is supporting oil prices within its current range, with US light crude settling above US$40/b for the first time in four months
  • The relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions has led to improvements in most economic indicators, but the risk of the situation reversing is also higher, given the accelerating cases being reported in part of the USA, South America and India
  • On the supply side, OPEC+ is making adherence a priority, with lagging members now bucking up and swing producer Saudi Arabia also keeping its promises by throttling crude exports in June to some 5.7 mmb/d

End of Article

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High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

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.

End of Article

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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