Oil markets are once again uneasily balanced between two completely different outcomes – and one again involves Iran.
Back in the summer of 2008, markets were dominated by the potential for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, as I summarised at the time:
“Nothing is certain in life, except death and taxes. But it is hard to see markets becoming less volatile until either an attack takes place, or a peaceful solution is confirmed. And with oil now around $150/bbl, two quite different outcomes seem possible:
• In the event of an Israeli attack, prices might well rise $50/bbl to reach $200/bbl, at least temporarily
• But if diplomacy works, they could easily fall $50/bbl to $100/bbl”
In the event, an attack was never launched and prices quickly fell back to $100/bbl – and then lower as the financial crisis began.
Today, Brent’s uneasy balance around $70/bbl reflects even more complex fears:
- One set of worries focuses on potential supply disruption from a war in the Middle East
- The other agonises over the US-China trade war and the rising risk of recession
It is, of course, possible that both fears could be realised if war did break out in the Gulf and oil prices then rose above $100/bbl.
The issue is highlighted in the Reuters chart on the left, which shows that Brent has moved from a contango of $1/bbl at the beginning of the year into a backwardation of nearly $4/bbl on the 6-month calendar spread. As they note:
“Backwardation is associated with periods of under-supply and falling inventories, while contango is associated with the opposite, so the current backwardation implies stocks are expected to fall sharply.”
But as the second Reuters chart confirms, traders are also aware that forecasts for oil demand are based on optimistic IMF forecasts for global growth. And recent hedge fund positioning confirms that caution may be starting to appear.
Traders are also aware of the key message from the above chart, which shows that periods when oil prices cost 3% of global GDP have almost always led to recession. The only exception was after the financial crisis when central banks were printing as much money as possible to boost liquidity.
The reason is that consumers only have a certain amount of discretionary income. If oil prices are low, then they have spare cash to buy the products and services that create economic growth. But if prices are high, their cash is instead spent on transport and heating/cooling costs, and so the economy slows.
“To govern is to choose” and President Trump therefore has some hard choices ahead:
- His trade war with China currently appeals to many voters, Democrat and Republican. But will that support continue as the costs bite? The New York Federal Reserve reported on Friday that the latest round of tariffs will cost the average American household $831/year
- Similarly, many voters favour taking a hard line with Iran. But average US gasoline prices are already $2.94/gal as the US driving season starts this weekend, and today’s high prices will particularly impact the President’s core blue collar and rural voters
History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes as the famous American writer, Mark Twain, noted. If the President now chooses to fight a trade war with China and a real war with Iran, then he risks losing popularity very quickly as the costs in terms of lives and cash become more apparent. Yet as we have seen since Lyndon Johnson’s time, this is usually something that politicians only learn after the event.
Investors and companies therefore have little to lose, and potentially much to gain, by accepting that we can only guess at how the two situations may play out. Developing a scenario approach that plans for all the possible outcomes – as in 2008 – is much the most prudent option.
Back in 2015, veteran Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi was very clear about Saudi’s need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:
“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.”
As Naimi recognised, high oil prices created a short-term win for Saudi’s budget between 2011-4. But they also allowed US frackers to enter the market – posing a major threat to Saudi’s control – whilst also reducing overall demand. And his “boss”, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) agreed with him, saying:
“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil. We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”
Today, however, Saudi oil policy has reversed course, with MbS now trying to push prices towards the $80/bbl level assumed in this year’s Budget.
Saudi’s dilemma is that its growing population, and its need to diversify the economy away from oil, requires increases in public spending. As a result, it has conflicting objectives:
- Its long-term need is to defend its market share, to guarantee its ability to monetise its vast oil reserves
- But its short-term need is to support prices by cutting production, in order to fund its spending priorities
The result, as the chart above confirms, is that prices are now at levels which have almost always led to recession in the past. It compares the total cost of oil* as a percentage of global GDP with IMF data for the economy, with the shaded areas showing US recessions. The tipping point is when the total cost reaches 3% of global GDP. And this is where we are today.
The reason is that high oil prices reduce discretionary spending. Consumers have to drive to work and keep their homes warm (and cool in the summer). So if oil prices are high, they have to cut back in other areas, slowing the economy.
CENTRAL BANK STIMULUS MADE OIL PRICES “AFFORDABLE” IN 2011-2014
There has only been one occasion in the past 50 years when this level failed to trigger a recession. That was in 2011-14, when all the major central bank stimulus programmes were in full flow, as the left-hand chart shows.
