Its been a long time since oil market supply/demand was based on physical barrels rather than financial flows:
First there was the subprime period, when the Fed artificially boosted demand and caused Brent to hit $147/bbl
Then there was QE, where central banks gave free cash to commodity hedge funds and led Brent to hit $127/bbl
In 2015, as the chart highlights for WTI, the funds tried again to push prices higher, but could only hit $63/bbl
Then, this year, the funds lined up to support the OPEC/Russia quota deal which took prices to $55/bbl
As the Wall Street Journal reported:
“Dozens of hedge-fund managers and oil traders attended a series of closed-door meetings in recent months with OPEC leaders—the first of their kind, according to Ed Morse, Citigroup Inc.’s global head of commodities research, who helped organize some of the events.”
These developments destroyed the market’s key role of price discovery:
Price discovery is the process by which buyer and seller agree a price at which one will sell and the other will buy
But subprime/QE encouraged this basic truth to be forgotten, as commodities became a new asset class
Investment banks saw the opportunity to sell new and highly profitable services to sleepy pension funds
They ignored the obvious truth that oil, or copper or any other commodity are worthless on their own
There was never any logic for commodities to become a separate new asset class. A share in a company has some value even if the management are useless and their products don’t work properly. Similarly bonds pay interest at regular intervals. But oil does nothing except sit in a tank, unless someone turns it into a product.
The impact of all this paper trading was enormous. Last year, for example, it averaged a record 1.1 million contracts/ day just in WTI futures on the CME. Total paper trading in WTI/Brent was more than 10x actual physical production. Inevitably, this massive buying power kept prices high, even though the last time that supplies were really at risk was in 2008, when there was a threat of war with Iran.
Finally, however, the commodity funds are now leaving. Even Andy Hall, the trader known as “God” for his ability to control the futures market, is winding up his flagship hedge fund as he:
“Complained that it was nearly impossible to trade oil based on fundamental trends in supply and demand, which are now too uncertain.”
Hall seemed unaware that his statement exactly described the role of price discovery. Markets are not there to provide guaranteed profits for commodity funds. Their role via price discovery is to help buyers and sellers balance physical supply and demand, and make the right decisions on capital spend. By artificially pushing prices higher, the funds have effectively led to $bns of unnecessary new capital investment taking place.
NOW MARKETS WILL HAVE TO PICK UP THE PIECES
The problem today is that markets – which means suppliers and consumers – will now have to pick up the pieces as the funds depart. And it seems likely to be a difficult period, given the length of time in which financial players have ruled, and the distortions they have created.
Major changes are already underway in the physical market, with worries over air quality and climate change leading France, the UK, India and now China to announce plans to ban sales of fossil-fuelled cars. Transport is the biggest single source of demand for oil, and so it is clear we are now close to reaching “peak gasoline/diesel demand“.
OPEC obviously stands to be a major loser. Over the past year, the young and inexperienced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chose to link up with the funds. His aim was keep prices artificially high via an output quota deal between OPEC and Russia. But history confirms that such pacts have never worked. This time is no different as the second chart from the International Energy Agency shows, with OPEC compliance already down to 75%.
Consumers will also pay, as they have to pick up the bill for the investments made when people imagined oil prices would always be $100/bbl. And consumers, along with OPEC populations, will also end up suffering if the shock of lower oil prices creates further geopolitical turmoil in the Middle East.
As always, “events” will also play their part. As anyone involved with oil markets knows, there seems to be an unwritten rule that says:
If the market is short of product, producing plants will suddenly have force majeures and stop supplying
If the market has surplus product, demand will suddenly reduce for some equally unexpected reason
The rule certainly seems to be working today, as the catastrophe of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose creates devastation across the Caribbean and the southern USA.
Not only is this reducing short-term demand for oil, but it will also turbo-charge the move towards renewables. Mllions of Americans are now going to want to see fossil fuel use reduced, as worries about the impact of climate change grow.
“By Monday, the third straight day of flooding, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey had left much of the region underwater, and the city of Houston looked like a sea dotted by small islands. ’This event is unprecedented,’ the National Weather Service tweeted. ‘All impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.’”
This summary from the New York Times gives some idea of the immensity of the storm that struck large parts of Texas/Louisiana last week, including the 4th largest city in the US. And this was before the second stage of the storm.
I worked in Houston for 2 years, living alongside the Buffalo Bayou which flooded so spectacularly last week. The photo above from the Houston Chronicle shows the area around our former home on Saturday, still surrounded by water. Today, as the rest of America celebrates the Labor Day holiday, the devastated areas in Texas and Louisiana will be starting to count the cost of rebuilding their lives and starting out anew:
Some parts of the Houston economy will recover remarkably quickly. It is a place where people aim to get things done, and don’t just sit around waiting for others to do the heavy lifting
But as Texas Governor Abbott has warned, Harvey is “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced. We need to recognize it will be a new normal, a new and different normal for this entire region.”
