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Cyril Widdershoven

Cyril Widdershoven

Dr. Cyril Widdershoven is a long-time observer of the global energy market. Presently, he holds several advisory positions with international think tanks in the Middle…

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Oil Market Optimism Is Entirely Misplaced

  • The recent optimism in oil markets has left many analysts scratching their heads, with no real fundamental reason for the shift in sentiment.
  • Demand projections that suggest Asia or the world economy will be moving back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon are laughable.
  • The only justifiable optimism for oil markets at the moment is the optimism surrounding 2021 when we will likely see a monumental supply crunch. 

Optimism is supposedly back in oil markets, with the Global Research team at Bank of America lifting its oil price forecast for this year and next as demand recovers from coronavirus-linked shutdowns, the OPEC+ output cut deal curtails supply, and producers slash capital expenditure. The bank now sees Brent crude oil averaging $43.70 per barrel in 2020, up from a previous estimate of $37. In 2021 and 2022, the bank forecasts average prices of $50 and $55 a barrel respectively. BofA also forecast that “a pattern of falling inventories across most regions should emerge as we move into H2 2020. As a result, we expect the full Brent crude oil curve to return into backwardation by year-end”.  Norwegian consultancy Rystad Energy, however, has warned that the downside risk in oil markets is still very much alive. In its weekly webinar, Rystad’s Head of Oil Markets, Bjornar Tonhaugen stated that “Brent prompt futures are under pressure this morning with bearish traders selling below US$40, in a reminder that not all is well yet in the market”. He also indicated that while mainstream analysts are optimistic and see a recovery and upward potential for oil, the short-term reality is far from certain.

When looking at the foggy picture currently being painted by the news, publications, and facts on the ground, the only real conclusion that can be drawn is that the ongoing price rally is not yet based on market fundamentals. The ongoing demand hike, as shown by some analysis in Asia, is not based on recovering demand of consumers or industry, but largely caused by refinery runs that are taking advantage of the relatively low oil prices. Using oil in storage to produce oil products is a normal economic phenomenon, preparing higher-margin products for the future while also opening up some additional storage space for new imports. 

Related: Iraq Considers A String Of Massive Oil Deals With China

Overall, then, optimism should be tempered, as there are not yet any real signs of improvement available in the major economic regions, especially in the U.S. and EU, that would suggest a move towards a pre-coronavirus economy. Oil market analysts and investors seem to forget that current economic figures, which are already extremely bad, are possibly only the tip of the iceberg. When looking at the economic situation in the Eurozone-area, and the EU in general, positive economic figures are largely the result of governmental financial support and will worsen when that support is reduced. Current stimulus packages are not sustainable, and a high level of bankruptcies and lay-offs are to be expected before the end of the summer. 

The economic backbone of major industries in Europe, automotive, airlines, tourism, and even manufacturing, is facing a bleak and very insecure couple of years. Demand for crude oil and products will be hit hard if the expected rise in unemployment becomes a reality. The U.S. and other major markets are not looking any better. The current U.S. stimulus packages are propping up some sectors of the economy, while already historically high unemployment figures will lead to foreclosures, higher credit debts, and failed repayments of car loans, etc. Demand for crude oil, in the world’s second-largest consuming market, seems to be heading towards a cliff. 

Asian figures, which are being presented by several parties as looking promising, are again unlikely to meet expectations. Chinese production figures and GDP growth were already a subject of much debate before the global pandemic, and now it is going to suffer from lower demand in trade and possible political conflicts. A combination of trade wars, the EU’s reluctancy to keep its doors open to China’s economic might, and a continuing struggle to stave off an internal economic crisis, does not bode well for the Asian giant. Demand for China’s products is down and will continue to decline if its main clients (the E.U. and U.S.) are hit by an economic recession. 

Even within the physical oil market itself, it seems that optimism is being misplaced. OPEC+  production cuts are holding, but compliance is at less than 90 percent, which means the main producers are still hitting the markets with additional unwanted oil volumes. Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait are keeping to their commitments, but Iraq and others are struggling. At the same time, a prolonged production cut strategy is no longer sustainable for several producers as their economies are in shambles, and unrest is brewing. Non-OPEC producers are also looking for a way out, and Russia has indicated that it doesn’t see any long-term options for a production cut. U.S. oil production, which has been hit by both COVID and an OPEC+ oil price war, is currently struggling but has the potential to come back online quickly. If oil prices remain in the $35-40 per barrel range, we will see a re-emergence of several shale oil players and additional (unwanted) volumes in the market. Furthermore, global crude oil storage volumes are still at historically high levels. Last week’s optimistic forecasts of draws of storage volumes is likely a one-off. The fact remains that there is still too much oil available, but SPRs are being used to improve storage figures. 

