Monday, September 21, 2015

Bypassing the Strait of Hormuz from Fujairah

The Oilholic recently found himself roughly 127 km east of Dubai in the United Arab Emirate of Fujairah for a speaking engagement at the Gulf Intelligence Energy Markets Forum 2015.

Among a plethora of crucial subjects up for discussion at a time of low oil prices, much thought in a new place one hadn’t been to before, went towards pondering over an old critical topic – crude oil shipping lanes in the Middle East.

The region's geopolitical tensions have threatened to disrupt oil shipping and other maritime movements at various points over the last five years and counting, even though an actual maritime disruption thankfully hasn’t take place (so far). But whether it’s the Suez Canal, Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world’s oil passes, the threat of naval affray will ever go away.

Back in 2013, barely 12 months on from an Iranian threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, the Oilholic examined nascent mitigation measures to bypass that threat from Oman. However, one got a sense, that Omani overtures also had much to do with challenging nearby Dubai's dominance as a commercial port on the 'wrong' side of the Strait of Hormuz and prone to the Iranian threats.

To this effect, the Omanis are pumping billions into four of their ports – Muscat, Sohar, Salalah and lately Duqm – all of whom face the Gulf of Oman and won’t be affected in the highly unlikely event of the Strait becoming strife and blockade marred.

Of the four, Duqm, an erstwhile fishing village rather than a port, stands to benefit from a new refinery, petrochemical plant and beachfront hotels. However, the UAE’s trump card appears to be its own hub in the shape of Fujairah; the only one of the seven emirates with a coastline facing the Gulf of Oman. With oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi as its backer, few would bet against Fujairah.

Indeed, the sleepy and quaint Emirate has woken up, as deliberated by EMF 2015 delegates, with new highways, hotels, supermarkets, ancillary infrastructure - the works! It isn’t just another maritime outlet for the oil industry; storage and petrochemicals facilities are directly linked with over two decades of efforts (and counting) in getting Fujairah to where it is today in infrastructural terms, according to one delegate.

Abu Dhabi’s International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), the owner of CEPSA and minority stakeholder in Cosmo Oil and OMV and brains behind the $3.3 billion Habshan–Fujairah oil pipeline, is busy enhancing the now operational pipeline’s onstream capacity from 1.3 million barrels per day to 1.5 million bpd to eventually 2 million bpd. The idea is to pump more and more crude for dispatch avoiding passage of ADNOC cargo via the Persian Gulf. 

Oil storage volume is set to undergo an increment too. Gulf Petrochem, a key player in oil trading world is spending $60 million to boost its storage facilities at Fujairah.

PIC’s Fujairah Refinery project, currently on cards, will process domestic crude oil, including Murban and Upper Zakum, with ready storage and dispatch facilities. And of course, those playing contango would wonder if Fujairah and rival Omani ports could (in the not to distant future) provide a Middle Eastern storage hub to rival onshore storage elsewhere. Discussions with key EMF 2015 delegates under Chatham House Rules point to a high degree of optimism on the subject of enhanced storage in Middle East whether or not contango plays pay-off.

The Oilholic’s feelings are quite clear on contango plays - as one wrote in a Forbes column back in back in February, there will be gains, but those hoping for returns on par Gunvor’s handsome takings from 2008-09 are in for a disappointment. In the strictest sense, what the Omanis and Emiratis are attempting has little do with the current round of contango punts.

Senior ADNOC, Gulf Petrochem, IPIC executives, policymakers and others told this blogger that what’s afoot in Fujairah is about future proofing and providing the region with a world class facility to process, store and ship domestic crude. Everything else would be secondary.

In any case, by the time planned works and storage enhancements come onstream, the current contango play might well be over and done with! That's all from the UAE folks. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’! 

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo 1: Gulf of Oman shoreline. Photo 2: Town Centre, Fujairah, UAE © Gaurav Sharma, September 2015.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Lack of ‘crude’ conclusions from Chinese equities

As another week starts with both Brent and WTI futures trading lower, concerns about China which aren’t new, continue to be brandished about. What the Oilholic does not understand is the overt obsession in certain quarters with the direction of Chinese equities.

