Oil markets remain poised between fear of recession and fear of a US attack on Iran. But gradually it seems that fears about a war are reducing, whilst President Trump’s decision to ramp up the trade war with China makes recession far more likely.
The chart of Brent prices captures the current uncertainties:
- It shows monthly prices for Brent since 1983 and highlights the conflicting risks
- The bulls have been battling to push prices higher, but their confidence is weakening
- The bears were hurt by the stimulus from US tax cuts and OPEC output cuts
- But June’s abandonment of the Iran attack lifted their confidence
As a member of the President’s national security advisory team has noted:
“This is a president who was elected to get us out of war. He doesn’t want war with Iran.”
With fears about a potential war reducing, at least for the moment, attention has instead turned to issues of supply and demand. And here, again, the balance of different factors has turned negative:
- As the second chart shows, supply from the 3 major countries remains at a high level
- The US is the largest producer, and August’s output is now recovering after the slowdown in the Gulf of Mexico due to Hurricane Barry, and the EIA is forecasting new record highs this year and 2020
- 3 new pipelines are also coming online during H2, which will boost US oil export potential
- Meanwhile Russia, as usual, has failed to follow through on its commitment to the OPEC cuts. Its output rose by 2% in January-July versus 2018, despite May/June’s contamination problems
- As always with OPEC output cuts, Saudi Arabia has been forced to fill the gap. Its volume dipped to 9.8mbd in July, well below the 11mbd peak last November
Overall, global supply has remained strong with EIA estimating Q2 output at 100.6mbd versus 99.8mbd in Q2 last year. Contrary to last year’s optimism over global economic recovery, EIA suggests Q2 consumption only rose to 100.3mbd, versus 99.6mbd in Q2 last year.
And the normally bullish International Energy Agency last week cut its demand forecast for this year and 2020 warning:
“The outlook is fragile with a greater likelihood of a downward revision than an upward one…Under our current assumptions, in 2020, the oil market will be well supplied.”
The third chart, from Orbital Insight, highlights the changes that have been taking place in inventory levels in the major regions.
Generated from satellite images of floating roof tank farms, it is based on estimates of the volume of oil in each tank, which are then aggregated to regional or country level.
Oil markets are by nature opaque. But Orbital’s data does show a very high correlation with EIA’s estimates for Cushing – where the official data is very reliable.
As discussed here many times before, the chemical industry is the best leading indicator for the global economy, due to its wide range of applications and geographic coverage. The fourth chart shows the steady downward trend since December 2017 in the data on Capacity Utilisation from the American Chemistry Council.
Q2 has shown the usual seasonal ‘bounce’, but key end-user markets such as electronics, autos and housing are also clearly weakening, as discussed last week for smartphones. And Bloomberg has reported that US inventory levels at major warehouses are close to being full.
I suggested back in May that prudent companies would develop a scenario approach that planned for both war and recession, given that the outcome was then essentially unknowable.
Today, both scenarios are clearly still possible. But it would seem sensible to now step up planning for recession, given the downbeat signals from oil and chemical markets.
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
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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Oil and commodity markets long ago lost contact with the real world of supply and demand. Instead, they have been dominated by financial speculation, fuelled by the vast amounts of liquidity pumped out by the central banks. The chart above from John Kemp at Reuters gives the speculative positioning in the oil complex as published last Monday:
- It shows hedge fund positioning in terms of the ratio of long to short positions across the complex
- The ratio had been at a near-record low of 1.55x back in June last year, before the rally took off
- On 30 January it had risen to a record 11.9x – far above even the 2014 and 2017 peaks
The size of the rally has also been extraordinary, as I noted 2 weeks ago. At its peak, the funds owned 1.5bn barrels of oil and products – equivalent to an astonishing 16 days of global oil demand. They had bought 1.2bn barrels since June, creating the illusion of very strong demand. But, of course, hedge funds don’t actually use oil, they only trade it.
The funds also don’t normally hang around when the selling starts. And so last week, as the second chart shows, they began to sell their positions and take profits. The rally peaked at $71/bbl at the end of January, and then topped out on 2 February at $70/bbl. By last Friday, only a week later, Brent was at $63/bbl, having fallen 11% in just one week.
Of course, nothing had changed in the outlook for supply/demand, or for the global economy, during the week. And this simple fact confirms how the speculative cash has come to dominate real-world markets. The selling was due to nervous traders, who could see prices were challenging a critical “technical” point on the chart:
- Most commodity trading is done in relation to charts, as it is momentum-based
- The 200 day exponential moving average (EMA) is used to chart the trend’s strength
- When the oil price reached the 200-day EMA (red line), many traders got nervous
- And as they began to sell, so others began to follow them as momentum switched
The main sellers were the legal highwaymen, otherwise known as the high-frequency traders. Their algorithm-based machines do more than half of all daily trading, and simply want a trend to follow, milli-second by milli-second. As the Financial Times warned in June:
“The stock market has become a battlefield of algorithms, ranging from the simple – ETFs bought by retirees that may invest in the entire market, an industry, a specific factor or even themes like obesity – to the complex, commanded by multi-billion dollar “quantitative” hedge funds staffed by mathematicians, coders and data scientists.”
