The return of volatility is the key market risk for 2018

We are living in a strange world. As in 2007 – 2008, financial news continues to be euphoric, yet the general news is increasingly gloomy. As Nobel Prizewinner Richard Thaler, has warned, “We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping.” Both views can’t continue to exist alongside each other for ever. Whichever scenario comes out on top in 2018 will have major implications for investors and companies.

It therefore seems prudent to start building scenarios around some of the key risk areas – increased volatility in oil and interest rates, protectionism and the threat to free trade (including Brexit), and political disorder. One key issue is that the range of potential outcomes is widening.

Last year, for example, it was reasonable to use $50/bbl as a Base case forecast for oil prices, and then develop Upside and Downside cases using a $5/bbl swing either way. But today’s rising levels of uncertainty suggests such narrow ranges should instead be regarded as sensitivities rather than scenarios. In 2018, the risks to a $50/bbl Base case appear much larger:

  • On the Downside, US output is now rising very fast given today’s higher prices. The key issue with fracking is that the capital cost is paid up-front, and once the money has been spent, the focus is on variable cost – where most published data suggests actual operating cost is less than $10/bbl. US oil and product exports have already reached 7mbd, so it is not hard to see a situation where over-supplied energy markets cause prices to crash below $40/bbl at some point in 2018
  • On the Upside, instability is clearly rising in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman is already engaged in proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He has also arrested hundreds of leading Saudis, and fined them hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for their release. If he proves to have over-extended himself, the resulting political confusion could impact the whole Middle East, and easily take prices above $75/bbl

Unfortunately, oil price volatility is not the only risk facing us in 2018. As the chart shows, the potential for a debt crisis triggered by rising interest rates cannot be ignored, given that the current $34tn total of central bank debt is approaching half of global GDP. Most media attention has been on the US Federal Reserve, which is finally moving to raise rates and “normalise” monetary policy. But the real action has been taking place in the emerging markets. 10-year benchmark bond rates have risen by a third in China over the past year to 4%, whilst rates are now at 6% in India, 7.5% in Russia and 10% in Brazil.

An “inflation surprise” could well prove the catalyst for such a reappraisal of market fundamentals. In the past, I have argued that deflation is the likely default outcome for the global economy, given its long-term demographic and demand deficits. But markets tend not to move in straight lines, and 2018 may well bring a temporary inflation spike, as China’s President Xi has clearly decided to tackle the country’s endemic pollution early in his second term. He has already shutdown thousands of polluting companies in many key industries such as steel, metal smelting, cement and coke.

His roadmap is the landmark ‘China 2030’ joint report from the World Bank and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This argued that China needed to transition:   “From policies that served it so well in the past to ones that address the very different challenges of a very different future”.

But, of course, transitions can be a dangerous time, as China’s central bank chief, Zhou Xiaochuan, highlighted at the 5-yearly Party Congress in October, when warning that China risks a “Minsky Moment“, where lenders and investors suddenly realise they have overpaid for their assets, and all rush together for the exits – as in 2008 in the west.

Business as usual” is always the most popular strategy, as it means companies and investors don’t face a need to make major changes. But we all know that change is inevitable over time. And at a certain moment, time can seem to literally “stand still” whilst sudden and sometimes traumatic change erupts.

At such moments, as in 2008, commentators rush to argue that “nobody could have seen this coming“. But, of course, this is nonsense. What they actually mean is that “nobody wanted to see this coming“. Nobody wanted to be focusing on contingency plans when everybody else seemed to be laughing all the way to the bank.

I discuss these issues in more detail in my annual Outlook for 2018.  Please click here to download this, and click here to watch the video interview with ICB deputy editor, Will Beacham.

The post The return of volatility is the key market risk for 2018 appeared first on Chemicals & The Economy.

Oil market supply/demand finally begins to matter again as commodity funds withdraw

WTI Sept17

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

OPEC Sept17

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.

 

Oil heads back below $30/bbl as hedge funds give up on OPEC

WTI Jul17Those 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.

 

Oil market rebalancing myth looks close to its sell-by date

Shale Apr17bThe 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.

Shale Apr17cUS 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.

Shale Apr17aUS 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.

 

Oil prices could halve as the speculative bubble starts to burst

US oil export Mar17The past few weeks have been a nightmare for the many hedge funds who gambled on higher oil prices. They obviously hadn’t realised that OPEC’s November quota agreement was most unlikely to lead to a major rebalancing of today’s vastly over-supplied market.  But as I suggested in December:

The simple fact is that the arrival of US shale production means OPEC are no longer the swing producer, able to control the world market. The quotas will have little effect in themselves, as most of the participants will cheat.  Instead, they will simply help to boost US oil and gas production, whilst turbo-charging the use of smart meters.”

Now the funds are finally starting to bail out of their positions.  As John Kemp of Reuters reported this week under the headline Hedge funds rush for exit after oil trade becomes crowded:

Hedge funds cut their bullish bets on oil by the largest amount on record in the week to March 14, according to the latest data published by regulators and exchanges. Hedge funds and other money managers cut their combined net long position in the three main futures and options contracts linked to Brent and WTI by a record 153 million barrels in just seven days.  The reduction in the net long position coincided with the sharp fall in oil prices, which started on March 8 and continued through March 14.

“Before the recent sell off, hedge fund managers had boosted their net long position in Brent and WTI by 530 million barrels between the middle of November and the middle of February.  Funds amassed a record 1.05 billion barrels of long positions, while short positions were cut to just 102 million barrels, the smallest number since oil prices started slumping in 2014. But large concentrations of hedge fund positions, and an imbalance between the long and short sides of the market, often precede a sharp reversal in oil prices.

