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Analys

Oil price is mostly fundamentals, not geopolitical risk premium

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Brent crude has recovered to above USD 90/b again. Risk premium due to Israel/Gaza? Maybe not so much at all. Latest data from the IEA indicates that the global oil market ran an implied deficit of 2.1 m b/d in August, a deficit of 0.7 m b/d in September and a likely deficit of 1.2 m b/d in Q4-23. Inventory draws have mostly taken place in floating stocks and in non-OECD. Inventories which are typically harder to track. Demand growth of 2.3 m b/d this year has more or less entirely taken place in non-OECD. As such it is not so strange that inventory draws have first taken place just there as well. But if we continue to run a deficit of 1.2 m b/d in Q4-23 then we should eventually see OECD stocks starting to draw down as well. This should keep oil prices well supported in Q4-23. The US EIA last week lifted its outlook for Brent crude for 2024 to USD 95/b (+7) on the back of slowing US shale oil growth leaving OPEC in good control of the market.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities at SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Brent crude sold off sharply at the end of September as longer dated bond yields rallied and markets feared that central banks would keep rates high for longer leading to a recession in the end with associated weak oil demand and falling oil price. One can of course question if that is the right interpretation. If market had really turned bearish on the economic outlook (recession, crash,..), then longer dated bond yields should have gone down and not up as they did. Hm, well, maybe oil was just ripe for a bearish correction following a long upturn in prices since late June and only needed some kind of bearish catalyst story to set off that correction in late September. The sell-off was short-lived as the attack on Israel by Hamas on 7 October made oil jump back up above USD 90/b again. The low-point in the recent sell-off was a close of USD 84/b on 6 October. With Brent crude now at USD 90/b the most immediate interpretation is that we now have a USD 6/b risk premium in the oil price due to Israel/Hamas/Gaza. The fear is that the conflict might spiral out and eventually lead to real loss of supply with Iran being most at risk there. But such geopolitical risk premiums are usually short-lived unless actual supply disruptions occur. The most immediate fear is that the US would impose harsher sanctions towards Iran which is Hamas’ biggest backer. But US Treasury Secretary Jannet Yellen stated on 11 Oct that the US has no plans to impose new sanctions on Iran.

So let’s leave possible recession fears as well as geopolitical risk premiums aside and instead just look at the current state and the outlook for the oil market. The three main monthly oil market reports from IEA, US EIA and OPEC were out last week. One thing that stands out is a continued disagreement of what oil demand is today and what it will be tomorrow. On 2024 the IEA and the EIA partially agrees while OPEC is in a camp of its own. But one thing is to have strongly diverging outlooks for demand in 2024. Another is to have extremely wide estimates for what demand is here and now in Q4-23. This shows that there is still a very high uncertainty of what is actually the current state of the oil market. Deficit, balanced, surplus?

Global oil demand
Source: EIA, IEA, OPEC

The most prominent of the three reports, the IEA, made few changes to its overall projects vs. its September report. Changes were typically +/- 100 k b/d or less for most items. The reports was however still very interesting with respect to clues to what is the actual state of the market balance. The proof of the pudding is always the change in oil inventories and as such always in hindsight. IEA data showed that global oil inventories declined by 63.8 m b in August which equals a deficit of 2.1 m b/d. Preliminary inventory data for September indicates an implied deficit of 0.7 m b/d.

Change in global oil inventories
Source: IEA, OMR Oct-23

Important here is that the stock draws in August mostly took place in oil on water and in non-OECD. These stocks are typically less easily observable. Oil markets are often highly focused on more easily observable data like the weekly US oil inventories as well as EU and Japan. The US commercial crude and product stocks have moved upwards since week 35 (late August) so that in the last data point the US commercial stocks are only 10 m b below the 2015-19 seasonal average. This has undoubtedly been a bearish factor for oil prices lately and probably contributed to the sell-off in late September, early October.

