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Reloading the US ’oil-gun’ (SPR) will have to wait until next downturn

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Brent crude traded down 0.4% earlier this morning to USD 91.8/b but is unchanged at USD 92.2/b at the moment. Early softness was probably mostly about general market weakness than anything specific to oil as copper is down 0.7% while European equities are down 0.3%. No one knows the consequences of what a ground invasion of Gaza by Israel may bring except that it will be very, very bad for Palestinians, for Middle East politics for geopolitics and potentially destabilizing for global oil markets. As of yet the oil market seems to struggle with how to price the situation with fairly little risk premium priced in at the moment as far as we can see. Global financial markets however seems to have a clearer bearish take on this. Though rallying US rates and struggling Chinese property market may be part of that.

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

The US has drawn down its Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) over the latest years to only 50% of capacity. Crude oil prices would probably have to rally to USD 150-200/b before the US would consider pushing another 100-200 m b from SPR into the commercial market. As such the fire-power of its SPR as a geopolitical oil pricing tool is now somewhat muted. The US would probably happily re-load its SPR but it is very difficult to do so while the global oil market is running a deficit. It will have to wait to the next oil market downturn. But that also implies that the next downturn will likely be fairly short-lived and also fairly shallow. Unless of course the US chooses to forgo the opportunity.  

The US has drawn down its Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) to only 50% of capacity over the latest years. Most of the draw-down was in response to the crisis in Ukraine as it was invaded by Russia with loss of oil supply from Russia thereafter.

The US has however no problems with security of supply of crude oil. US refineries have preferences for different kinds of crude slates and as a result it still imports significant volumes of crude of different qualities. But overall it is a net exporter of hydrocarbon liquids. It doesn’t need all that big strategic reserves as a security of supply any more. Following the oil crisis in the early 70ies the OECD countries created the International Energy Agency where all its members aimed to have some 100 days of forward oil import coverage. With US oil production at steady decline since the 70ies the US reached a peak in net imports of 13.4 m b/d in 2006. As such it should have held an SPR of 1340 million barrels. It kept building its SPR which peaked at 727 m b in 2012. But since 2006 its net imports have been in sharp decline and today it has a net export of 2.9 m b/d.

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Essentially the US doesn’t need such a sizable SPR any more to secure coverage of its daily consumption. As a result it started to draw down its SPR well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But then of course it fell fast and is today at 351 m b or about 50% of capacity.

The US is the largest oil consumer in the world. As such it is highly vulnerable to the price level of oil. The US SPR today is much more of a geopolitical tool than a security of supply tool. It’s a tool to intervene in the global oil market. To intervene in the price setting of oil. The US SPR is now drawn down to 50% but it still holds a sizable amount of oil. But it is little in comparison to the firepower of OPEC. Saudi Arabia can lower its production by 1 m b/d for one year and it will have eradicated 365 million barrels in global oil inventories. And then it can the same the year after and then the year after that again.

The US has now fired one big bullet of SPR inventory draws. It really helped to balance the global oil market last year and prevented oil prices from going sky high. With 350 m b left in its SPR it can still do more if needed. But the situation would likely need to be way more critical before the US would consider pushing yet another 100-200 m b of oil from its SPR into the global commercial oil market. An oil price of USD 150-200/b would probably be needed before it would do so.

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With new geopolitical realities the US probably will want to rebuild its SPR to higher levels as it is now an important geopolitical tool and an oil price management tool. But rebuilding the SPR now while the global oil market is running a deficit is a no-go as we see it.

An oil market downturn, a global recession, a global oil market surplus where OPEC no longer want to defend the oil price with reduced supply is needed for the US to be able to refill its SPR again unless it wants to drive the oil price significantly higher.

But this also implies that the next oil price downturn will likely be short-lived and shallow as the US will have to use that opportunity to rebuild its SPR. It’s kind off like reloading its geopolitical oil gun. If it instead decides to forgo such an opportunity then it will have to accept that its geopolitical maneuverability in the global oil market stays muted.

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Net US oil imports in m b/d and US Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) in million barrels. The US doesn’t need strategic petroleum reserves for the sake of security of supply any more. But it is a great geopolitical energy-tool to intervene in the price setting of oil in the global market place.

Net US oil imports in m b/d and US Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) in million barrels
Source: SEB graph, EIA data from Blbrg

Analys

Crude oil comment: Lack of clear direction

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This week, Brent crude prices have declined by USD 2.3 per barrel (2.8%) since Monday’s opening, driven by fundamental market factors. The current price is near its weekly low at USD 81.8 per barrel, down from Monday’s high of USD 84.5 per barrel.

