Thursday, June 30, 2016

Crude markets post Brexit: Keep calm & carry on

Right after the OPEC summit, we went into the home strait of the UK’s June 23rd referendum on its membership of the European Union, which has resulted in a Brexit or to put it more blandly – Britain’s exit from the EU.
 
It drained the life out of talking about anything else, or writing about anything else or blogging about anything else. So please accept the Oilholic’s apologies for not responding on wider ‘crude’ affairs via this blog for much of the month.
 
The deed is done; the British public voted 52% to 48% in favour of exiting the European Union, and to quote one departing EU official – "what has been done cannot be undone." The development followed a predictable market kerfuffle, with some comparing or at least attempting to compare its aftermath to the Lehman Brothers collapse. As the Oilholic said on a recent broadcast, serious though it might be, it is not quite on that scale for the oil markets.
 
Oil will continue to lurk around the $50 per barrel level and struggle to cap that over the next six months, and much of it would have little direct connection to the Brexit vote. On the eve of the vote, yours truly looked at FX, oil and gold plays via a Forbes column, and did an oil market impact assessment or a crude Brexit post mortem exactly a week on from the outcome of the result.
 
Brexit’s only contribution has been to add to the prevailing market sentiment that oil demand growth will not quite fire up. Most demand growth projections, for instance those of the IEA and OPEC, are in the 1.2 – 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) range. The Oilholic suspects come the end of the year, even the lower end of that range might not be matched.
 
Brexit and the uncertainty in Europe would have some impact, but much of the oil market is reliant on emerging market demand and its direction should be the primary cause for concern. Europe accounts for only 15% of global trade. The direction of global trade and manufacturing is eastwards, by default so is the direction of the oil market.
 
Furthermore, there is still plenty of oil around according to physical traders. What was one of the biggest oil gluts of all time last year, will not be resolved in a matter of months. The Oilholic has always maintained that the oil market will not rebalance until much later into 2017 and the oil price will stick around $50 level until December.
 
Given that context, Brexit is just another crude problem, but not the only problem. Keep calm and carry on!
 
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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo: Oil rig in South Asia © Cairn Energy.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Saudi briefing, Iran's barrels & OPEC’s Sec Gen

Half of the world’s press descended on the OPEC HQ, in Vienna, Austria, half expecting that not much will transpire here. And well, that is exactly what happened when proceedings ended on 2 June – except that there were certain key developments before, after and during the 169th OPEC ministers’ meeting, some subtle and some not so subtle!

Let’s start with the subtle – for the first time in three years, a Saudi prince accompanied his country’s delegation to OPEC flanked by a new oil minister in the shape of Khalid Al-Falih. The Saudi delegation largely kept mum as far as the press goes in the lead up to the conference, but the prince himself took time to hold and address an off-record briefing with oil market analysts away from the prying eyes of the media.

Off-record means what it says on the tin dear readers, as the Saudis wanted the press out of it. So the Oilholic has to respect that; even though one got a 100% lowdown via third parties! Yours truly can however share some nuggets minus specifics.

The Saudi delegation, a veritable who’s who of the country’s energy industry, made the slickest presentation in recent memory and in the Oilholic’s opinion perhaps the most data heavy one too. It sounded like Saudi Arabia was making a concerted effort to tell the wider world it meant business when it comes to the diversification of its economy, but make no mistake - the briefing on the eve of the 169th OPEC conference was about something else entirely.

The proverbial kings – as they are of the oil and gas world – appeared to be preparing for a game of chess. As the Oilholic and selected colleagues yours truly has known for years read it – ‘wethinks’ the Kingdom has thrown the production stakes gauntlet back to Iran, which has been asserting its right to pump as much oil as it likes in a post sanctions-era.

The Islamic Republic has made no secret of its desire to bump up production to 4 million barrels per day (bpd) within a year. Never say ‘never’, but the Oilholic has made no secret of his conjecture either that the chances of that happening given infrastructural impediments, above anything else, are slim to negligible. One suspects experts advising the Saudis know just as much.

So the Saudis reckon they may as well throw the gauntlet back to Iran. “You want to pump 4 million bpd let’s see you do it, and if you do well and good – our ‘crude’ client base is intact we’ll pump what we want to.” Now you might think that suggests OPEC stays where it is, but not quite.