The country’s factory gate prices and purchasing managers’ indices haven’t exactly impressed over the last few months. Yet, somehow a stock market decline spooks most despite both the mechanism as well as the market itself lacking maturity. It is also constantly prone to government interference and crackdowns on trading firms.

On one level the anxiety is understandable; the Shanghai Composite Index – lurking just around 3,080-level at the time of writing this blog post – has lost nearly 39.5% since its peak in mid-June. However, it does not tell the full story of China’s economy and the correction it is currently undergoing, let alone its ambiguous connect with the country’s oil imports.

The sign of any mature stock market – for example London or Frankfurt – is that the total tradable value of equities listed is 100% (or above) of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. In Shanghai’s case, the figure is more in the region of 34%, suggesting it still has some way to go.

A mere 2.1% of Chinese equities are under foreign ownership at the moment. Many of the country’s major companies, including oil and gas firms, have dual listings in Hong Kong or New York, which while not an indication of lack of domestic faith, is more of an acknowledgement of impact making secondary listings away from home.

Mark Williams, Chief Asia Economist at Capital Economics, feels panic over China is overblown. “The debacle in China’s equity market tells us little directly about what is going on in China’s economy. The surge in prices that started a year ago was speculative, rather than driven by any improvement in fundamentals. A combination of poor data and policy inaction in China may have triggered recent market falls but the bigger picture is that we are witnessing the inevitable implosion of an equity market bubble,” he said.

Furthermore, current turmoil does not provide any direction whatsoever on what the needs of the economy would be in terms of oil imports. Apart from a blip in May, China has continued to import oil at the rate of 7 million barrels per day for much of this year. That’s not to say, all of it is for domestic consumption. 

Some of it also goes towards strategic storage, data on which is rarely published and a substantial chunk goes towards the country’s export focussed refineries. China remains a major regional exporter of refined products.

Admittedly, much of the commodities market should be worried if not panicking. Over the years, China consumed approximately half of the world’s iron ore, 48% of aluminium, 46% of zinc and 45% of copper. Such levels of consumption could never have been sustained forever and appear to be unravelling. 

Williams noted: “To some extent, China’s recent pattern of weakness in property construction and heavy industry set against strength in services is a positive sign that rebalancing towards a more sustainable growth model is underway. Policymakers in China, unlike their counterparts in many developed economies, still have room to loosen policy substantially further.”

While China’s declining demand is of concern, chronic oversupply in the case of a whole host of commodities – including oil – cannot be ignored either. The current commodities market downturn in general, and the oil price decline in particular, remains a story of oversupply not necessarily a lack of demand.

Another more important worry, as the Oilholic noted via a column on Forbes, is the possibility of a US interest rate hike. The Federal Reserve will raise interest rates; it might not be soon (i.e. this month) but a move is on the horizon. This will not only weigh on commodities priced in dollars, but has other implications for emerging markets with dollar denominated debt at state, individual and institutional levels; something they haven’t factored into their thinking for a while.

In summation, there is a lot to worry about for oil markets, rather than fret about where the Shanghai Composite is or isn’t going. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo: Shanghai Stock Exchange, Shanghai, China © Gaurav Sharma, August 2014.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Grappling with volatility in a barmy crude market

The oil market is not making a whole lot of sense at present to a whole lot of people; the Oilholic is admittedly one of them. However, wherever you apportion the blame for the current market volatility, do not take the convenient route of laying it all at China’s doorstep. That would be oversimplification!

It is safe to say this blogger hasn’t seen anything quite as barmy over the last decade, not even during the post Lehman Brothers kerfuffle as a US financial crisis morphed into a global one. That was in the main a crisis of demand, what’s afoot is one triggered first and foremost by oversupply. 

As one noted in a recent Forbes column, the oversupply situation – not just for oil but a whole host of commodities – merits a deeper examination. The week before we saw oil benchmarks plummet after the so-called ‘Black Monday’ (August 24) only for it recover by Friday and end higher on a week-over-week basis compared to the previous week’s close (see graph above, click to enlarge)

This was followed on Monday, August 31 by some hefty gains of over 8% for both Brent and WTI. Yet at the time of writing this blog post some 48 hours later, Brent had shed over 10% and the WTI over 7% on Tuesday but again gained 1.72% and 1.39% respectively on Wednesday.

