The major forecasters see an oil supply surplus next year, but those bearish outlooks largely depend on the health of U.S. shale growth in 2020, an assumption that is looking increasingly fanciful.
Financial struggles are well-known, but the dominoes continue to fall. As Bloomberg reported, some drillers have recently seen their credit lines reduced, limiting their access to fresh capital. Twice a year in the spring and fall, banks reassess their credit lines to shale drillers, and decide how much they will authorize companies to borrow. This time around is expected to be the first time in roughly three years that lenders tighten up lending capacities.
The curtailment in lending comes at a time when scrutiny on shale finances is increasing. Share prices have fallen sharply this year as investors lose interest. The industry continues to burn cash, and lenders and investors shunning the industry.
Of course, if drillers cannot borrow to cover their financing gaps, they may be forced into bankruptcy. The cutting of the borrowing base “can be a good precursor to potential bankruptcy because as capital markets stay closed off for these companies, the borrowing base serves as the only source of liquidity,” Billy Bailey, Saltstone Capital Management LLC portfolio manager, told Bloomberg.
Not every company is entirely cut off from capital markets. As Liam Denning points out, Diamondback Energy was able to issue $3 billion in new bonds at low interest rates, which highlights the case of “haves and have nots” within the industry.
But the financial stress helps explain the slowdown in U.S. oil production this year. The U.S. added about 2 million barrels per day (mb/d) between January 2018 and the end of last year; but output is only up a few hundred thousand barrels per day in 2019 from January through August.
Confusingly, the IEA still forecasts a substantial increase in U.S. oil production in 2020 at 1.2 mb/d, but not everyone agrees with that optimistic outlook. The credit crunch and financial stress in the shale sector could lead to a disappointment in 2020. Related: Is The Aramco IPO The Ultimate Pump And Dump?
It is against this bewildering backdrop that OPEC+ must decide its next move. The IEA says that OPEC+ is in for some trouble as a supply glut looms – in large part because of shale growth. Others agree, to be sure. Commerzbank said that OPEC’s efforts to focus on laggards such as Iraq and Nigeria will be insufficient. “It is a mystery why OPEC should believe that it can avoid this oversupply by making just a few cosmetic adjustments,” the investment bank said. “By early next year at the latest OPEC thus risks being rudely awakened.”
However, at the same time, the physical market is showing some slightly bullish signs. In the oil futures market, front-month contracts for Brent are trading at a premium to longer-dated ones. The six-month premium rose to $3.50 per barrel recently, up from $1.90 last month, Reuters reports. A large premium is typically associated with a tighter market.
Moreover, there is a chance of a thaw in the U.S.-China trade war, which could provide some tailwinds to the global economy. It’s become impossible to trust the daily rumors coming from Washington and Beijing, but the two sides have shown some desire to at least call a truce and not step up the tariffs. Related: 99 Oil Rigs Gone And Counting: Rig Count Falls Again
Still, the economy has slowed. The OECD warned that global GDP will decelerate to just 2.9 percent this year, and remain within a 2.9-3.0 percent range through 2021. This is the weakest rate of growth in a decade, and is down sharply from the 3.8 percent seen last year. “Two years of escalating conflict over tariffs, principally between the US and China, has hit trade, is undermining business investment and is putting jobs at risk,” the OECD said.
The U.S. and China, then, have a great deal of influence over the near-term prospects for oil. As mentioned, there is still a wide range of opinions on the magnitude of the oil supply surplus in 2020, but a breakthrough in the trade war would immediately shift growth projections, oil demand trajectories, and, importantly, sentiment. Even the mere expectation of an economic rebound would send oil prices rising, at least for a little while.
On the other hand, the thaw in the trade war is far from inevitable. The two sides have shown little evidence, if any, that they are actually making progress on some of the structural issues at hand. There is still the possibility that the talks fall apart and the trade war marches on, or even grows worse.
Because it is generally assumed that the oil market has already factored in some degree of optimism around tariff reduction, which has likely added a few dollars to the barrel of oil, a reassessment to the downside would surely send oil prices tumbling.
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com
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Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. More