That’s because the Saudis (and by extension other Gulf exporters) would potentially use this as the basis of future OPEC dialogue, whether or not Iran gets to that level. Moving on from the subtle off-record stuff to the not-so-subtle on-record buzz on summit day, an ancillary thought was whether or not OPEC will appoint a new Secretary General to replace the long standing Abdalla Salem El-Badri, who has been officiating in an “acting capacity” since 2013.

Internal discord, and tension between the Iranians and the Saudis meant the oil producers’ collective, while even agreeing to readmit a net importer in the shape of Indonesia, could not get itself to agree on a compromise candidate for the post. And so El-Badri went on and on, and well on and on. 

However, finally Mohammed Sanusi Barkindo, from Nigeria, was named as Secretary General with effect from 1st August 2016, for a period of three years, bringing to a close a near decade-long term of his predecessor. Additionally, Gabon was readmitted to OPEC after having left in 2014. 

So all-in-all, it was not a mundane affair at all, with some sense of solidarity within what is soon to become a 14 member oil producing block. Perhaps a little solidarity is all what the market was seeking from OPEC at a time of low expectations. That’s all from the 169th OPEC ministers’ meeting folks! Keep reading, keep it crude!

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Thursday, June 02, 2016

OPEC issues no word on quota (again!)

The 169th OPEC ministers meeting has concluded in Vienna, Austria with the producers' collective yet again failing to reveal its 'official production quota'. 

But analysts took heart from the fact that OPEC finally appointed a new Secretary General - Nigeria's Mohammed Sanusi Barkindo - to succeed Abdalla Salem El-Badri.

There might well be discord with respect to Iran's bid to ramp production up to 4 million barrels per day, but the appointment of a compromise candidate as Secretary General is definitely a step in the right direction for us lot in the analyst community.

OPEC also observed that since its last meeting in December 2015, crude oil prices have risen by more than 80%, supply and demand is converging and oil and product stock levels in the OECD have recently shown relative moderation.

Additionally, Gabon will be readmitted to the OPEC fold with effect from 1 July, taking OPEC's membershp up to 14, having already readmitted net oil importer Indonesia last year.

Finally, the next OPEC meeting is on 30th November. That’s all for the moment from Vienna folks! Keep reading, keep it crude!

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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

‘Mum’s the word’ for new Saudi oil minister

After a fact finding trip to Houston, Texas, the Oilholic finds himself back in Vienna, Austria for the 169th OPEC Ministers’ meeting. Based on initial soundbites, the 13 member oil producers’ collective is in a rather content mood. Well if you exclude the Venezuelans that is, who are decidedly grumpy by virtue of their own circumstances.

Recent production outages in Canada, Colombia, and OPEC members Venezuela and Nigeria have served to support the oil price which has lurked around the $50 per barrel level for a while now. It is also now manifestly apparent that non-OPEC oil producers are suffering in an era of lower for longer oil prices. 

The Oilholic recently penned his thought on troubles of US shale players – flag bearers of non-OPEC production – in a Forbes piece, and that’s not where the trouble ends. Non-OPEC production as a whole remains in a precarious spot. Nonetheless, interpretation of the market situation differs from OPEC member to member, with the Venezuelans correctly querying where the oil price would go once outages end. 

There’s plenty of chatter here ahead of the meeting, but one man has largely kept mum – that’s none other than Saudi Oil Minister Khalid Al-Falih, who replaced Ali Al-Naimi, one of OPEC’s most colourful characters last month.

It is doubtful that a new minister would alter an old Saudi policy. But the new man in charge has stayed away from the media since his arrival on Tuesday. Much to the disappointment of the world’s scribes, there was no Al-Naimi style power walk on Vienna’s Ring Road by new man either.

As for the analyst community, none of us expect any movement on the production quota front, although the rumour mill suggests OPEC might well be on the verge of finally appointing a new Secretary General. For an OPEC preview, check out the Oilholic’s submission to the International Business Times.

Finally, just before one takes your leave, here are two Forbes posts – on Mexico’s upcoming offshore round and US exports respectively – to keep you busy. That’s all for the moment from Vienna folks, plenty more to follow over the coming days! Keep reading, keep it crude! 

