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Analys

Price action signals a rapidly balancing market (2021 oil is cheap)

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror
SEB - Prognoser på råvaror - Commodity

It is a huge challenge to be an oil analyst these days because the changes are so fast, the magnitudes are so large and exact numbers are so hard to pinpoint. Early estimates/projections for declines in global oil demand in April has been in the range of minus 30 m bl/d to minus 17 m bl/d. The proof is in the pudding though: Inventories. Morgan Stanley’s latest estimate is that global oil inventories rose by 13.4 m bl/d in April. If that is the total inventory build for both crude and products, then early projections for a massive fall in global demand of up to 30 m bl/d is totally off the mark and the market could today be close to balanced.

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

Gunvor stated in mid-April that in their bottom-up analysis they could not find more than 70 m bl/d of demand versus a normal of 100 m bl/d. The US EIA in its April STEO report projected global demand down by 17 m bl/d vs its February report. The IEA estimated in its April report that global demand would be down by 23 m bl/d in Q2-20 vs Q2-19.

Actual data for supply and demand on a global scale are hard to aggregate and usually arrive several months after the fact. The estimates we have had so far are thus exactly that, estimates. Especially IEA’s April OMR forecast of a pull-back of 23 m bl/d YoY in Q2-20 as it is forward looking.

There is no doubt that the world to a large degree moved to an almost stand-still for a while and that oil demand has been hurt badly. How badly is the key question and how quickly it will recover.

The uncertainty over demand is huge, the range is wide and the magnitude of the demand shortfall for any of the estimates are all off the historical scale.

OPEC+ probably increased production by close to 2 m bl/d from March to April. Non-OPEC+ production may on the other hand have declined by up to 2 m bl/d. Production did over all at least not decline in April.

If we take the IEA’s projection of a pullback in demand of 23 m bl/d as the base assumption, then global inventories should have increased comparably in April. According to MS (via Bloomberg) the global build was more like 13 m bl/d in April based on satellite surveillance, onshore tank tracking, oil in transit and floating storage. If this reference is for both crude and oil products it means that even the very wide range of estimates we have been looking at so far are significantly off the mark.

If the IEA is correct in its assessment that global demand would stay 23 m bl/d below last year for all of Q2-20 then the historically large cut by OPEC+ of close to 11 m bl/d reduction from April to May and close to 9 m bl/d vs Jan/Feb would still leave the global oil market with a very large running surplus of oil of up to 12 m bl/d. If we factor in a 2-3 m bl/d decline in non-OPEC+ as well the surplus would still be close to 9 m bl/d in May which is enormous.

Such a surplus would imply further strong stock building, deepening contango in the crude curves and very bearish and declining spot crude oil prices. This is however not at all what we are seeing in the crude oil market these days. Spot prices are instead rising, and crude curves are flattening.

Price action these days would match much better with the reported stock building of 13.4 m bl/d in April estimated by MS (via Bloomberg). Assume that the demand short-fall in April was more like 13 m bl/d. Add in an oil demand recovery in May (due to economic opening) as well as a production cut of 9-11 m bl/d from OPEC+ (depending on base-line) and a non-OPEC+ production decline of 2-3 m bl/d then the global oil market in May would be close to balanced and could even be short.

Right now, the price action has been mostly focused on a flattening of crude oil curves. Bearish time-spreads are probably taken off rather than a full-fledged bullish buying spree. The reason for saying this is because the front-year Brent 2021 is trading at only $37.3/bl which is only $1.6/bl above its lowest closing price. The same goes for almost all the front-year 2021 oil product prices. They are all barely off their lows. They are at a bargain but maybe not for long.