The key issue is that the Houston metro area alone is larger in size than the economies of Sweden or Poland. And as Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner tweeted:
“An estimated 70% of the 1,800-square-mile county (2700 sq km), which includes Houston, was covered with 1½ feet (46cm) of water”
Already the costs are mounting. Abbott’s current estimate is that Federal funding needs alone will be “far in excess of $125bn“, easily topping the costs of 2005′s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. And, of course, that does not include the cost, and pain, suffered by the majority of homeowners – who have no flood insurance – or the one-third of auto owners who don’t have comprehensive insurance. They will likely receive nothing towards the costs of cleaning up.
SOME PARTS OF THE ECONOMY HAVE THE POTENTIAL FOR A QUICK RECOVERY
Companies owning the large refineries and petrochemical plants in the affected region have all invested in the maximum amount of flood protection following Katrina, when some were offline for 18 months
Oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are used to hurricanes and are already coming back – Reuters reports that only around 6% of production is still offline, down from a peak of 25% at the height of the storm
It is hard currently to estimate the impact on shale oil/gas output in the Eagle Ford basin, but the Oil & Gas Journal reports that 300 – 500 kb/d of oil production is shut-in, and 3bcf/d of gas production
ExxonMobil is now restarting the country’s second-biggest refinery at Baytown, and Phillips 66 and Valero are also restarting some operations, whilst ICIS reports that a number of major petrochemical plants are now being inspected in the expectation that they can soon be restarted
Encouragingly also, it seems that insurance companies are planning to speed up inspections of flooded properties by using drone technology, which should help to process claims more quickly. Loss adjusters using drones can inspect 3 homes an hour, compared to the hour taken to inspect on roof manually. But even Farmers Insurance, one of the top Texas insurers, only has 7 drones available – and has already received over 14000 claims.
RECOVERY FOR MOST PEOPLE AND BUSINESSES WILL TAKE MUCH LONGER
For the 45 or more people who have died in the floods, there will be no recovery.
Among the living, 1 million people have been displaced and up to 500k cars destroyed. 481k people have so far requested housing assistance and 25% of Houston’s schools have suffered severe or extensive flood damage.
These alarming statistics highlight why clean-up after Harvey will take a long time. Basic services such as water and sewage are massively contaminated, with residents being told to boil water in many areas. The “hundreds of thousands of people across the 38 Texas counties affected by Harvey” using their own wells are particularly at risk.
And as the New York Times adds:
“Flooded sewers are stoking fears of cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases. Runoff from the city’s sprawling petroleum and chemicals complex contains any number of hazardous compounds. Lead, arsenic and other toxic and carcinogenic elements may be leaching from some two dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area”
FEW IN HOUSTON HAVE FLOOD INSURANCE
Then there is the issue that, as the chart from the New York Times shows, most of those affected by Harvey don’t have home insurance policies that cover flood damage. Similarly, a survey in April by insurer Aon found that:
“Less than one-sixth of homes in Harris County, Texas, whose county seat is Houston, currently have active National Flood Insurance Program policies. The county has about 1.8 million housing units.”
As the Associated Press adds:
“Experts say another reason for lack of coverage in the Houston area was that the last big storm, Tropical Storm Allison, was 16 years ago. As a result, people had stopped worrying and decided to use money they would have spent for insurance premiums on other items.”
Even those with insurance will get hit by the low levels of coverage – just $250k for a house and $100k for contents. Businesses carrying insurance also face problems, according to the Wall Street Journal, as they depend on the same Federal insurance scheme, which:
“Was primarily designed for homeowners and has had few updates since the 1970s. Standard protections for small businesses, including costs of business interruption and significant disaster preparation, aren’t covered, and maximum payouts for damages haven’t risen since 1994.
The maximum coverage for business property is $500k, and the same cap applies to equipment and other contents, far below many businesses’ needs. And even those with insurance find it difficult to claim, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York after Hurricane Sandy in 2012:
“More than half of small businesses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that had flood insurance and suffered damages received no insurance payout. Another 31% recouped only some of their losses.”
Auto insurance is a similar story. Only those with comprehensive auto insurance are likely to be covered for their loss – and even then, people will still suffer deductions for depreciation. According to the Insurance Council of Texas:
“15% of motorists have no car insurance, and of those who do, (only) 75% have comprehensive insurance. That leaves a lot of car owners without any protection.”