US crude and product stocks (excl. SPR)

US crude & products inventories (excluding SPR) in million barrels
Source: US EIA, Macrobond

1) The global August and September (indic.) inventory data from IEA gives credibility to its current assessment of the global oil market. For Q4-23 it estimates Call-on-OPEC at 29.3 m b/d. Russia and Saudi Arabia last week held a joint statement heralding that they would keep production at current level to the end of year. With OPEC production steady at 28 m b/d it implies a global oil market deficit of 1.2 m b/d. For H1-24 its estimates a call-on-OPEC of 27.7 m b/d. This means that Saudi Arabia and Russia will likely stick to their current production levels also in H1-24. But then the market will likely be balanced rather than in deficit like it has been in Q3-23 and Q4-23.

2) The global oil market is very large with significant dynamical time lags. IEA estimates a global consumption growth this year of 2.3 m b/d. China accounts for 77% of this and non-OECD accounts for 97%. So oil demand growth this year is all taking place in non-OECD. As such it is not so surprising that inventory draws have been taking place there and on-water rather than in the OECD. But a global deficit will eventually involve also the OECD inventories. The demand-pull this year has been all about non-OECD. First you draw down non-OECD supply chains, inventories and on-water oil. Then you start to pull more oil from the wider market which eventually involve a draw-down also in OECD inventories. IEA’s estimate of an implied deficit of about 1.2 m b/d in Q4-23. So if we have already drawn down non-OECD supply chains and oil on water we might start to see a significant draw in OECD stocks in Q4-23 if the market runs an estimated 1.2 m b/d as estimated by the IEA. 

3) Worth noting however is IEA’s warning that higher oil prices are starting to hurt demand. Demand in Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt are all down 10% or more while US demand for gasoline also has shown significant demand weaknesses. For 2024 the IEA only projects a global demand growth of 0.9 m b/d YoY along with weaker global economic growth. Non-OPEC production continues to grow robustly at 1.3 m b/d with the result that call-on-OPEC falls from 28.8 m b/d this year to 28.3 m b/d next year. This is of course negative for OPEC and gives a bearish tint to the oil market next year. But it is still not so weak that OPEC will give up on holding the price where they (Saudi/Russia) want it to be. But implies that Saudi/Russia/OPEC will have to stick to current production levels through most of 2024.

Floating crude oil stocks in million barrels

Floating crude oil stocks in million barrels
Source: SEB graph, Blbrg data

Analys

Fear that retaliations will escalate but hopes that they are fading in magnitude

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Brent crude spikes to USD 90.75/b before falling back as Iran plays it down. Brent crude fell sharply on Wednesday following fairly bearish US oil inventory data and yesterday it fell all the way to USD 86.09/b before a close of USD 87.11/b. Quite close to where Brent traded before the 1 April attack. This morning Brent spiked back up to USD 90.75/b (+4%) on news of Israeli retaliatory attack on Iran. Since then it has quickly fallen back to USD 88.2/b, up only 1.3% vs. ydy close.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

The fear is that we are on an escalating tit-for-tat retaliatory path. Following explosions in Iran this morning the immediate fear was that we now are on a tit-for-tat escalating retaliatory path which in the could end up in an uncontrollable war where the US unwillingly is pulled into an armed conflict with Iran. Iran has however largely diffused this fear as it has played down the whole thing thus signalling that the risk for yet another leg higher in retaliatory strikes from Iran towards Israel appears low.

The hope is that the retaliatory strikes will be fading in magnitude and then fizzle out. What we can hope for is that the current tit-for-tat retaliatory strikes are fading in magnitude rather than rising in magnitude. Yes, Iran may retaliate to what Israel did this morning, but the hope if it does is that it is of fading magnitude rather than escalating magnitude.

Israel is playing with ”US house money”. What is very clear is that neither the US nor Iran want to end up in an armed conflict with each other. The US concern is that it involuntary is dragged backwards into such a conflict if Israel cannot control itself. As one US official put it: ”Israel is playing with (US) house money”. One can only imagine how US diplomatic phone lines currently are running red-hot with frenetic diplomatic efforts to try to defuse the situation.