JP Morgan even estimates that only 10% of all trading is done by “real investors”:
“Passive and quantitative investors now account for about 60% of the US equity asset management industry, up from under 30% a decade ago, and reckons that only roughly 10% of trading is done by traditional, “discretionary” traders, as opposed to systematic rules-based ones.”
Probably prices will now attempt to stabilise again before resuming their downward movement. But clearly the upward trend, which took prices up by 60% since June, has been broken. Similar collapses have occurred across the commodity complex, with the CRB Index showing a 6% price fall across major commodities:
- Typically, inventory build ahead of price rises can add an extra month of “apparent demand” to real demand
- This inventory will now have to be run down as buyers destock to more normal levels again
- This means we can expect demand to slow along all the major value chains
- Western companies will now see slow demand through Easter: Asia will see slow demand after Lunar New Year
This disappointment will end the myth that the world is in the middle of a synchronised global recovery. In turn, it will cause estimates of oil demand growth to be reduced, further weakening prices. It will also cause markets to re-examine current myths about the costs of US shale oil production:
- As the charts from Pioneer Natural Resources confirm, most shale oil breakeven costs are below $30/bbl
- Pioneer’s own operating costs, typical of most of the major players, are below $10/bbl
- So the belief that shale oil needs a price of $50/bbl to support future production is simply wrong
PREPARE FOR PROFIT WARNINGS AND POTENTIAL BANKRUPTCIES BY THE SUMMER
Over the summer, therefore, many industrial companies will likely need to start issuing profit warnings, as it becomes clear that demand has failed meet expectations. This will put stock markets under major pressure, especially if interest rates keep rising as I discussed last month.
Smart CEOs will now start to prepare contingency plans, in case this should happen. We can all hope the recent downturn in global financial markets is just a blip. But hope is not a strategy. And the risk of profit warnings turning into major bankruptcies is extremely high, given that global debt now totals $233tn, more than 3x global GDP.
I strongly believe that forecasts should be monitored, which is why I always review the previous Annual Budget forecast before issuing the next Outlook, and always publish the complete list of Annual Budget Outlooks.
Since January, I have also been monitoring my blog forecasts, using the percentage mechanism highlighted in Philip Tetlock’s masterly “Superforecasting” book. Today’s forecast for oil prices to fall initially to $50/bbl is therefore now added to those on ethylene/polyethylene and the US 10-year interest rate. I am also increasing the confidence level for the interest rate forecast to 70%, and will continue to update these levels when circumstances change.
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“. George Santayana
9 months ago, it must have seemed such a good idea. Ed Morse of Citi and other oil market analysts were calling the hedge funds with a sure-fire winning strategy, as the Wall Street Journal reported in May:
“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.
“Group officials made the case for how supply cuts from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would reduce the global glut…. Mr. Morse of Citigroup said he arranged introductions between OPEC Secretary-General Mohammad Barkindo and the more than 100 hedge-fund managers and other oil buyers who have met with Mr. Barkindo in Washington, D.C., New York and London since October…
“After asking what OPEC planned to do to boost prices, fund managers came away impressed, Mr. Morse said, adding that some still text with the OPEC leader.”
Today, however, hype is disappearing and the reality of today’s over-supplied oil market is becoming ever more obvious. As the International Energy Agency warned in its latest report:
“In April, total OECD stocks increased by more than the seasonal norm. For the year-to-date, they have actually grown by 360 kb/d…”Whatever it takes” might be the (OPEC) mantra, but the current form of “whatever” is not having as quick an impact as expected.”
As a result, the funds are counting their losses and starting to withdraw from the market they have mis-read so badly:
Pierre Andurand of Andurand Capital reportedly made a series of bullish bets after meeting a Saudi OPEC official in November, but saw his fund down 16% by May 5
Once nicknamed “God” for his supposed ability to forecast the oil market, Andy Hall’s $2bn Astenbeck Capital fund lost 17% through April on bullish oil market bets
In a sign of the times, Hall has told his investors that he expects “high levels of inventories” to persist into next year. Consensus forecasts in April/May that prices would rally $10/bbl to $60/bbl have long been forgotten.
OIL MARKET FUNDAMENTALS ARE STARTING TO MATTER AGAIN
This therefore has the potential to be a big moment in the oil markets and, by extension, in the global economy.