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Analys

The ”normal” oil price is USD 97/b

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

The Dated Brent crude oil price ydy closed at USD 96/b. Wow, that’s a high price! This sensation however depends on what you think is ”normal”. And normal in the eyes of most market participants today is USD 60/b. But this perception is probably largely based on the recent experience of the market. The average Brent crude oil price from 2015-2019 was USD 58.5/b. But that was a period of booming non-OPEC supply, mostly shale oil. But booming shale oil supply is now increasingly coming towards an end. Looking more broadly at the last 20 years the nominal average price was USD 75/b. But in inflation adjusted terms it was actually USD 97/b.

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

Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Abdulaziz bin Salman, yesterday stated that its production cuts was not about driving the price up but instead it was preemptive versus the highly uncertain global economic development. In that respect it has a very good point. The US 2yr government bond rate has rallied to 5.06% which is the highest since 2006 and just a fraction away of being the highest since December 2000. The Chinese property market is struggling and global PMIs have been downhill since mid-2021 with many countries now at contractive, sub-50 level. Thus a deep concern for the health of the global economy and thus oil demand going forward is absolutely warranted. And thus the preemptive production cuts by Saudi Arabia. But killing the global economy off while it is wobbling with an oil price of USD 110-120/b or higher is of course not a smart thing to do either.

At the same conference in Canada yesterday the CEO of Aramco, Amin H. Nasser, said that he expected global oil demand to reach 110 m b/d in 2030 and that talk about a near term peak in global oil demand was ”driven by policies, rather than the proven combination of markets, competitive economics and technology” (Reuters).

With a demand outlook of 110 m b/d in 2030 the responsible thing to do is of course to make sure that the oil price stays at a level where investments are sufficient to cover both decline in existing production as well as future demand growth.

In terms of oil prices we tend to think about recent history and also in nominal terms. Most market participants are still mentally thinking of the oil prices we have experienced during the shale oil boom years from 2015-2019. The average nominal Brent crude price during that period was USD 58.5/b. This is today often perceived as ”the normal price”. But it was a very special period with booming non-OPEC supply whenever the WTI price moved above USD 45/b. But that period is increasingly behind us. While we could enjoy fairly low oil prices during this period it also left the world with a legacy: Subdued capex spending in upstream oil and gas all through these years. Then came the Covid-years which led to yet another trough in capex spending. We are soon talking close to 9 years of subdued capex spending.

If Amin H. Nasser is ballpark correct in his prediction that global oil demand will reach 110 m b/d in 2030 then the world should better get capex spending rolling. There is only one way to make that happen: a higher oil price. If the global economy now runs into an economic setback or recession and OPEC allows the oil price to drop to say USD 50/b, then we’d get yet another couple of years with subdued capex spending on top of the close to 9 years with subdued spending we already have behind us. So in the eyes of Saudi Arabia, Amin H. Nasser and Abdulaziz bin Salman, the responsible thing to do is to make sure that the oil price stays up at a sufficient level to ensure that capex spending stays up even during an economic downturn.

This brings us back to the question of what is a high oil price. We remember the shale oil boom years with an average nominal price of USD 58.5/b. We tend to think of it as the per definition ”normal” price. But we should instead think of it as the price depression period. A low-price period during which non-OPEC production boomed. Also, adjusting it for inflation, the real average price during this period was actually USD 72.2/b and not USD 58.5/b. If we however zoom out a little and look at the last 20 years then we get a nominal average of USD 75/b. The real, average inflation adjusted price over the past 20 years is however USD 97/b. The Dated Brent crude oil price yesterday closed at USD 96/b.

Worth noting however is that for such inflation adjustment to make sense then the assumed cost of production should actually rise along with inflation and as such create a ”rising floor price” to oil based on rising real costs. If costs in real terms instead are falling due to productivity improvements, then such inflation adjusted prices will have limited bearing for future prices. What matters more specifically is the development of real production costs for non-OPEC producers and the possibility to ramp up such production. Environmental politics in OECD countries is of course a clear limiting factor for non-OPEC oil production growth and possibly a much more important factor than the production cost it self.  