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

On non-OPEC distress & the road ahead

Having spent the entire week gauging the oil market mood in Houston, Texas, several key themes seem to be emerging. US shale oil exploration has come to symbolise non-OPEC production rises over the past three years and how it performs over the coming years would go some way towards providing an indication on when the market rebalances and where the oil price goes from here.

In that respect, the Oilholic’s third outing at the Baker & McKenzie Oil & Gas Institute provided some invaluable insight. Delegates at the Institute and various panels over the course of the event invariably touched on the subject, largely opining that many fringe shale players might well be on life support, but the industry as a whole is not dead in the water (see above left).

The problem is the paucity of high-yield debt for the oil & gas sector, where private equity (PE) firms were supposed to step into the breach vacated by big banks, but it is something which is not (currently) being meaningfully reflected in the data. 

One got a sense, both at the Institute and via other meetings across town, that PE firms are not quite having it their own way as buyers, and at the same time from sellers’ perspective there is also a fair bit of denial in a cash-strapped shale industry when it comes to relinquishing asset, acreage or corporate control.

Sooner, rather than later, some struggling players might have little choice and PE firms might get more aggressive in their pursuit of quality assets over the coming months, according to Mona Dajani, partner at Baker & McKenzie.

“You must remember that the PE market is quite cyclical. The way I view it, now would be as good a time as any for a PE firm to size-up and buy a mid-sized exploration and production (E&P) company as the oil price gradually creeps upwards. Jury is mixed on bid/ask differentials narrowing, but from what I see, it is happening already,” she added. 

William Snyder, Principal at Deloitte Transactions and Business Analytics, said, “To an extent hedge positions have protected cashflow. Going forward, PE is the answer right now, for it will be a while before high-yield comes back into the oil & gas market.”

The Deloitte expert has a point; most studies point to massive capital starvation in the lower 48 US states. So those looking to refinance or simply seeking working capital to survive currently have limited options. 

Problem is the PE community is cagey too as it is embarking on a learning curve of its own, according to John Howie, Managing Director of Parallel Resource Partners. “Energy specific funds are spending time working on their own balance sheets, while the generalists are seeking quality assets of the sort that have (so far) not materialised.”

Infrastructure funds could be another option, Dajani noted. “These (infrastructure) funds coming in at the mezzanine level are offering a very attractive cost of debt, and from a legal perspective they are very covenant light.”

Nonetheless, given the level of distress in the sector, the Oilholic got a sense having spoken to selected PE firms that they are eyeing huge opportunities but are not willing to pay barmy valuations some sellers are coming up with. The thinking is just as valid for behemoths like BlackRock PE and KKR, as it is for boutique energy PE specialists from around the US whom Houston is playing host to on a near daily basis these days. 

There are zombie E&P companies walking around that should not really be there, and it is highly unlikely that PE firms will conduct some sort of a false rescue act for them at Chapter 11 stage. Better to wait for the E&P company to go under and then swoop when there is fire-sale of assets and acreage. 

Nonetheless, while we are obsessing over the level of industry distress, one mute point is getting somewhat lost in the ruckus – process efficiencies brought about by E&P players in a era of ‘lower for longer’ oil prices, according to John England, US Oil & Gas Leader at Deloitte (see right, click to enlarge). 

Addressing the Mergermarket Energy Forum 2016, England said, “Of course, capital expenditure cuts have triggered sharp declines in rig counts globally except for the Middle East. However, production decline has not been as steep as some in the industry feared. 

“This has been a tribute to the innovations and efficiencies of scale across North America, and several other non-OPEC oil production centres. A sub-$30 per barrel oil price – which we recently saw in January – drives innovation too; for a lower oil price environment motivates producers to think differently.”

Over nearly twenty meetings spread across legal, accounting, financial and debt advisory circles as well as industry players in Texas, and attendance at three industry events gives one the vibe that many seem to think the worst is over.

Yet, the Oilholic believes things are likely worsen further before they get better. Meanwhile, Houston is trying to keep its chin up as always. That’s all from the oil & gas capital of the world on this trip, as its time for the plane home to London. Keep reading, keep it crude!

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© Gaurav Sharma, 2016. Photo I: Panel at the Baker & McKenzie Oil & Gas Institute 2016 © Lizzy Lozano, Baker & McKenzie. Photo II: John England of Deloitte addresses the Mergermarket Energy Forum 2016 © Gaurav Sharma.

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