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

The price has fallen by nearly USD 1 per barrel since yesterday afternoon. This week’s downward trend can be attributed to three main factors:

1. Upcoming OPEC+ Meeting:

OPEC+ is scheduled to meet on June 1st for the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee (JMMC). Initially planned as a physical meeting in Vienna, it will now be fully digital, suggesting no major discussions or changes. We anticipate that the meeting will result in the extension of current production cuts into Q3 2024. OPEC+ aims to signal a tight yet well-supplied market, maintaining the status quo and minimizing significant market reactions.

2. U.S. Inventory Report:

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Wednesday’s U.S. inventory report had a bearish impact on the market, showing a build in commercial crude inventories (excl. SPR) by 1.8 million barrels, contrary to the expected 1.9-million-barrel draw. This was slightly more bullish than the American Petroleum Institute (API) forecast of a 2.5-million-barrel increase released on Tuesday.

Commercial crude inventories now stand at 458.8 million barrels, about 3% below the five-year average for this time of year. This build is counter-seasonal, as we usually see a draw at this time of the year. Gasoline inventories decreased by 0.9 million barrels, less than the anticipated draw of 1.2 million barrels. Distillate (diesel) inventories increased by 0.4 million barrels, against a consensus expectation of a 0.3-million-barrel draw, further defying typical seasonal trends and adding a bearish tone to the market, even though they remain about 7% below the five-year average. Overall, total inventories (crude + gasoline + distillate) rose by 1.3 million barrels.

Additionally, U.S. crude oil refinery inputs averaged 16.5 million barrels per day last week, an increase of 227 thousand barrels per day from the previous week. Refineries operated at 91.7% of their operable capacity, the highest since mid-January, as they ramp up following maintenance. Gasoline production averaged 10 million barrels per day, while distillate fuel production averaged 5.1 million barrels per day. A marginal improvement in refinery margins indicates healthier demand prospects leading into the driving season.

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3. FOMC Minutes and Economic Concerns:

The continued decline in oil prices can also be attributed to bearish pressure from hawkish Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) minutes, which raised concerns about persistent inflation. This could result in prolonged higher U.S. interest rates, potentially limiting future oil demand growth.

In summary, the combined effect of the upcoming OPEC+ meeting, the U.S. inventory report, and economic concerns highlighted in the FOMC minutes has contributed to the weakening of Brent crude prices this week.

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Analys

German solar power prices are collapsing as market hits solar saturation

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German solar power producers got a price haircut of 87% over the past 10 days. German solar power producers have over the past 10 days received a volume weighted power price of only EUR 9.1/MWh. The average power price during non-solar-power-hours was in comparison EUR 70.6/MWh. Solar power producers thus got an 87% cut in the power price they get when they produce vs. the power price during non-solar-power-hours. This is what happens to power prices when the volume of unregulated power becomes equally big or bigger than demand: Prices collapse when unregulated power produces the most.

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

Massive growth in solar power installations in Germany in 2023 is leading to destruction of solar hour prices and solar profitability. Germany installed a record 14,280 MW of solar power capacity According to ’PV Magazine International’. That is close to twice as much as in 2022. Total installed solar capacity reached 81.7 GW at the end of 2023 according to ’Renewables Now’. Average German demand load was in comparison 52.2 GW. So total solar capacity reached almost 30 GW above average demand. Solar power produces the most during summer when demand is lower. The overshoot is thus much larger than the 30 GW mentioned when it matters.

The collapse in solar-hour-power-prices implies a collapse in solar power producer earnings unless the earnings of the installations are secured with subsidies or by PPAs. It also means that there is a sharp reduction in the earnings potential for new solar power projects. The exponential growth in new installations of solar capacity we have seen to date is likely to come to an abrupt halt. There is however most likely still a large range of solar power projects under construction in Germany which will be finalized before growth in new capacity comes to a halt. The problem of solar power production curbs (you are not allowed to produce at all) and solar power price destruction is likely to escalate yet higher before new growth in supply comes to a halt. 

Focus will now shift from solar production capacity growth to grid improvements, batteries and adaptive demand. All consumers are of course happy for cheap power as long as they are able to consume it when it is cheap. At the moment they can’t. But the incentive to be inventive is now super high. The focus will now likely shift from solar power production growth to grids, batteries, adaptive demand and all possible ways to utilize ”free power”. This will over time exhaust the availability of ”free power” and drive solar-hour-power-prices back up. This again will then eventually open for renewed growth in solar power capacity growth.

