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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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U.S., China Trade War Puts A Lid On Oil


The oil market has suddenly gone south in recent weeks, with cracks in the global economy starting to drag down oil. The U.S.-China trade war is one of the drivers of the souring climate. But that conflict could get a lot worse in the months ahead.

The latest flashpoint is the lira crisis in Turkey, which is dragging down other currencies and sparking fears of an emerging market crisis. But the problems have been building for some time. The IEA warned last week that the oil market has been “cooling down,” which was partly the result of a restoration of outages in Libya, but also a slowing of demand in the second and third quarters.

The return of some supply and the slowdown in demand has depressed prices in July and August. “Brent is thus facing its third consecutive weekly loss. WTI even looks set to be down for the seventh week running – which would be its longest losing streak in three years,” Commerzbank wrote in a note.

Other negative signs have become more visible. Fuel markets are showing signs of trouble. Oil demand in Asia is slowing down. Timespreads in the oil futures market are throwing up some bearish signals.

From here, it is unclear which way we go. The outages in Iran loom, but so does a potential further knock on demand.

One main “factor to consider is that trade tensions might escalate and lead to slower economic growth, and in turn lower oil demand,” the IEA warned, clearly referring to the escalating trade conflict between the U.S. and China. “If this does happen, it might dampen to some extent the impact on prices of any supply pressures.”

Related: Caught In The Crossfire: The Unintended Victim Of Iran Sanctions

Intriguingly, however, those two issues could soon become intertwined, whereas up until now they have mostly been separate issues. More specifically, China may defy the U.S. demand that it stop buying oil from Iran, which could heighten the tension between Washington and Beijing.

“The United States certainly hopes for full compliance by all nations in terms of not risking the threat of U.S. secondary sanctions if they continue with those transactions,” Brian Hook, the U.S. point person on Iran sanctions at the State Department, said a few days ago. “We are prepared to impose secondary sanctions on other governments that continue this sort of trade with Iran.” The statement was a not-very-subtle threat to Beijing: Cut imports from Iran or face U.S. sanctions. Hook was recently appointed to head the so-called Iran Action Group, which seeks to apply “maximum pressure” on Tehran.

The U.S. government has alternately said that it wants countries to cut their imports to zero while also signaling flexibility for countries that make an effort to dramatically reduce their purchases of Iranian oil. Bloomberg reported that India has considered cutting oil imports from Iran by 50 percent in exchange for a U.S. waiver on the rest.

But China has indicated that it would be unwilling to comply with Washington’s demands. Thus, the Trump administration is suggesting that it would slap sanctions on China, which would amount to yet another dramatic escalation in tension between the two countries, which now spans multiple issues.

Meanwhile, the trade war is also proceeding forward as before. Tit-for-tat tariffs are showing no signs of letting up, although negotiators from both countries will meet again later this month to resume negotiations, the first direct trade talks in more than two months. It is unclear if the Trump administration will move forward with the previously announced $200 billion in tariffs before then.

Related: All-Time Low Spare Capacity Could Send Oil To $150

If the U.S. does move forward on those punitive measures, China will be compelled to respond. Beijing has proposed tariffs on U.S. LNG next, which would force U.S. gas exporters to look to other markets. Analysts say that instead of curtailing existing exports, the bigger impact of the tariffs will be to put new U.S. LNG export terminals on ice. “There’s no way in the current environment that anyone’s going to be signing any deals,” Neil Beveridge, senior oil analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s causing a big overhang on what can get done.” China notably refrained from putting levies on U.S. crude earlier this month, but an escalation from here opens up all sorts of uncertainties.


In short, the U.S.-China conflict is a huge weight on the oil market, even as the potential for serious supply outages from Iran loom just over the horizon. “Although emerging market contagion and China slowdown fears seem somewhat overstated, neither fundamental nor sentiment should provide support for higher commodity prices,” Julius Baer Head of Macro and Commodity Research Norbert Rücker said, according to Reuters.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on August 19 2018 said:
    The escalating trade war between the US and China will not put a lid on oil. Sanctions or no sanctions, China needs vast amounts of oil to keep its economy well-oiled and functioning.

    Were the US to impose sanctions on China, China could easily switch to other markets around the globe. China’s economy is far more integrated in the global trade system than the US economy and also bigger by 24%. However, the US could pay a heavy price if it tries to replace Chinese exports with imports from other countries. No other country in the world could produce goods particularly high tech goods cheaper than China. Replacing Chinese exports will lead to higher prices for US customers and also higher inflation in the United States. This will definitely offset any benefits from the tax cuts, worsen US budget deficit and increase US outstanding debts by an estimated 2.35%. Furthermore, China’s purchases of US shale/tight oil and LNG could come to an end. These will be easily and happily replaced by Iranian crude and Russian LNG respectively.

    I explained several times why US sanctions on Iran are doomed to fail. But the most pivotal point of all is that China can singlehandedly neutralize US sanctions by deciding to buy the entire Iranian oil exports amounting to 2.5 million barrels of oil a day (mbd) as a retaliation against escalating US trade war against it and paying for them in petrodollar.

    It is farcical that the head of the New Iran Action Group, Brian Hook, is threatening to sanction any country that purchased Iranian crude after the November 4 deadline. First, the United States doesn’t have extraterritorial jurisdiction over other countries of the world to expect full compliance by them of the US sanctions on Iran. Second, China is not Djibouti to be threatened by the likes of Mr Hook. It is the world’s largest economy and a superpower in its own right. China is going ahead with buying Iranian crude thus ignoring US sanctions on Iran and daring the United States to impose sanctions on it.

    And while the spat between the US and Turkey has led to a loss of value of the Turkish lira against the US dollar, Turkish President Eceep Tayyip Erdogan has no intention of backing down. He is matching President Trump’s tariffs blow by blow.

    A continued dispute between the two countries could weaken NATO, undermine US sanctions against Iran and push Turkey closer to the Russian-Chinese axis. Turkey could also move closer to Russian efforts in ending the war in Syria and a possible rapprochement with Syria. It could also block Cyprus development of its newly discovered gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean.

    If the United States is hell-bent on crippling Iran’s oil industry and inducing a regime change, it might decide to halt its trade war against China in order to curry favour with China and also end the dispute with Turkey in order to concentrate on Iran.

    My assessment, however, is that such a strategy will fail. The US has no alternative but to end its current dispute with both countries. The alternative is an economic and geopolitical loss for the United States.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Joe Smith on August 19 2018 said:
    It's curious how key words are suspiciously left out of these articles.


    "The return of some supply and the slowdown in demand has depressed prices"

    Demand growth. You forgot the word growth. Changes the sentence quite a bit, doesn't it.

    "Trump administration will move forward with the previously announced $200 billion in tariffs before then."

    $200 billion in tariffed goods. You forgot "goods". At 20% that makes $40B. Quite the difference.

    "Tit-for-tat tariffs are showing no signs of letting up, although negotiators from both countries will meet again later this month to resume negotiations, the first direct trade talks in more than two months. "

    no signs of letting up.... although there are recent signs of letting up. This is what you just said.

    It's almost as if you have an agenda there, Nick.
  • Dealership News on August 20 2018 said:
    This means that the consumer will continue to pay LESS at the pump, and that's a good thing. Mamdough, China can't sustain "paying for" Iranian oil and expecting anything good to come out of it. Understand, the US really doesn't have to rely on the cesspool that is the Middle East for oil anymore. If the US decided to blacklist China as a manufacturer of "cheap goods", China's economy will completely fail. Their entire economy relies on US manufacturing. The US has the best poker hand in this economic card game, until President Trump came around, we just never had the desire to play it.

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