Another sign of the hedge funds’ problem is that even after this sell-off, ThomsonReuters data shows their net position on WTI is still higher than in early August 2014 – just before the price collapse from $105/bbl began.  Or as Bloomberg noted:

The value of long positions for Brent and West Texas Intermediate crude, the global and U.S. benchmarks, reached a combined $56 billion on Feb. 23“.

$56bn is an awful lot of oil to have to try and sell in a falling market.  And of course, the hedge funds are well behind savvy traders such as Vitol and TOTAL, who have been selling their barrels of stored oil for some time.

Already, WTI prices are back at the $48/bbl level seen at the end of November, before the rally began.  Equally important is that the contango in the futures market has collapsed – with prices for May 2018 now just $0.30/bbl higher than for May this year.  $0.30c/bbl won’t pay insurance and storage costs for a year, so all that stored oil will now have to be sold, as quickly as possible.

US Permian Mar17US SHALE OIL OUTPUT IS RAMPING UP VERY QUICKLY
The funds, and many observers, have simply failed to recognise that the structure of the US shale oil market has completely changed in the past 2 years.  As I discussed 18 months ago under the heading, Oil price forecasts based on myths, not proper analysis, each well no longer has to be redrilled every few months, .

Today, the Permian Basin in Texas/New Mexico has become the showpiece field for modern shale production.  Latest EIA data shows its production next month is forecast to be 2.3mbd, nearly half of total shale production of 5mbd.  It also has almost of a third of the 5443 ‘Drilled but Uncompleted” wells, now waiting to produce oil and gas in the major shale fields.  And as the chart above shows:

   Its oil production per rig has more than doubled over the past 2 years due to horizontal drilling
   Each rig now produces 662 bbls/day compared to 288 bbls/day in March 2015
   Since May last year, the number of rigs in operation has more than doubled – from only 137 to 300 last month
   As each rig normally takes 6 – 9 months to finish its work, the major expansion of production is still to come

EM Permian Mar17

Unsurprisingly, major oil producers are heavily invested in the field, with ExxonMobil having just spent $5.6bn to buy 3.4bn bbls of oil equivalent reserves. As the Forbes chart shows, EM’s cash operating cost was already less than $10/bbl last year.   And EM now plans to more than double its rigs in the Basin to 25 after the investment closes.

Of course geopolitical events, such as a US bombing of N Korea, could change these dynamics overnight.

But anyone still gambling on higher oil prices and a rapid rebalancing of the market, probably has a very nasty shock ahead of them.  The simple fact is that not only are US inventories at near-record levels but, as the top chart shows, the US is now also exporting 5mbd of crude and oil products – and this volume is rising month by month.

It would be no surprise at all, if prices fell back to their median level since 1861 of $23/bbl in the next few months. And they might have to go even lower, temporarily, as many producers happily hedged themselves at $50/bbl for the rest of this year, when the speculative bubble was at its height.

Hedge funds exit oil price rally as Saudi plans post-oil economy

WTI Apr16Within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil“.

This critical statement from Saudi Arabia’s deputy Crown Prince has been lost in the hype surrounding Q1′s hedge fund-inspired rally in oil, commodities and Emerging Markets.  There has seldom been a better example of markets failing to see the bigger picture by remaining focused on day-to-day detail.

But Q2 is likely to see attention return to the fundamentals of oil market supply and demand.  This week’s commodities market data showed the hedge funds were already starting to take their bets off the table.  This is hardly surprising, with prices having jumped 50% in a matter of weeks:

  • Iran is successfully re-entering the market, with its exports to India already up 4-fold since January to 500kbbl/day, and other Asian countries also keen to buy
  • US storage operators are resorting to ever-more desperate manoeuvres to stop their tanks from over-flowing

As I warned last month, the rally had nothing to do with a rebalancing of oil markets – either via major cuts in production, or a sudden increase in demand.  Instead, it was all about the funds betting, correctly, that further stimulus was on the way from the central banks.  As the Financial Times noted:

  • By the end of March, the funds had built a record long position of 579m bbls in Brent/WTI
  • This was equivalent to almost 6 days of global demand

But last week, they began to take their profits and close their positions. Chemical markets thus face major challenges:

  • Prices for the major petrochemicals are highly correlated to crude oil prices – most are more than 95% correlated
  • So sales managers are already busy raising their prices to try and maintain their margins
  • Purchasing managers are meanwhile building inventory to protect their own margins

And they are not alone.  The Q1 rally spread across the commodity sector, and led to major bond and share price rises for commodity exporters and Emerging Markets.  But none of the move was real.  It was simply the hedge funds spotting a short-term opportunity for profit, based on the realisation that another central bank panic was on the way.

So now, as one would expect, the smart funds are not hanging round to see what happens next.  Of course, US oil inventories will reduce as we head into the main driving season.  But fundamentals didn’t drive the rally, and the funds know all-too-well that sudden rallies can disappear as quickly as they appeared.

Attention is thus likely to turn to last week’s 5 hour Bloomberg interview with the deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. It confirmed, as I have argued for the past 18 months, that Saudi is focused on making plans for the post-oil world and highlighted, for example:

“His obsession with moving the Saudi economy away from oilAramco’s new strategy will transform it from an oil and gas company to an energy/industrial company”.

Companies and investors have to follow market trends, as they cannot afford to be on the wrong side of 50% rallies.  But they also have to recognise that the biggest rallies always occur in bear markets.  Oil’s next move may well be another 50% decline, and as I warned last month:

” If prices collapse again as the hedge funds take their profits, companies will face the risk of bankruptcy as we head into Q3.  They will be sitting on high prices in a falling market – just as happened in January. Only Q3 could be worse, being seasonally weak, and so it may take a long time to work off high-priced inventory”.