But one last note on the fact that Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, Abdulaziz bin Salman, is emphasizing that the cuts are preemptive rather then an effort to drive the oil price to the sky while Amin H. Nasser is emphasizing that we need to be responsible. It means that if it turns out that the current cuts have indeed made the global oil market too tight with an oil price spiraling towards USD 110-120/b then we’ll highly likely see added supply from Saudi Arabia in November and December rather than Saudi sticking to 9.0 m b/d. This limits the risk for a continued unchecked price rally to such levels.

Oil price perspectives. We tend to think that the nominal average Brent crude oil price of USD 58.5/b during the shale oil boom years from 2015-19 is per definition the ”normal” price. But that period is now increasingly behind us. Zoom out a little to the real, average, inflation adjusted price of the past 20 years and we get USD 97/b. In mathematical terms it is much more ”normal” than the nominal price during the shale oil boom years 

The new normal oil price
Source: SEB graph and calculations, Bloomberg data feed.

Is global oil demand about to peak 1: OECD and non-OECD share of global population

OECD and non-OECD share of global population
Source: SEB graph and calculations, UN population data

Is global oil demand about to peak 2: Oil demand per capita per year

Oil demand per capita per year
Source: SEB graph and calculations, BP oil data
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Analys

USD 100/b in sight but oil product demand may start to hurt

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

Some crude oil grades have already traded above USD 100/b. Tapis last week at USD 101.3/b. Dated Brent is trading at USD 95.1/b. No more than some market noise is needed to drive it above USD 100/b. But a perceived and implied oil market deficit of 1.5 to 2.5 m b/d may be closer to balance than a deficit. And if so the reason is probably that oil product demand is hurting. Refineries are running hard. They are craving for crude and converting it to oil products. Crude stocks in US, EU16 and Japan fell 23 m b in August as a result of this and amid continued restraint production by Saudi/Russia. But oil product stocks rose 20.3 m b with net draws in crude and products of only 2.7 m b for these regions. Thus indicating more of a balanced market than a deficit. Naturally there has been strong support for crude prices while oil product refinery margins have started to come off. Saudi/Russia is in solid control of the market. Both crude and product stocks are low while the market is either in deficit or at best in balance. So there should be limited down side price risk. But oil product demand is likely to hurt more if Brent crude rises to USD 110-120/b and such a price level looks excessive.

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

Crude oil prices have been on a relentless rise since late June when it became clear that Saudi Arabia would keep its production at 9 m b/d not just in July but also in August. Then later extended to September and then lately to the end of the year. On paper this has placed the market into a solid deficit. Total OPEC production was 27.8 m b/d in August and likely more or less the same in September. OPEC estimates that the need for oil from OPEC in Q3-23 is 29.2 m b/d which places the global market in a 1.4 m b/d deficit when OPEC produces 27.8 m b/d.

The proof of the pudding is of course that inventories actually draws down when there is a deficit. A 1.4 m b/d of deficit for 31 days in August implies a global inventory draw of 43.4 m b/d. If we assume that OECD countries accounts for 46% of global oil demand then OECD could/should have had a fair share of inventory rise of say 20 m b in August. Actual inventory data are however usually a lagging set of data so we have to work with sub sets of data being released on a higher frequency. And non-OECD demand and inventory data are hard to come by.

If we look at oil inventory data for US, EU16 and Japan we see that crude stocks fell 23 m b in August while product stocks rose 20.3 m b with a total crude and product draw of only 2.7 m b. I.e. indicating close to a balanced market in August rather than a big deficit. But it matters that crude stocks fell 23 m b. That is a tight crude market where refineries are craving and bidding for crude oil together with speculators who are buying paper-oil. So refineries worked hard to buy crude oil and converting it to oil products in August. But these additional oil products weren’t gobbled up by consumers but instead went into inventories.

Rising oil product inventories is of course  a good thing since these inventories in general are low. And also oil product stocks are low. The point is more that the world did maybe not run a large supply/demand deficit of 1.5 to 2.5 m b/d in August but rather had a more balanced market. A weaker oil product demand than anticipated would then likely be the natural explanation for this. Strong refinery demand for crude oil, crude oil inventory draws amid a situation where crude inventories already are low is of course creating an added sense of bullishness for crude oil.