The reasons for driving prices down were about as fickle as they were for driving them up and subsequently pulling them down again, and so it goes. When the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported on Monday that the country’s oil production peaked at just above 9.6 million barrels per day (bpd) in April, before falling by more than 300,000 bpd over the following two months; those in favour of short-calling saw a window to really go for it.

They also drew in some vague OPEC comment (about wanting to support the price in tandem with other producers), knowing full well that the phoney rally would correct. The very next day, as the official purchasing managers’ index for Chinese manufacturing activity fell to 49.7 in August, from the previous month’s reading of 50, some serious profit-taking began.

As a figure below 50 signals a contraction, while a level above that indicates expansion, traders found the perfect pretext to drive the price lower. Calling the price higher based on back-dated US data on lower production in a heavily oversupplied market is about as valid as driving the price lower based on China’s manufacturing PMI data indicative of a minor contraction in activity. The Oilholic reckons it wasn’t about either but nervous markets and naked opportunism; bywords of an oversupplied market.

So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this blogger again points out – oversupply to the tune of 1.1-1.3 million bpd has not altered. China’s import level has largely averaged 7 million bpd for much of the year so far, except May. 

Yours truly is still sticking to the line of an end of year Brent price of $60 per barrel with a gradual supply correction on the cards over the remaining months of 2015 with an upside risk. Chances of Iran imminently flooding the market are about as likely as US shale oil witnessing a dramatic decline to an extent some in OPEC continue to dream off.

But to get an outside perspective, analysts at HSBC also agree it may take some time for the market to rebalance fully. “The current price levels look completely unsustainable to us and a combination of OPEC economics and marginal costs of production point to longer-term prices being significantly higher,” they wrote in a note to clients.

The bank is now assuming a Brent average of $55.4 per barrel in 2015, rising to $60 in 2016 and $70-80 for 2017/18. Barclays and Deutsche Bank analysts also have broadly similar forecasts, as does Moody’s for its ratings purposes.

The ratings agency sees a target price of $75 achieved by the turn of the decade, but for yours truly that moment is bound to arrive sooner. In the meantime, make daily calls based on the newsflow in this barmy market. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it crude!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Graph: Oil benchmark Friday closes, Jan 2 to Aug 28, 2015 © Gaurav Sharma, August 2015.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Resisting $40/bbl, Russia & some ‘crude’ ratings

Following two successive week-on-week declines of 6% or over, last Friday’s close brought some respite for Brent oil futures, although the WTI front month contract continued to extend losses. In fact, the US benchmark has been ending each Friday since June 12 at a lower level compared to the week before (see graph, click to enlarge).
Will a $40-floor breach happen? Yes. Will oil stay there? No. That’s because market fundamentals haven’t materially altered. Oversupply and lacklustre demand levels are broadly where they were in June. We still have around 1.1 to 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of extra oil in the market; a range that’s held for much of 2015. Influences such as Iran’s possible addition to the global crude oil supply pool and China not buying as much have been known for some time.

The latest market commotion is sentiment driven, and it’s why the Oilholic noted in a recent Forbes column that 2016-17 futures appear to be undervalued. People seem to be making calls on where we might be tomorrow based on the kerfuffle we are seeing today!

Each set of dire data from China, inventory report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), or a gentle nudge from some country or the other welcoming Iran back to the market (as Switzerland did last week) has a reactive tug at benchmarks. The Oilholic still believes Brent will gradually creep up to $60-plus come the end of the year, with supply corrections coming in to the equation over the remainder of this year.

Away from pricing, there is one piece of very interesting backdated data. According to the EIA, Russia’s oil and gas sector weathered both the sanctions as well as the crude price decline rather well.

For 2014, Russia was the world's largest producer of crude oil, including lease condensate, and the second-largest producer of dry natural gas after the US. Russia exported more than 4.7 million bpd of crude oil and lease condensate in 2014, the EIA concluded based on customs data. Most of the exports, or 98% if you prefer percentages, went to Asian and European importers.