They were creating tens of $tns of free cash to support consumer spending. But at the same time, of course, they were creating record levels of consumer debt, as the right-hand chart shows from the latest New York Federal Reserve’s Household Debt Report. It shows US household debt is now at a record $13.54tn. And it confirms that consumers have reached the end of the road in terms of borrowing:
“The number of credit inquiries within the past six months – an indicator of consumer credit demand – declined to the lowest level seen in the history of the data.”
SAUDI ARABIA IS NO LONGER THE SWING SUPPLIER IN OIL MARKETS
Oil prices are therefore now on a roller-coaster ride:
- Saudi tried to push them up last year, but this meant demand growth slowed and Russian/US output rose
- The rally ran out of steam in September and Brent collapsed from $85/bbl to $50/bbl in December
Now Saudi is trying again. It agreed with OPEC and Russia in December to cut production by 1.2mbd – with reductions to be shared between OPEC (0.8 million bpd) and its Russia-led allies (0.4 million bpd). But as always, its “allies” have let it down. So Saudi has been forced to make up the difference. Its production has fallen from over 11mbd to a forecast 9.8mbd in March.
Critically however, as the WSJ chart shows, it has lost its role as the world’s swing supplier:
Of course, geo-politics around Iran or Venezuela or N Korea could always intervene to support prices. But for the moment, the main support for rising prices is coming from the hedge funds. As Reuters reports, their ratio of long to short positions in Brent has more than doubled since mid-December in line with rising stock markets.
But the hedge funds did very badly in Q4 last year when prices collapsed. And so it seems unlikely they will be too bold with their buying, whilst the pain of lost bonuses is so recent.
Companies and investors therefore need to be very cautious. Saudi’s current success in boosting oil prices is very fragile, as markets are relying on more central bank stimulus to offset the recession risk. If market sentiment turns negative, today’s roller-coaster could become a very bumpy ride.
Given that Saudi has decided to ignore al-Naimi’s warning, the 2014-15 experience shows there is a real possibility of oil prices returning to $30/bbl later this year.
*Total cost is number of barrels used multiplied by their cost
Many indicators are now pointing towards a global downturn in the economy, along with paradigm shifts in demand patterns. CEOs need to urgently build resilient business models to survive and prosper in this New Normal world, as I discuss in my 2019 Outlook and video interview with ICIS.
Global recession is the obvious risk as we start 2019. Last year’s hopes for a synchronised global recovery now seem just a distant memory. Instead, they have been replaced by fears of a synchronised global downturn.
Capacity Utilisation in the global chemical industry is the best leading indicator that we have for the global economy. And latest data from the American Chemistry Council confirms that the downtrend is now well-established. It is also clear that key areas for chemical demand and the global economy such as autos, housing and electronics moved into decline during the second half of 2018.
In addition, however, it seems likely that we are now seeing a generational change take place in demand patterns:
- From the 1980s onwards, the demand surge caused by the arrival of the BabyBoomers into the Wealth Creating 25 – 54 cohort led to the rise of globalisation, as companies focused on creating new sources of supply to meet their needs
- At the same time the collapse of fertility rates after 1970 led to the emergence of 2-income families for the first time, as women often chose to go back into the workforce after childbirth. In turn, this helped to create a new and highly profitable mid-market for “affordable luxury”
- Today, however, only the youngest Boomers are still in this critical generation for demand growth. Older Boomers have already moved into the lower-spending, lower-earning 55+ age group, whilst the younger millennials prefer to focus on “experiences” and don’t share their parents’ love of accumulating “stuff”
The real winners over the next few years will therefore be companies who not only survive the coming economic downturn, but also reposition themselves to meet these changing demand patterns. A more service-based chemical industry is likely to emerge as a result, with sustainability and affordability replacing globalisation and affordable luxury as the key drivers for revenue and profit growth.
Please click here to download the 2019 Outlook (no registration necessary) and click here to view the video interview.
The chemical industry is the best leading indicator for the global economy. And my visit to Singapore last week confirmed that the downturn underway in the Asian market creates major risks for developed and emerging economies alike.