In other words, around 1/3rd of car owners probably have no insurance cover against which to claim for flood damage.
HARVEY’S IMPACT WILL BE LONG-TERM
It is clearly too early, with flood waters still rising in some areas, to be definitive about the implications of Hurricane Harvey for Houston and the affected areas in Texas and Louisiana.
Of course there are supply shortages today, and the task of replacement will created new demand for housing and autos. But over the medium to longer term, 3 key impacts seem likely to occur:
It will take time for the supply of oil, gas, gasoline and other refinery products, petrochemicals and polymers to fully recover. There will inevitably also be some short-term shortages in some value chains. But within 1 – 3 months, most if not all of the major plants will probably be back online
It will take a lot longer for most people affected by Harvey to recover their losses. Some may never be able to do this, especially if they have no insurance to cover their flooded house or car. And those working in the gig economy have little fall-back when their employers have no need for their services
The US economy will also be impacted, as Slate magazine warned a week ago, even before the full magnitude of the catastrophe became apparent:
“For the U.S. economy to lose Houston for a couple of weeks is a human disaster—and an economic disaster, too….Given that supply chains rely on a huge number of shipments making their connections with precision, the disruption to the region’s shipping, trucking, and rail infrastructure will have far-reaching effects.”
China’s strategies for oil, refining and petrochemical production are very different from those in the West, as analysis of Sinopec’s Annual and 20-F Reports confirms. As the above chart shows, it doesn’t aim to maximise profit:
□ Since 1998, it has spent $45bn on capex in the refining sector, and $38bn in the chemicals sector
□ Yet it made just $1bn at EBIT level (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) in refining, and only $21bn in chemicals
As I noted last year:
“Clearly no western company would ever dream of spending such large amounts of capital for so little reward. But as a State Owned Enterprise, Sinopec’s original mandate was to be a reliable supplier of raw materials to downstream factories, to maintain employment. More recently, the emphasis has changed to providing direct support to employment, through increased exports of refined products into Asian markets and increased self-sufficiency in petrochemicals”.
Commentary on China’s apparent growth in oil imports confirms the confusion this creates. Western markets cheered last year as China’s oil imports appeared to increase, hitting a record high. But they were ignoring key factors:
□ China’s crude imports were indeed 14% higher at 7.6 million bpd – nearly a million bpd higher than in 2015
□ But 700 kbpd of these imports were one-off demand as China filled its strategic storage
□ And at the same time, China’s refineries were pumping out record export volume: its fuel exports were up around one-third during the year to over 48 million tonnes
As Reuters noted:
“This broadly suggests China’s additional imports of crude oil were simply processed and exported as refined products.” In reality, ”China’s 2016 oil demand grew at the slowest pace in at least three years at 2.5%, down from 3.1% in 2015 and 3.8% in 2014, led by a sharp drop in diesel consumption and as gasoline usage eased from double-digit growth.”
The issue was simply that Premier Li was aiming to maintain employment in the “rust-belt provinces”, by boosting the so-called “tea-pot refineries”. He had therefore raised their oil import quotas to 8.7 million tonnes in 2016, more than double their 3.7 million tonne quota in 2016. As a result, they had more diesel and gasoline to sell in export markets.
The same pattern can be seen in petrochemicals, as the second chart confirms. It highlights how Operating Rates (OR%) for the two main products, ethylene and propylene, remain remarkably high by global standards. This confirms that Sinopec’s aim is not to maximise profit by slowing output when margins are low. Instead, as a State Owned Enterprise, its role is to be a reliable supplier to downstream factories, to keep people employed.
□ Its OR% for the major product, ethylene, hit a low of 94% after the start of the Financial Crisis in 2009, but has averaged 102% since Sinopec first reported the data in 1998
□ Its OR% for propylene has also averaged 102%, but has shown more volatility as it can be sourced from a wider variety of plants. It is currently at 100%
Understanding China’s strategy is particularly important when forecasting demand for the major new petrochemical plants now coming online in N America. Conventional analysis might suggest that China’s plants might shutdown, if imports could be provided more cheaply from US shale-based production. But that is not China’s strategy.
Communist Party rule since Deng Xiaoping’s famous Southern Tour in 1992 has always been based on the need to avoid social unrest by maintaining employment. There would therefore be no benefit to China’s leadership in closing plants. In fact, China is heading in the opposite direction with the current 5-Year Plan, as I discussed last month.
The Plan aims to increase self-sufficiency in the ethylene chain from 49% in 2015 to 62% in 2020. Similarly in the propylene chain, self-sufficiency will increase from 67% in 2015 to 93% in 2020.