On the one hand strong refinery demand for crude oil has helped to drive crude oil prices higher amid continued production cuts by Saudi Arabia. Rising oil product stocks have on the other hand eased the pressure on oil products and thus softened the oil product refinery margins.

The overall situation is that Saudi Arabia together with Russia are in solid control of the oil market. Further that the global market is either balanced or in deficit and that both crude and product stocks are still low. Thus we have a tight market both in terms of supplies and inventories. So there should be limited downside in oil prices. We are highly likely to see Dated Brent moving above USD 100/b. It is now less than USD 5/b away from that level and only noise is needed to bring it above. Tupis crude oil in Asia traded at USD 101.3/b last week. So some crude benchmarks are already above the USD 100/b mark.

While Dated Brent looks set to hit USD 100/b in not too long we are skeptical with respect to further price rises to USD 110-120/b as oil product demand likely increasingly would start to hurt. Unless of course if we get some serious supply disruptions. But Saudi Arabia now has several million barrels per day of reserve capacity as it today only produces 9.0 m b/d. Thus disruptions can be countered. Oil product demand, oil product cracks and oil product inventories is a good thing to watch going forward. An oil price of USD 85-95/b is probably much better than USD 110-120/b for a world where economic activity is likely set to slow rather than accelerate following large interest rate hikes over the past 12-18 months.

OPEC’s implied call-on-OPEC crude oil. If OPEC’s production stays at 27.8 m b/d throughout Q3-23 and Q4-23 then OPECs numbers further strong inventory draws to the end of the year.

OPEC's implied call-on-OPEC crude oil.
Source: SEB graph and calculations. Call-on-OPEC as calculated by OPEC in its Sep report.

Net long speculative positions in Brent crude and WTI. Speculators have joined the price rally since end of June.

Graph of net long speculative positions in Brent crude and WTI.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

End of month crude and product stocks in m b in EU16, US and Japan. Solid draw in crude stocks but also solid rise in product stocks. In total very limited inventory draw. Refineries ran hard to convert crude to oil products but these then went straight into inventories alleviating low oil product inventories there.

End of month crude and product stocks
Source: SEB table, Argus data

ARA oil product refinery margins have come off their highs for all products as the oil product situation has eased a bit. Especially so for gasoline with now fading summer driving. But also HFO 3.5% cracks have eased back a little bit. But to be clear, diesel cracks and mid-dist cracks are still exceptionally high. And even gasoline crack down to USD 17.6/b is still very high this time of year.

ARA oil product refinery margins
Source: SEB graph and calculations

ARA diesel cracks in USD/b. Very, very high in 2022. Almost normal in Apr and May. Now very high vs. normal though a little softer than last year.

ARA diesel cracks in USD/b.
Source: SEB graph and calculations, Blbrg data

US crude and product stocks vs. 2015-2019 average. Still very low mid-dist inventories (diesel) and also low crude stocks but not all that low gasoline inventories.

US crude and product stocks vs. 2015-2019 average.
Source: SEB graph and calculations, Blbrg data feed

US crude and product stocks vs. 2015-2019 averages. Mid-dist stocks have stayed persistently low while gasoline stocks suddenly have jumped as gasoline demand seems to have started to hurt due to higher prices.

US crude and product stocks vs. 2015-2019 averages.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data feed.

Total commercial US crude and product stocks in million barrels. Rising lately. If large, global deficit they should have been falling sharply. Might be a blip?