It will likely go well as neither the US nor Iran wants to end up in a military conflict with each other. The underlying position is that both the US and Iran seems to detest the though of getting involved in a direct military conflict with each other and that the US is doing its utmost to hold back Israel. This is probably going a long way to convince the market that this situation is not going to fully blow up.

The oil market is nonetheless concerned as there is too much oil supply at stake. The oil market is however still naturally concerned and uncomfortable about the whole situation as there is so much oil supply at stake if the situation actually did blow up. Reports of traders buying far out of the money call options is a witness of that.

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Analys

Fundamentals trump geopolitical tensions

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Throughout this week, the Brent Crude price has experienced a decline of USD 3 per barrel, despite ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. Price fluctuations have ranged from highs of USD 91 per barrel at the beginning of the week to lows of USD 87 per barrel as of yesterday evening.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

Following the release of yesterday’s US inventory report, Brent Crude once again demonstrated resilience against broader macroeconomic concerns, instead focusing on underlying market fundamentals.

Nevertheless, the recent drop in prices may come as somewhat surprising given the array of conflicting signals observed. Despite an increase in US inventories—a typically bearish indicator—we’ve also witnessed escalating tensions in the Middle East, coupled with the reinstatement of US sanctions on Venezuela. Furthermore, there are indications of impending sanctions on Iran in response to the recent attack on Israel.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has indicated that new sanctions targeting Iran, particularly aimed at restricting its oil exports, could be announced as early as this week. As previously highlighted, we maintain the view that Iran’s oil exports remain vulnerable even without further escalation of the conflict. It appears that Israel is exerting pressure on its ally, the US, to impose stricter sanctions on Iran, an action that is unfolding before our eyes.

Iran’s current oil production stands at close to 3.2 million barrels per day. Considering additional condensate production of about 0.8 million barrels per day and subtracting domestic demand of roughly 1.8 million barrels per day, the net export of Iranian crude and condensate is approximately 2.2 million barrels per day.

However, the uncertainty surrounding the enforcement of such sanctions casts doubt on the likelihood of a complete ending of Iranian exports. Approximately 80% of Iran’s exports are directed to independent refineries in China, suggesting that US sanctions may have limited efficacy unless China complies. The prospect of China resisting US pressure on its oil imports from Iran poses a significant challenge to US sanctions enforcement efforts.

Furthermore, any shortfall resulting from sanctions could potentially be offset by other OPEC nations with spare capacity. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for instance, can collectively produce an additional almost 3 million barrels of oil per day, although this remains a contingency measure.

In addition to developments related to Iran, the Biden administration has re-imposed restrictions on Venezuelan oil, marking the end of a six-month reprieve. This move is expected to impact flows from the South American nation.

Meanwhile, US crude inventories (excluding SPR holdings) surged by 2.7 million barrels last week (page 11 attached), reaching their highest level since June of last year. This increase coincided with a decline in measures of fuel demand (page 14 attached), underscoring a slightly weaker US market.

In summary, while geopolitical tensions persist and new rounds of sanctions are imposed, our market outlook remains intact. We maintain our forecast of an average Brent Crude price of USD 85 per barrel for the year 2024. In the short term, however, prices are expected to hover around the USD 90 per barrel mark as they navigate through geopolitical uncertainties and fundamental factors.

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Analys

Brace for Covert Conflict

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In the past two trading days, Brent Crude prices have fluctuated between highs of USD 92.2 per barrel and lows of USD 88.7 per barrel. Despite escalation tensions in the Middle East, oil prices have remained relatively stable over the past 24 hours. The recent barrage of rockets and drones in the region hasn’t significantly affected market sentiment regarding potential disruptions to oil supply. The key concern now is how Israel will respond: will it choose a strong retaliation to assert deterrence, risking wider regional instability, or will it revert to targeted strikes on Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq? While it’s too early to predict, one thing is clear: brace for increased volatility, uncertainty, and speculation.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

Amidst these developments, the market continues to focus on current fundamentals rather than unfolding geopolitical risks. Despite Iran’s recent attack on Israel, oil prices have slid, reflecting a sideways or slightly bearish sentiment. This morning, oil prices stand at USD 90 per barrel, down 2.5% from Friday’s highs.