The problem is focused on China’s likely move into recession, now its stimulus policies are finally being unwound. And the result is shown in the above chart from The pH Report, updated to Friday:
- It confirms that the downturn began before oil prices peaked at the beginning of October, confirming that companies were responding to a downturn in end-user demand
- Since then, of course, the oil price has – rather dramatically – entered a bear market, with prices down by nearly a third
The question now is whether finance directors will choose to aggressively destock ahead of year-end results, to mitigate the volume decline with a decline in working capital. This would be a bold move given continuing geo-political uncertainty in the Middle East, and would also conflict with the more upbeat guidance that was given earlier with Q3 results.
But a review of ICIS news headlines over the past few days suggests they may have little choice. Inventories are described as “piling up” in a wide range of major products, including polyethylene – the biggest volume polymer. Indian producers are even offering “price protection” packages on polypropylene, to safeguard customers from losses if prices fall further.
Asian countries and their major partners (eg Argentina, S Africa, Turkey) were, of course, the first to be hit by China’s downturn. But Q3’s fall in German GDP shows the downturn has now spread to the Western economy that most benefited from China’s post-2008 stimulus bubble. As The Guardian noted:
“Goods exports make up 40% of German GDP – a much bigger proportion than for the next two biggest eurozone economies, France and Italy.”
OIL MARKETS CONFIRM THE RECESSION RISK
Of course, consensus opinion still believes that the US economy is sailing along, regardless of any problems elsewhere. But the chart of oil prices relative to recession tells a different story:
- The problem is that oil prices have been rising since 2016, with the summer proving the final blow-off peak. As always, this meant consumers had to cut back on discretionary spending as costs of transport and heating rose
- The cost of oil as a percentage of GDP reached 3.1% in Q3 – a level which has always led to recession in the past, with the exception of the post-2008 stimulus period when governments and central banks were pouring $tns of stimulus money into the global economy
- In turn, this means a downturn is now beginning in US end-user demand in critical areas such as housing, autos and electronics
Oil markets have therefore provided a classic example of the trading maxim for weak markets – “Buy on the rumour, sell on the news”.
- Prices had risen by 75% since June on supply shortage fears, following President Trump’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal on November 4
- As always, this created “apparent demand” as buyers in the US and around the world bought ahead to minimise the impact of higher prices
- But the higher prices also negated the benefit of the earlier tax cuts for his core supporters just ahead of the mid-term elections, causing Trump to undertake a policy u-turn
- He is now pushing Saudi Arabia and Russia to maintain production, and has announced 180-day exemptions for Iran’s 8 largest customers – China, India, S Korea, Japan, Italy, Greece, Taiwan and Turkey.
Understandably, oil traders have now decided that his “bark is worse than his bite“. And with the downturn spreading from Asia to the West, markets are now refocusing on supply/demand balances, with the International Energy Agency suggesting stocks will build by 2mb/d in H1 2019. In response, OPEC are reportedly discussing potential cuts of up to 1.4mb/d from December.
CHINA’S SHADOW BANKING COLLAPSE IS CREATING A NEW FINANCIAL CRISIS
Unfortunately, as in 2008, the collapse in oil prices is coinciding with the end of stimulus policies, particularly in China, as the chart of its shadow bank lending confirms. This has hit demand in two ways, as I discussed earlier this month in the Financial Times:
- Just 3 years ago, it was pumping out an average $140bn/month in mainly property-related lending *
- This created enormous demand for EM commodity exports
- It also boosted global property prices as wealthy Chinese rushed to get their money out of the country
- But during 2018, lending has collapsed by more than 80% to average just $23bn in October
China’s post-2008 stimulus programme was the growth engine for the global economy – with the efforts of the Western central banks very much a sideshow in comparison. It was more than half of the total $33tn lending to date. But now it is unwinding, prompting the Minsky Moment forecast a year ago by China’s central bank governor:
“China’s financial sector is and will be in a period with high risks that are easily triggered. Under pressure from multiple factors at home and abroad, the risks are multiple, broad, hidden, complex, sudden, contagious, and hazardous.”
As I warned then:
“Companies and investors should not ignore the warnings now coming out from Beijing about the change of strategy. China’s lending bubble – particularly in property – is likely coming to an end. In turn, this will lead to a bumpy ride for the global economy.”
The bumps are getting bigger and bigger as we head into recession. Asia’s downturn is now spreading to the rest of the world, and is a major wake-up call for anyone still planning for “business as usual”.
* Lending has major seasonal peaks in Q1, so I use rolling 12 month averages to avoid distortions
A petrochemical plant on the outskirts of Shanghai. Chinese chemical industry production has been negative on a year-to-date basis since February
Falling output in China and slowing growth globally suggest difficult years ahead, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog
Chemicals are the best leading indicator for the global economy. Data for both Chinese and global chemical production, shown in the first chart, are warning that we may now be headed into recession.