Total commercial US crude and product stocks in million barrels.
Source: SEB graph and calculations, Blbrg data feed, EIA data
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Analys

USD 85/b or USD 110/b is up to Saudi/Russia to decide

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

The market is bewildered and cannot quite figure out whether the latest extension of Saudi Arabia’s unilateral cut to the end of the year is 1) A reflection of weakness to come and an effort to preemptively trying to avoid the oil price from falling below USD 85/b amid coming weakness, or 2) An effort do drive the oil price to USD 100-110/b by the end of the year. If the IEA’s latest calculations for global demand in Q3 and Q4 are correct and Saudi sticks to its cuts then global inventories will indeed decline by 250 million barrels by year end and Brent crude will rally to USD 100-110/b. And Saudi Arabia will get a lot of blame. One thing which is very clear though is that Saudi Arabia together with Russia is in comfortable control of the oil market and we’ll just have to accept the oil price they are aiming for.

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

OPEC produced 27.8 m b/d in August. The IEA in its latest OMR has calculated call-on-OPEC to be 30 m b/d in Q3-23 and 29.8 m b/d in Q4-23. So on paper the global market is running a deficit of 2.2 m b/d or 15.4 m b per week. If so we should see a decline in US oil inventories as they are impacted by the global balance. Maybe on par with US oil demand share of the world being close to 20%. I.e. we should expect to see an inventory decline in the US of at least 3 m b per week. Maybe more. And indeed that is also what we have seen. Ydy the US API released partial US inventory data indicating that US crude inventories declined 5.5 m b last week while gasoline inventories declined 5.1 m b. That is big and a clear signal that the market today is running at a significant deficit. Other signs of a tight market is the elevated level of backwardation in crude and oil product forward curves, rising official selling prices by Saudi and also the fact that Dubai crude is trading at a premium of close to USD 1/b versus Brent crude rather than the usual discount of USD 1-2-3/b.

In this perspective the extension of Saudi Arabia’s unilateral production cut to the end of the year is shocking. If the IEA is correct in its assessments then we would get a global inventory draw of about 250 million barrels from now to the end of the year. And if so the Brent crude oil price would indeed move to USD 100 – 110/b by the end of the year. Speculators can then doubt the market as much as they want. But such a physical deficit would most definitely drive the price up, up, up.

This deliberate action of driving the oil price to USD 100 – 110/b can then squarely be blamed on Saudi Arabia’s unilateral production cuts. Together with Russian export curbs of 0.3 m b/d of course. Everyone can accept that the oil price rallies to USD 100/b and higher due to unforeseen events. But here we are talking about deliberate action of driving the oil price higher in the face of a western world fighting hard to curb inflation while the Biden administration is also preparing for a re-election in 2024. Gasoline prices higher and higher. Hm, that is not at all what the US consumers wants, what Biden wants or what the Fed wants. So the latest action from Saudi Arabia, if it drives the oil price to USD 100/b or higher must indeed lead to political heat from the US.

But there is a possible excuse. We know that interest rates have been lifted rapidly over the past 12-18 months and that this is leading to global economic cooling for the year to come. Add China’s struggling housing market to this. Western consumers are buying less stuff from China. Chinese consumers are buying less stuff because they fear the economic situation. Chinese exports are down 8.8% YoY and imports are down 7.3% YoY.

Saudi Arabia has one of the biggest physical oil books in the world. As such it can see the cards of its oil purchasing clients on a 1-2-3 months forward basis. It can see what they are booking and ordering for the coming 1-2-3 months. IEA’s calculations is the global balance on paper. It is a static snapshot. But the world is dynamic and changing all the time. So it is possible that the extension of Saudi Arabia’s unilateral cut is a counter to weakness to come and an effort to avoid the oil price from falling below USD 85/b rather than an effort to drive the oil price to USD 100/b or higher. It is impossible to know for sure. What we can be pretty confident about however is that Saudi Arabia together with Russia are comfortably running the show.

Another twist here is also that even if Saudi Arabia now has pledged to keep its production at 9 m b/d (vs. normal 10 m b/d) to end of December, it always has the option to change the course in October and November. I.e. if it turns out that the cuts are too deep and the market is overly short oil, then it can lift production November and December if need be.

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