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It is probably much worse down in the grid. What is worth noting is that these numbers are for all of Germany average. Solar power congestion is much worse in the local grids all around Germany along with local grid capacity constraints ect.

The problem of solar power is high concentration of production: 80% of German solar production was produced during 22.3% of the hours in the year in 2023. What is also worth mentioning is that solar power production is extremely concentrated in relatively few hours per year. It produces in the middle of the day and during summer. In 2023 German solar power produced 80% of its production in only 22.3% of the hours of the year. This basically implies that once solar power production reaches 22.3% of total power supply (without batteries), then solar-hour-power-prices will likely collapse. Solar power production reached 55 TWh in 2023. That’s a lot but it is still only 12% of total demand of 458 TWh in 2023. What it means is that the acute problem of solar-hour-power-price-destruction sets in much before the ”theoretical 22.3%” mentioned above.

On the 21 Feb 2024 we wrote the following note on this issue: ”The self-destructive force of unregulated solar power” where we highlighted these issues and warned that this will likely be a process of ”First gradually. Then suddenly”.

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German solar power capacity makes a big leap upwards in 2023 as the energy crisis hurt everybody. Demand went down. Now there is a large overcapacity in installed solar effect vs. demand load.

German solar power capacity makes a big leap upwards in 2023 as the energy crisis hurt everybody. Demand went down. Now there is a large overcapacity in installed solar effect vs. demand load.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, PV Magazine, Wikipedia, Blberg data on German power demand

German solar power producers got an 87% price haircut on average during last 10 days vs. those who produced during non-solar-power hours.

German solar power producers got an 87% price haircut on average during last 10 days vs. those who produced during non-solar-power hours.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Solar power production and German power prices over the past 10 days.

Solar power production and German power prices over the past 10 days.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Solar power production and German power prices on 27 April 2024.

Solar power production and German power prices on 27 April 2024.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg
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Analys

Firm at $85

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This week, Brent Crude prices have strengthened by USD 1.2 per barrel since Monday’s opening. While macroeconomic concerns persist, market reactions have been subdued, with price fluctuations primarily driven by fundamental factors. Currently, the oil price stands at its weekly high of USD 84.4 per barrel, with Wednesday’s low recorded at USD 81.7 per barrel, indicating relatively normal price movements throughout the week.

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

The upward trajectory since Wednesday afternoon can be attributed to two main factors:

Firstly, Wednesday’s US inventory report, though mixed, conveyed a bullish sentiment to the market due to an overall decline in commercial inventories. The report from the US Department of Energy (DOE) revealed a draw in US crude inventories of 1.4 million barrels last week, surpassing consensus estimates of a 2.0-million-barrel draw –  the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) forecast of a 0.5-million-barrel build on Tuesday.

Additionally, a marginal improvement in refinery margins hints at healthier demand prospects leading up to the driving season. While commercial crude oil inventories (excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve) decreased, standing approximately 3% below the five-year average for this period, total gasoline inventories saw a notable increase of 0.9 million barrels compared to the consensus forecast of a decrease of 1.1 million barrels. Distillate fuel inventories experienced a more moderate increase in line with expectations, rising by 0.6 million barrels but remaining approximately 7% below the five-year average. Overall, total inventories (crude + gasoline + distillate) showed a marginal increase of 0.1 million barrels, coupled with a 1% improvement in refinery utilization to 88.5% last week (see pages 11 and 18 attached).

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The substantial draw in commercial crude inventories, particularly compared to the typical seasonal build, has emerged as a key price driver (see page 12 attached).

Secondly, the third consecutive day of oil price gains can be attributed to renewed optimism regarding US rate cuts, supported by positive US jobs data suggesting potential Federal Reserve rate cuts this year. This optimism has boosted risk assets and weakened the dollar, rendering commodities more appealing to buyers.

In a broader context, crude oil prices have been moderating since early last month amidst easing tensions in the Middle East. Attention is also focused on OPEC+, with Russia, a key member, exceeding production targets ahead of the cartel’s upcoming meeting. Expectations are widespread for an extension of output cuts during the next meeting.

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Conversely, providing support to global crude prices is the Biden administration’s intention to increase the price ceiling for refilling US strategic petroleum reserves to as much as USD 79.99 per barrel.

With geopolitical tensions relatively subdued, but lingering, the market remains vigilant in analyzing data and fundamentals. Our outlook for oil prices at USD 85 per barrel for 2024 remains firm and attainable for the foreseeable future.

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