It is therefore highly likely that China’s imports of petrochemicals and polymers will continue to decline, as I discussed last month. And if China follows through on its plans to develop a more service-based economy, based on the mobile internet, we could well seen exports of key polymers such as polypropylene start to appear in global markets.
The myth of oil market rebalancing has been a great money-maker for financial markets. Hedge funds were the first to benefit in H2 last year, as Reuters has reported, when:
“OPEC and some of the most important hedge funds active in commodities reached an understanding on oil market rebalancing during informal briefings held in the second half of 2016…. OPEC effectively underwrote the fund managers’ bullish positions by providing the oil market with detail about output levels and public messaging about high levels of compliance. In return, the funds delivered an early payoff for OPEC through higher oil prices and a shift from contango to backwardation that should have helped drain excess crude stocks.”
Then the investment banks had their day in the sun, raising $19.8bn in Q1 for private equity players anxious to bet on the idea that prices had stabilised at $50/bbl for US shale oil production. This was 3 times the amount raised in Q1 last year, when the price was recovering from its $27/bbl low.
There was only one flaw in the story – the rebalancing never happened. As the chart shows, OECD inventories are now heading back to their previous record highs, having risen 38.5mb since January’s OPEC deal began. As always, most countries failed to follow through on their commitments – non-OPEC compliance was just 66% in March, and Russia is still producing 50kpd more than its quota this month.
US inventories have also continued to rise, hitting all-time peaks, as the second chart confirms. Stocks would be even higher if US crude oil exports hadn’t surged by 90% versus last year to reach 706bpd this month. This is hardly surprising. Major cost-cutting over the past 3 years means that a company such as ExxonMobil now has an average cash operating cost of less than $10/bbl.
US producers have been laughing all the way to the bank, as the third chart confirms, showing the recovery in the US drilling rig count. Not only have they been able to hedge their output into 2019 at today’s artificially high prices. But they have also been able to ramp up their use of modern, highly efficient horizontal rigs. These now dominate drilling activity, and are a record 84% of the total in use – reversing the ratio seen before shale arrived.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what will likely happen next:
US production and exports will keep rising as all the new rigs are put to work – there are already 5500 drilled but uncompleted wells waiting to come onstream. Meanwhile, US demand will likely hit a seasonal peak – Memorial Day on 29 May usually marks the moment when refiners finish building inventory ahead of the US driving season
China’s slowing economy will not provide much support. It became a net exporter of fuel products in Q4 last year and February data showed net gasoline exports at 1.05 million tonnes, as they jumped 77% versus 2016. Diesel exports were also up 67% as refiners followed the US in trying to reduce their domestic supply glut
India’s domestic demand is still suffering from the after-effects of the demonetisation programme. It was down 4.5% in January, and was still down 0.6% in March versus a year ago. Japan’s demand is also down, with the government expecting it to fall 1.5%/year through 2022 due to the combined impact of its ageing population and increasing fuel efficiency. S Korean demand is also expected to continue falling for similar reasons
OPEC may well extend its quotas for another 6 months, but this will just give more support to US shale producers. And within OPEC, Iraq plans to boost output to 5mbd by year-end, versus 4.57mbd in February, whilst Libya aims to double its March output of 622kbd, and Iran has already increased its exports to 3mbd for the first time since 1979
Unless geopolitical events intervene, it is therefore hard to see how the myth that the oil market is now rebalancing can be sustained for much longer.
It could be a very difficult H2 for anyone involved in the Asian oil and polymer markets. And given the global importance of these markets, everyone around the world will also feel the impact. The issue is that most business strategies have been based on 2 increasingly unlikely assumptions:
Companies all assumed that oil prices would stay at $100/bbl or higher forever
They also assumed that China’s economy would grow at double digit rates forever
It would have been hard enough if just one assumption had been wrong.
If oil prices had remained high, then companies based on natural gas might still have hoped to do well. If China’s demand had remained strong, then at least it would have been able to buy some of the planned new production. But as both assumptions seem likely to be wrong, companies have few places to hide:
China’s slowdown means that its gasoline and diesel exports are soaring. Gasoline exports rose 75% in H1 to 4.45 million tonnes, whilst diesel exports more than trebled to 6.6 million tonnes
The collapse of oil prices means that US polymer producers no longer have a major cost advantage versus oil-based producers in Asia and Europe
The end result of these two developments is likely to be chaos in oil and polymer markets.
Profits are already collapsing in Asian refining markets – they are down 83% since the start of the year and were just $2.21/bbl this week. And China is not the only country boosting its exports – India’s gasoline exports are up by nearly a quarter this year, whilst Saudi Arabia’s exports were up 76% between January – May.