China’s stimulus programme has been the key driver for the world’s post-2008 recovery, as we discussed here in May (“China’s lending bubble is history”).
It accounted for about half of the global $33tn in stimulus programmes and its decline is currently having a dual impact, as it reduces both demand for EM commodities and the availability of global credit.
In turn, this reversal is impacting the global economy — already battling headwinds from trade tariffs and higher oil prices.
Initially the impact was most noticeable in emerging markets but the scale of the downturn is now starting to hit the wider economy:
- China’s demand has been the growth engine for the global economy since 2008, and its scale has been such that this lost demand cannot be compensated elsewhere
- China’s shadow banking bubble has been a major source of speculative lending, helping to finance property bubbles in China and many global cities
- It also financed a domestic construction boom in China on a scale never seen before, creating excess demand for a wide range of commodities
But now the lending bubble is bursting. The second chart shows the extent of the downturn this year. Shadow banking is down 84% ($557bn) in the year to September, according to official People’s Bank of China data. Total Social Financing is down 12% ($188bn), despite an increase in official bank lending to support strategic companies.
It seems highly likely that the property bubble has begun to burst, with China Daily reporting that new home loans in Shanghai were down 77% in the first half. In turn, auto sales fell in each month during the third quarter, as buyers can no longer count on windfall gains from property speculation to finance their purchases.
The absence of speculative Chinese buyers, anxious to move their cash offshore, is also having a significant impact on demand outside China in former property hotspots in New York, London and elsewhere.
The chemical industry has been flagging this decline with increasing urgency since February, when Chinese production went negative on a year-to-date basis. The initial decline was certainly linked to the government’s campaign to reduce pollution by shutting down many older and more polluting factories.
But there has been no recovery over the summer, with both August and September showing 3.1% declines according to American Chemistry Council data. Inevitably, Asian production has also now started to decline, due to its dependence on exports to China. In turn, like a stone thrown into a pond, the wider ripples are starting to reach western economies.
President Trump’s trade wars aren’t helping, of course, as they have already begun to increase prices for US consumers. Ford, for example, has reported that its costs have increased by $1bn as a result of steel and aluminium tariffs. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has also caused oil prices as a percentage of GDP to rise to levels typically associated with recession in the past.
The rationale is simply that consumers only have so much cash to spend, and money they spend on rising gasoline and heating costs can’t be spent on the discretionary items that drive GDP growth.
It seems unlikely, however, that Trump’s trade war with China will lead to his expected “quick win”. China has faced far more severe hardships in recent decades, and there are few signs that it is preparing to change core policies. The trade war will inevitably have at least a short-term negative economic impact but, paradoxically, it also supports the government’s strategy to escape the “middle income trap” by ending China’s role as the “low-skilled factory of the world”, and moving up the ladder to more value-added operations and services.
The trade war therefore offers an opportunity to accelerate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), initially by moving unsophisticated and often polluting factories offshore. It also emphasises the priority given to the services sector:
- Already companies, both private and state-owned, are focusing their international acquisitions in BRI countries. According to EY, 12 per cent of overall Chinese (non-financial) outbound investment was in BRI countries in 2017, versus 9 per cent in 2016, and 2018 is likely to be considerably higher. Apart from south-east Asia, we expect eastern and central Europe to be beneficiaries, given the new BRI infrastructure links, as the map highlights
- Data from the Caixin/Markit services purchasing managers’ index for September suggests the sector remains in growth mode. And government statistics suggest the services sector was slightly over half of the economy in the first half, with its official growth reported at 7.6 per cent versus overall GDP growth of 6.8 per cent
We expect China to come through the pain caused by the unwinding of the stimulus bubbles, and ultimately be strengthened by the need to refocus on sustainable rather than speculative growth. But it will not be an easy few years for China and the global economy.
The rising tide of stimulus has led many investors and chief executives to look like geniuses. Now the downturn will probably lead to the appearance of winners and losers, with the latter likely to be in the majority.
Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.
Today, we have “lies, fake news and statistics” rather than the old phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics”. But the general principle is still the same. Cynical players simply focus on the numbers that promote their argument, and ignore or challenge everything else.