Related: Oil May Never Hit $100 Again

Another reason for our overly optimistic outlook is that the profit strategy of downstream companies has resulted in higher volumes of product in storage, as demand for products is low. This can be seen in U.S. crude stockpiles which were reported to have grown by more than expected, adding to worries about oversupply.  American Petroleum Institute (API) reported that U.S. crude inventories rose by 1.7 million barrels last week, well ahead of analysts’ expectations for a 300,000-barrel build. While product volumes showed a storage draw, optimism here is based on the fact that fuel consumption is picking up as some economies ease lockdown measures. When looking at the real figures, demand for products is still way below normal figures for the same time last year. Another major worry is that China, the world’s top crude importer, is also expected to slow crude imports in the third quarter, after record purchases in recent months, as higher oil prices hurt demand and refiners worry about a second virus outbreak. 

Looking at fundamentals, combined with increased economic and geopolitical unrest globally, there is no real justification for oil market optimism in 2020. Both the summer and autumn of 2020 will be volatile periods for oil markets, with a possible economic recession of an unknown magnitude hitting the global economy. Optimism should instead be pointed towards 2021. A combination of low investments upstream, combined with potential new unrest in MENA (Libya-Iraq) or removal of the weak parties in upstream, will lead to a supply crisis. Beneath the fog of the current demand discussions and fake optimism about the economic growth of Asia and other regions, there is a supply crisis forming which will hit the market hard. The year 2021 will recharge oil and gas with a bang, as we jump from a demand-driven market to a supply-driven situation. Prices will increase, even with a global economic crisis, but revenues will be distributed to new power players that will replace the current U.S.-E.U. centric oil and gas upstream sector. An average crude oil price (Brent) of above $40 per barrel is wishful thinking in 2020. We may witness hikes, but general fundamentals are showing a $30-$34 range rather than a $40-45. 

By Cyril Widdershoven for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on June 26 2020 said:
    What is misplaced is your pessimism. Oil market optimism is based on China lifting the global economy and the global oil demand from its ordeal.

    Three bullish influences are pushing oil prices up slowly but surely. The reason oil prices aren’t surging upwards faster is because they are dealing with a huge glut estimated by some accounts as exceeding 1.4 billion barrels. Once the glut has started to deplete fast with rising global oil demand, oil prices could surge to $45-$50 a barrel in the second half of this year and touch $60 in early 2021.

    The first bullish factor is the collapse of the US shale oil production which will be struggling to produce even 7 million barrels a day (mbd) this year and the next three years.

    The second factor is the speed by which global oil demand led by China is returning to pre-pandemic levels. Despite an estimated loss of 30%, global oil demand will amount this year to 98.34 mbd or a mere 3 mbd less than 2019 level of 101.34 mbd with projections indicating that by 2021 global oil demand will more than match 2019 levels.

    The third factor is that OPEC+ cuts are putting a solid floor under oil prices ensuring that they don’t fall below $40. And with Iraq seriously endeavouring to fulfil its obligations under the OPEC+ cuts agreement, it is enhancing the credibility of the OPEC+ cuts.

    There is, however, one bearish factor on the horizon, namely a resumption of the trade war between the United States and China. The truth of the matter is that the United States won’t be in a position to resume the trade war having suffered most from the pandemic and therefore it won’t fare better this time than it did last time.

    Still, a virtual collapse of the US shale oil production, China’s unquenchable thirst for oil and a huge decline in global investments in oil exploration and production projected by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to drop by an “unparalleled” 20% this year could create a supply-demand deficit ranging from 7-10 mbd during 2022/2023 thus pushing the Brent crude oil price to $100 a barrel if not even higher.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Gerard Remy on June 26 2020 said:
    I believe that the oil price hovers around 40 dollars per barrel because most of the tight oil from the US in off the market presently.

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