Similar changes are taking place in China’s polymer markets, as the charts show. China’s polyethylene imports rose just 2% in H1 versus 2 years ago. Its polypropylene imports actually fell by nearly a quarter over the same period, as it ramped up new capacity based on very cheap imported propane.
And the underlying problems of too much supply chasing too little demand are likely to get worse, much worse, as we head into 2017, when all the new N American PE capacity will start to come online. Where will it all be sold is the big question? Can it all be sold?
Of course, the position might turn around if central banks do a mega-stimulus programme involving ‘helicopter money‘.
But the nightmare scenario for these producers is that the collapse of gasoline and diesel margins will now cause refiners to cut back production. In turn, this will further pressure oil markets – which are already struggling to cope with record high global inventories – and cause prices to return to parity with natural gas prices.
None of these concerns are new. I first raised them in a detailed analysis in March 2014, titled US boom is a dangerous game, when I warned:
“Shale gas thus provides a high-profile example of how today’s unprecedented demographic changes are creating major changes in business models. Low-cost supply is no longer a guarantee of future profitability. Any company sanctioning new investment without a firm guarantee of future offtake therefore risks finding itself landed with an expensive white elephant for the future.”
Unfortunately, however, consensus thinking preferred the analysis first described by Voltaire’s Candide – “that everything was for the best, in this best of all possible worlds“. Refiners and polymer producers could now find themselves in a very difficult situation as a result.
China’s move towards self-sufficiency is radically changing global oil and petrochemical markets,as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog
Markets used to cheer when China’s exports rose, believing this showed the global economy was in good shape. They are still hopeful today, despite the 25 per cent fall in February’s exports. But closer analysis of China’s important refining and petrochemical sector shows that a paradigm shift is under way.
No more is China’s economy based on importing raw materials and exporting low-cost manufactured goods. Instead, the focus is on using the new capacity built during the 2009–13 stimulus period to maintain employment and boost China’s self-sufficiency.This has two important consequences for companies and investors.
• It means that China’s status as a leading oil importer has decoupled from its domestic use, making judgements about oil market demand and its own economic outlook more complex.
• It also means that traditional exporters have lost their markets in China and are instead seeing Chinese exports enter already over-supplied Asian markets, causing margins to slide.
Diesel markets highlight some of the changes under way. China’s diesel consumption dropped 4% in 2015 as its economy slowed, but refiners were able to raise runs to 10.5m bbls/day by boosting exports. Diesel exports rose 75% versus 2014, whilst gasoline and jet fuel exports rose 16%.
Runs are expected to increase 5% in 2016 as China has doubled fuel-export quotas, leading to expectations of at least a 70% rise in diesel exports. In turn, this will pressure Asian refining margins, which are expected to average about a third less in 2016 at around $10/bbl.
Petrochemical markets are similarly changing direction, as China focuses on building self-sufficiency in critical areas. China used to be the world’s largest importer of PTA (terephthalic acid), the main raw material in polyester manufacture. But annual imports have collapsed from 6.5m tonnes to near zero over the past four years, as China’s own capacity has ramped up.
China was also the leading importer of PVC, but these volumes have similarly disappeared as domestic production has risen 39% since 2010, while China’s construction boom has ended. Other major petrochemical products seem set to follow the same path: polypropylene imports are already suffering as major new domestic capacity comes online.
These developments also highlight the key role of state owned enterprises (SOEs) such as Sinopec in supporting the change of direction. Sinopec is China’s largest refiner and petrochemical producer and, as the chart shows, it has invested $41bn (Rmb 288bn) since 1998 in capital expenditure for refining, and $33bn for chemicals. Over this period, it has lost $11bn at EBIT level in refining, and made just $15bn in chemicals. Overall, it has therefore invested $74bn in capex, for a combined EBIT of just $4bn.
Clearly no western company would ever dream of spending such large amounts of capital for so little reward. But as an SOE, Sinopec’s original mandate was to be a reliable supplier of raw materials to downstream factories, to maintain employment. More recently, the emphasis has changed to providing direct support to employment, through increased exports of refined products into Asian markets and increased self-sufficiency in petrochemicals.
We can expect this trend to continue during the new Five Year Plan for 2016–20. China’s main focus is now on its New Normal policies, which aim to create a more service-led economy based on the mobile internet. But it cannot allow its Old Normal economy, originally based on export-led growth and infrastructure spending, to disappear overnight. Sinopec therefore has a vital role to play in maintaining employment and wage growth in the urban areas.
These developments highlight the more complex investment world that we are entering as the Great Unwinding of policy stimulus continues.
Paul Hodges is chairman of International eChem and publisher of The pH Report.