It may well be that supply/demand fundamentals are finally starting to matter again. If so, this will be the final Act of a drama that began around a year ago, when the young and inexperienced Mohammed bin Salman became deputy Crown Prince and then Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia:
He abandoned veteran Oil Minister Naimi’s market-share strategy and aimed for a $50/bbl floor price for oil
This gave US shale producers a “second chance” to drill with guaranteed profits, and they took it with both hands
Since then, the number of US drilling rigs has more than doubled from 316 in May 2016 to 763 last week
Even more importantly, the introduction of deep-water horizontal drilling techniques means rig productivity in key fields such as the vast Permian basin has trebled over the past 3 years from 200bbls/day to 600 bbls/day
The chart above shows what the hedge funds missed in their rush to jump on the OPEC $50/bbl price floor bandwagon.
They only focused on the weekly inventory report produced by the US Energy Information Agency (EIA). They forgot to look at the EIA’s other major report, showing US oil and product exports:
US inventories have indeed remained stable so far this year as the blue shaded area confirms
But US oil and product exports have continued to soar – adding nearly 1mb/day to 2016′s 4.6mb/day average
This means that each week, an extra 6.6mbbls have been moving into export markets to compete with OPEC output
Without these exports, US inventories would have risen by another 13%, as the green shaded area highlights
In addition, the number of drilled but uncompleted wells – ready to produce – has risen by 10% since December
These exports and new wells are even more damaging to the OPEC/Russia pricing strategy than the inventory build:
Half-way across the world, India’s top refiner is planning to follow China and Japan in buying US oil
US refiners are ramping up gasoline/diesel exports, with Valero planning 1mb of storage in Mexico
As Naimi warned 2 years ago, Saudi risked being marginalised if it continued to cut production to support prices:
“Saudi Arabia cut output in the 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.”
How low oil prices will go as the market now rebalances is anyone’s guess.
But they remain in a very bearish pattern of “lower lows and lower highs”. This suggests it will not be long before they go below last year’s $27/bbl price for Brent and $26/bbl for WTI.
On Monday, I discussed how OPEC abandoned Saudi Oil Minister Naimi’s market share strategy during H2 last year.
Naimi’s strategy had stopped the necessary investment being made to properly exploit the new US shale discoveries. But this changed as the OPEC/non-OPEC countries began to talk prices up to $50/bbl. As CNN reported last week:
“Cash is pouring into the Permian, lured by a unique geology that allows frackers to hit multiple layers of oil as they drill into the ground, making it lucrative to drill in the Permian even in today’s low prices.”
Private equity poured $20bn into the US shale industry in Q1
Major oil companies were also active, with ExxonMobil spending $5.6bn in February
US oil/product inventories have already risen by 54 million barrels since January last year and are, like OECD inventories, at record levels. And yet now, OPEC and Russia have decided to double down on their failing strategy by extending their output quotas to March 2018, in order to try and maintain a $50/bbl floor price. US shale producers couldn’t have hoped for better news. As the chart shows:
US inventories would be even higher if the US wasn’t already exporting nearly 5 million barrels/day of oil products
It is also exporting 500 kb/d of oil since President Obama lifted the ban in December 2015
Nobody seems to pay much attention to this dramatic about-turn as they instead obsess on weekly inventory data
But these exports are now taking the fight to OPEC and Russia in some of their core markets around the world
None of this would have happened if Naimi’s policy had continued. Producers could not have raised the necessary capital with prices below $30/bbl. But now they have spent the capital, cash-flow has become their key metric.
The second chart confirms the turnaround that has taken place across the US shale landscape, as the oil rig count has doubled over the past year. Drilling takes between 6 – 9 months to show results in terms of oil production, and so the real surge is only just now beginning. Equally important, as the Financial Times reports, is that today’s horizontal wells are far more productive:
“This month 662 barrels/d will be produced from new wells in the Permian for every rig that is running there, according to the US government’s Energy Information Administration. That is triple the rate of 217 b/d per rig at the end of 2014.”
Before too long, the oil market will suddenly notice what is happening to US shale production, and prices will start to react. Will they stop at $30/bbl again? Maybe not, given today’s record levels of global inventory.
As the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted last month, OECD stocks actually rose 24.1mb in Q1, despite the OPEC/non-OPEC deal. And, of course, as the IEA has also noted, the medium term outlook for oil demand has also been weakening as China and India focus on boosting the use of Electric Vehicles.
The current OPEC/non-OPEC strategy highlights the fact that whilst the West has begun the process of adapting to lower oil prices, many oil exporting countries have not. As Nick Butler warns in the Financial Times:
“Matching lower revenues to the needs of growing populations who have become dependent on oil wealth will not be easy. It is hard to think of an oil-producing country that does not already have deep social and economic problems. Many are deeply in debt.
“In Nigeria, Venezuela, Russia and even Saudi Arabia itself the latest fall, and the removal of the illusion that prices are about to rise again, could be dangerously disruptive. The effects will be felt well beyond the oil market.”