Where Russian production level would be at the end of 2015 remains the biggest market riddle. Anecdotal and empirical evidence points to conducive internal taxation keeping the industry going. However, as takings from oil and gas production and exports, account for more than half of Russia's federal budget revenue – it is costing the Kremlin.

Finally, two ratings notes from Fitch over the past fortnight are worth mentioning. The agency has revised its outlook on BP's long-term Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to ‘Positive’ from ‘Negative’ and affirmed the IDR at 'A'.

The outlook revision follows BP's announcement that it has reached an agreement in principle to settle federal, state and local Deepwater Horizon claims for $18.7bn, payable over 18 years. “We believe the deal has significantly reduced the uncertainty around BP's overall payments arising from the accident and hence has considerably strengthened the company's credit profile,” Fitch said.

The agency added there was a real possibility for an upgrade to 'A+' in the next 12 to 18 months, depending on how things pan out and BP's upstream business profile does not show any significant signs of weakening, such as falling reserves or production.

Elsewhere, and unsurprisingly, Fitch downgraded the beleaguered Afren to ‘D’ following the management's announcement on July 31 that it had taken steps to put the company into administration. The company's senior secured rating has been affirmed at 'C', and the Recovery Rating (RR) revised to 'RR5' from 'RR6'.

As discussions with creditors aimed at recapitalising the company failed, the appointment of administrators was made with the consent of the company's secured creditors who saw it as an “important step in preserving value of Afren's subsidiaries”. It is probably the only “value” left after a sorry tale of largely self-inflicted woes. That’s all for the moment folks, keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Graph: Oil benchmark Friday closes, Jan 2 to Aug 14, 2015 © Gaurav Sharma, August 2015.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Jargon free volume on upstream fiscal design

Takings from upstream oil and gas projects, whether they are small scale or big ticket ones, ultimately determine their profitability – the stuff that shareholders, venture sponsors and governments alike have a keen interest in.

It is why oil and gas companies, both state or privately held, deploy an army of petroleum economists to offer conjecture or calculated projections on what the final fiscal share of such ventures might be.

In this complex arena, both budding petroleum economists and established ones could do with all the help they can get. Industry veterans Ken Kasriel and David Wood’s book Upstream Petroleum: Fiscal and Valuation Modeling in Excel (published by Wiley Finance) goes a long way towards doing just that, and quite comprehensively too.

In a volume of 370 pages, with eight detailed chapters split into sequential sub-sections, the authors offer one of the most detailed subjective discussions and guidance on fiscal modeling that is available on the wider market at the moment in the Oilholic's opinion.

The treatment of fiscal systems, understanding and ultimately tackling the complexities involved is solid, predicated on their own views and experience of understanding the tangible value of upstream projects before, during and when they ultimately come onstream, and what the takings would be.

Kasriel and Wood have also included five appendices and a CD-ROM (in the hardcover version) to take the educational experience further, and accompanying the main text of the title are over 400 pages of supplementary PDF files and some 120-plus Excel files, with an introduction to risk modeling.

What is particularly impressive is the authors’ painstaking effort in cutting through industry jargon, putting across their pointers in plain English for both entry-level professionals and experienced practitioners. Furthermore, the sequential format of the book makes it real easy for the latter lot to jump in to a section for quick reference or for a subject specific refresher. 

Generic treatment of taxation, royalties, bonuses, depreciation, profit sharing mechanics, incentives, ringfencing, and much more, including decommissioning finance, are all there and should withstand the passage of time as both authors have called their combined 48 years of experience in the industry into play, to conjure up a reasonably timeless discussion on various issues. 

Above everything else, Kasriel and Wood’s conversational style makes this book a very purposeful, handy guide on a subject that is vast. The Oilholic is happy to recommend it to fellow analysts, (aspiring, new and established) petroleum economists, policymakers, industry professionals, corporate sponsors and oil and gas project finance executives.

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. © Photo: Front Cover – Upstream Petroleum: Fiscal and Valuation Modeling in  Excel © Wiley Publishers, March, 2015.


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