The attack

Iran’s launch of over 300 rockets and drones toward Israel marks the first direct assault from Iranian territory since 1991. However, the attack, announced well in advance, resulted in minimal damage as Israeli and allied forces intercepted nearly all projectiles. Hence, the damage inflicted was limited. The incident has prompted US President Joe Biden to urge Israel to exercise restraint, as part of broader efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East.

Israel’s response remains uncertain as its war cabinet deliberates on potential courses of action. While the necessity of a response is acknowledged, the timing and magnitude remain undecided.

The attack was allegedly in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, resulting in significant casualties, including a senior leader in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. It’s notable that this marks the first direct targeting of Israel from Iranian territory, setting the stage for heightened tensions between the two nations.

Despite the scale of the attack, the vast majority of Iranian projectiles were intercepted before reaching Israeli territory. However, a small number did land, causing minor damage to a military base in the southern region.

President Biden swiftly condemned Iran’s actions and pledged to coordinate a diplomatic response with leaders from the G7 nations. The US military’s rapid repositioning of assets in the region underscores the seriousness of the situation.

Iran’s willingness to escalate tensions further depends on Israel’s response, as indicated by General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces. Meanwhile, speculation about a retaliatory attack from Israel persists.

Looking ahead, key questions remain unanswered. Will Iran launch additional attacks? How will Israel respond, and what implications will it have for the region? Moreover, how will Iran’s allies react to the escalating tensions?

Given the potential for a full-scale war between Iran and Israel, concerns about its impact on global energy markets are growing. Both the United States and China have strong incentives to reduce tensions in the region, given the destabilizing effects of a regional conflict.

Our view in conclusion

The recent escalation between Iran and Israel underscores the delicate balance of power in the volatile Middle East. With tensions reaching unprecedented levels and the specter of further escalation looming, the potential for a full-blown conflict cannot be understated. The ramifications of such a scenario would be far-reaching and could have significant implications for regional stability and global security.

Turning to the oil market, there has been much speculation about the possibility of a full-scale blockade of the Strait of Hormuz in the event of further escalation. However, at present, such a scenario remains highly speculative. Nonetheless, it is crucial to note that Iran’s oil production and exports remain at risk even without further escalation. Currently producing close to 3.2 million barrels per day, Iran has significantly increased its production from mid-2020 levels of 1.9 million barrels per day.

In response to the recent attack, Israel may exert pressure on its ally, the US, to impose stricter sanctions on Iran. The enforcement of such sanctions, particularly on Iranian oil exports, could result in a loss of anywhere between 0.5 million to 1 million barrels per day of oil supply. This would likely keep the oil market in deficit for the remainder of the year, contradicting the Biden administration’s wish to maintain oil and gasoline prices at sustainable levels ahead of the election. While other OPEC nations have spare capacity, utilizing it would tighten the global oil market even further. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, could collectively produce an additional almost 3 million barrels of oil per day if necessary.

Furthermore, both Iran and the US have expressed a desire to prevent further escalation. However, much depends on Israel’s response to the recent barrage of rockets. While Israel has historically refrained from responding violently to attacks (1991), the situation remains fluid. If Israel chooses not to respond forcefully, the US may be compelled to promise stronger enforcement of sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Consequently, Iranian oil exports are at risk, regardless of whether a wider confrontation ensues in the Middle East.

Analyzing the potential impact, approximately 2.2 million barrels per day of net Iranian crude and condensate exports could be at risk, factoring in Iranian domestic demand and condensate production. The effectiveness of US sanctions enforcement, however, remains uncertain, especially considering China’s stance on Iranian oil imports.

Despite these uncertainties, the market outlook remains cautiously optimistic for now, with Brent Crude expected to hover around the USD 90 per barrel mark in the near term. Navigating through geopolitical tensions and fundamental factors, the oil market continues to adapt to evolving conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.

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