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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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OPEC Scrambles To Justify Output Cuts

Oil tanker

Oil inventories are approaching the five-year average level in OECD countries, the all-important threshold for “re-balancing” the oil market.

A year and a half on from OPEC’s original deal to limit output, the surplus oil stashed in storage tanks around the world are nearly back to average levels. However, by all indications, OPEC is not ready to ease up on the production caps, with top officials signaling a desire to keep the cuts in place into 2019.

But that might require changing of the definition of a “balanced” oil market. OPEC has consistently held up OECD inventories as the metric upon which it was basing its calculations. The goal was to drain inventories back down to the five-year average. With OECD inventories about 44 million barrels above that threshold in February – down from a roughly 300-million-barrel surplus at the start of 2017 – the goal will likely be achieved at some point this year, perhaps in the second or third quarter.

For a variety of reasons, reaching this milestone is not satisfactory for OPEC. For one, the measurement is clouded by the fact that it’s a running calculation, meaning that the past five-years is now made up of more than three years of bloated inventories. In other words, the current five-year average is significantly higher than the five-year average in early 2014 when inventories were not suffering from a supply glut. Related: The Truth Behind Oil’s Recent Price Spike

The flip side of that argument is that the oil market is way bigger than it was in 2014. Both supply and demand are higher, meaning that the global market probably needs a much higher level of oil sitting in storage. As such, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that inventories are above the five-year average.

Another reason why OPEC is suddenly not satisfied with OECD inventories as the sole metric around which it bases its decisions is that OECD inventories do not capture the entire global oil market. What is happening in the non-OECD, where at this point, much of global demand growth is occurring? A more comprehensive measurement that included non-OECD inventory data would paint a more accurate picture of the global oil market. However, the problem with this is that non-OECD data is notoriously opaque, which is exactly why OECD inventories is a widely-cited data point.

Still, OPEC is scrambling to come up with another metric to justify keeping the cuts in place. One idea reportedly floating around would be using the five-year average, but somehow discounting the surplus years. Or, the group could use a seven-year average, which would make today’s surplus relative to the average look bigger, necessitating keeping the cuts in place for much longer. OPEC is also mulling an even longer range.

OPEC is set to discuss a range of possibilities in April. "Consumers' opinion of how much inventories they need to hold may have changed," Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih said in February. "We need to make sure that we look at non-OECD inventories, floating storage, investor behavior and numbers from respectable agencies." Related: Can The U.S. Break Russia’s Gas Monopoly In Europe?

Saudi Arabia is especially keen on keeping the cuts in place as it is preparing the IPO of Saudi Aramco in 2019. For that, higher oil prices are vital. Abandoning the current production cuts could result in another downturn in prices, an unacceptable risk.

That means that whatever OPEC comes up with, the new metric it wants to use will need to justify keeping the production cuts in place.

Ultimately, that may mean that a longer period for inventories could be in the cards. For instance, “with OPEC’s initial five year OECD inventory target, they were 11 mn bbl away from reaching those levels based on the latest OECD inventory data from Jan’ 18,” JP Morgan Chase said in a note. “However with a 7 year average, they will be 69mn bbl away.” Switching to a 7-year average would require keeping the production limits in place for longer.


By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on March 27 2018 said:
    OPEC does not have to justify output cuts or the continuation of the OPEC/non-OPEC production cut agreement beyond 2018. The ultimate objective is to establish a price floor of $70 a barrel rising in due course to $75 in 2018 and $80 in 2019 and ultimately going above $100. Saudi Arabia and most OPEC members need an oil price above $100 to balance their budgets.

    To achieve such a level of prices, the OPEC/non-OPEC members will have to maintain the production cut agreement beyond 2018 with the aim of not only creating a deficit in the global oil inventories but also putting an end to manipulations of the oil prices by the EIA through claims about rising US oil inventories.

    Oil prices higher than $70 are vital for Saudi Arabia’s economy. This has nothing to do with the IPO of Saudi Aramco. I am on record saying for the last three months that Saudi Arabia will eventually withdraw the IPO altogether because it does not need it any more.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Kelly Sulis on March 27 2018 said:
    My question for OPEC would be, can they increase oil production, or are these supposed cut to keep prices higher a cover for old fields having problems, think Gharwar.
  • Terry Twitchell on March 27 2018 said:
    "Numbers from respectable agencies" = numbers from OPEC controlled agencies.
  • CorvetteKid on March 27 2018 said:
    Mamdouh, if SA didn't need the IPO they wouldn't do it. 45 years ago they were seizing and nationalizing assets; today they are offering them for sale. SA has drawn down reserves and MBS realizes he can't have his country's GDP and his political viability dependent on the price of Brent crude.

    They need the IPO.

    And to the extent they up the price of oil, that is a boon for shale oil some here doubt. At $70 WTI, shale companies are ringing the cash register.
  • CorvetteKid on March 27 2018 said:
    Kelly, there is nothing wrong with Ghawar. Contrary to what you read a decade or so ago, the field is still producing 5 MMboe/d.

    Until the Permian ramps up in a few years, Ghawar is still #1.

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