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Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana is a writer for the U.S.-based Divergente LLC consulting firm with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and…

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The Key Oil Price Driver By 2020

Storage tanks

Diesel, marine gasoil, and jet fuel—collectively known as middle distillates—account for more than a third of global oil consumption. Used in road transportation, shipping, aviation, and manufacturing, middle distillates are more closely linked to economic growth than any other section of the oil products market.

Inventories of middle distillates—one of the most important refinery products—are also closely correlated with oil price trends and with the shape of the oil futures curve, so the pace of distillates demand and their stock levels could be the key determinant for the oil price changes through the next two years, Reuters market analyst John Kemp writes.

At times of industrial activity expansion and economic growth, demand for middle distillates jumps, and their stocks decline. If the current global economic growth is sustained, distillates demand will rise, lifting crude oil prices. But higher oil prices would raise inflation and could force an economic slowdown, or the global economy may slow down as a result of trade tensions, leading to higher middle distillate inventories, Kemp argues.

Last year, global middle distillates consumption stood at 35.307 million bpd—the largest share, 36 percent, of the world’s total oil consumption of 98.186 million bpd, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018.

Demand for middle distillates is expected to surge ahead of an upcoming stricter regulation on the fuels used by the shipping industry. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has set January 1, 2020, as the staring date from which only low-sulfur fuel oil will be allowed to be used for ships. The severe restrictions on fuel oil’s sulfur content—aimed at reducing emissions—will drive increased demand for middle distillates such as diesel and marine gasoil, which in turn will push up demand for crude oil, Morgan Stanley analysts say. This would boost crude oil demand by additional 1.5 million bpd, potentially sending oil prices to $90 a barrel in 2020, according to Morgan Stanley.

“Over the next few years, we expect tightness in one particular product — middle distillate — to lead to strength in one particular liquid, crude oil, and especially those crudes that look like Brent,” Morgan Stanley’s global oil strategist Martijn Rats said in May.

While middle distillates demand will be at the core of this new regulation, those distillates and their stock levels also tend to be highly correlated with the Brent futures curve and the spot price of Brent Crude. Related: The Winners And Losers This Earnings Season

According to Reuters’ Kemp, distillates draws have been much more correlated with the Brent curve shifts than gasoline inventory changes.

During periods of middle distillates oversupply, such as in 1998/99, 2001/02, 2006, 2009/10, and 2015/16, economic growth has been slower, and the Brent futures curve has been in a large contango—a market structure in which front-month prices are lower than prices out in the future months—pointing to a crude oil oversupply and making storing oil for future sales profitable.

At times of strong economic growth, middle distillate stocks have been very tight, and the Brent futures curve has been in backwardation—the market situation in which front-month prices are trading at a premium compared to prices further out in the future—a sign of a tighter and undersupplied market. Related: Russia’s High Risk Global Oil Strategy

During the most recent oil price cycle, distillate stocks were high in 2015 and 2016, when the global oil glut was at its height and oil prices at a decade-low. In 2017, when oil prices started to rise, and stocks—including distillate stocks—started to draw down, the Brent curve flipped to backwardation, which was one of the key (and officially communicated) goals of the OPEC production cuts.

Currently, the U.S. distillate fuel inventories are low for this time of the year, the EIA said last week. EIA estimates that U.S. consumption of distillate fuel increased by 5 percent compared to the same period of 2017, largely attributable to an increase in trucking activity, which is the leading use of diesel fuel. “Demand for trucking services tends to be closely correlated to economic growth and industrial activity, both of which have been higher in the first half of 2018 compared with the first half of 2017,” the EIA says.

The upcoming shipping regulation is one of the factors that will determine middle distillates demand growth. The other is the pace of global economic growth. If the current economic expansion continues, middle distillates demand will boom and lead to higher oil prices. But higher oil prices would not be comfortable for too long and would slacken oil demand growth, leading to the next oil price cycle.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on August 05 2018 said:
    Rather than this rigmarole about middle distillates, we can talk about oil and reach the same conclusions.

    Oil demand as a whole is correlated to economic growth. The drivers of oil prices during the period 2018-2020 are the positive fundamentals of the global economy. With the global economy projected to grow at 3.9% this year and next, and with the global oil demand adding an estimated 1.6 million barrels a day (mbd) this year and next and with growing Chinese oil demand, one could easily project that oil prices could go beyond $80 a barrel this year rising to $85-$85 in 2019 and hitting $90-$100 by 2020.

    The escalating trade war between the US and China will not dampen China’s thirst for oil. With their economy growing at a healthy rate of 6.7% this year, China’s oil imports could top 10 mbd this year.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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