The easiest way for them to manipulate the statistics is to ignore the wider context and focus on a single “shock, horror” story. So the chart above instead combines 5 “shock, horror” stories, showing quarterly oil production since 2015:
- Iran is in the news following President Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear agreement, which began in July 2015. OPEC data shows its output has since risen from 2.9mbd in Q2 2015 to 3.8mbd in April – ‘shock, horror’!
- Russia has also been much in the news since joining the OPEC output agreement in November 2016. But in reality, it has done little. Its production was 11mbd in Q3 2016 and was 11.1mbd in April- ‘shock, horror’!
- Saudi Arabia leads OPEC: its production has fallen from 10.6mbd in Q3 2016 to 9.9mbd in April- ‘shock, horror’!
- Venezuela is an OPEC member, but its production decline began long before the OPEC deal. The country’s economic collapse has seen oil output fall from 2.4mbd in Q4 2015 to just 1.5mbd in April- ‘shock, horror’!
- The USA, along with Iran, has been the big winner over the past 2 years. Its output initially fell from 9.5mbd in Q1 2015 to 8.7mbd in Q3 2016, but has since soared by nearly 2mbd to 10.6mbd in April- ‘shock, horror’!
But overall, output in these 5 key countries rose from 35.5mbd in Q1 2015 to 36.9mbd in April. Not much “shock, horror” there over a 3 year period. More a New Normal story of “Winners and Losers”.
So why, you might ask, has the oil price rocketed from $27/bbl in January 2016 to $45/bbl in June last year and $78/bbl last Friday? Its a good question, as there have been no physical shortages reported anywhere in the world to cause prices to nearly treble. The answer lies in the second chart from John Kemp at Reuters:
- It shows combined speculative purchases in futures markets by hedge funds since 2013
- These hit a low of around 200mbbls in January 2016 (2 days supply)
- They then more than trebled to around 700mbbls by December 2016 (7 days supply)
- After halving to around 400mbbls in June 2017, they have now trebled to 1.4mbbls today (14 days supply)
Speculative buying, by definition, isn’t connected with the physical market, as OPEC’s Secretary General noted after meeting the major funds recently: “Several of them had little or no experience or even a basic understanding of how the physical market works.”
This critical point is confirmed by Citi analyst Ed Morse: “There are large investors in energy, and they don’t care about talking to people who deal with fundamentals. They have no interest in it.”
Their concern instead is with movements in currencies or interest rates – or with the shape of the oil futures curve itself. As the head of the $8bn Aspect fund has confirmed:
“The majority of our inputs, the vast majority, are price-driven. And the overwhelming factor we capitalise on is the tendency of crowd behaviour to drive medium-term trends in the market.” (my emphasis).
OIL PRICES ARE NOW AT LEVELS THAT USUALLY LEAD TO RECESSION
The hedge funds have been the real winners from all the “shock, horror” stories. These created the essential changes in “crowd behaviour”, from which they could profit. But now they are leaving the party – and the rest of will suffer the hangover, as the 3rd chart warns:
- Oil prices now represent 3.1% of global GDP, based on latest IMF data and 2018 forecasts
- This level has been linked with a US recession on almost every occasion since 1970
- The only exception was post-2009 when China and the Western central banks ramped up stimulus
- The stimulus simply created a debt-financed bubble
The reason is simple. People only have so much cash to spend. If they have to spend it on gasoline and heating their home, they can’t spend it on all the other things that drive the wider economy. Chemical markets are already confirming that demand destruction is taking place.:
- Companies have completely failed to pass through today’s high energy costs. For example:
- European prices for the major plastic, low density polyethylene, averaged $1767/t in April with Brent at $72/bbl
- They averaged $1763/t in May 2016 when Brent was $47/bbl (based on ICIS pricing data)
Even worse news may be around the corner. Last week saw President Trump decide to withdraw from the Iran deal. His daughter also opened the new US embassy to Jerusalem. Those with long memories are already wondering whether we could now see a return to the geopolitical crisis in summer 2008.
As I noted in July 2008, the skies over Greece were then “filled with planes” as Israel practised for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Had the attack gone ahead, Iran would almost certainly have closed the Strait of Hormuz. It is just 21 miles wide (34km) at its narrowest point, and carries 35% of all seaborne oil exports, 17mb/d.
As Mark Twain wisely noted, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. Prudent companies and investors need now to look beyond the “market-moving, shock, horror” headlines in today’s oil markets. We must all learn to form our own judgments about the real risks that might lie ahead.
Given the geopolitical factors raised by President Trump’s decision on Iran, I am pausing the current oil forecast.
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