Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Oil Price, Petroaggressors & a Few Books I've Read

Since last week, the wider commodities market has continued to mirror equities. This trend intensified towards the end of last week and shows no sign of abating. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Brent crude is trading at a premium to its American cousin, a gap which widened over USD$2. On Tuesday (August 31) at 13:00 GMT, the Brent forward month futures contract was trading at US$76.10 a barrel (down 1.1%) versus WTI crude at US$73.83 (down 3.1%) in intraday trading.

This of course is ahead of the US energy department’s supplies update, due for publication on Wednesday. The report is widely tipped to show a rise in crude stockpiles and the US market is seen factoring that in. Overall, the average drop in WTI crude for the month of August is around 8.89% as the month draws to a close.

Having duly noted this, I believe that compared to other asset classes, the slant in oil still seems a more attractively priced hedge than say forex or equities. Nonetheless, with there being much talk of a double-dip recession, many commentators have revised their oil price targets for the second half of 2010.

Last month, the talk in the city of London was that crude might cap US$85 a barrel by the end of the year; maybe even US$90 according to Total’s CEO. Crude prices seen in August have tempered market sentiment. Analysts at BofA Merrill Lynch now believe the oil price should average US$78 per barrel over H2 2010 owing to lower global oil demand growth and higher-than-expected non-OPEC supply.

“Following robust increases in oil demand over the past 12 months on a stimulus-driven rebound, we now see some downside risk as slower growth sets in and OECD oil inventories remain high. Beyond 2011, oil markets should remain tight on solid EM fundamentals and potentially a looser monetary policy stance by EM central banks on the back of the recent crisis in Europe. Curves may flatten further as inventories return to normal levels and seasonal hedging activity picks up,” they wrote in an investment note.

Elsewhere, Russia's largest privately held oil company - Lukoil - reported a 16% drop in quarterly profits with net profit coming at US$1.95 billion for the April-June period. Revenues rose 28% to US$25.9 billion on an annualised basis. In statement to the Moscow stock exchange, Lukoil said it is coping with the difficult macroeconomic situation and securing positive cash flow thanks to implementing measures aimed at higher efficiency which were developed at the beginning of the year.

The company largely blamed production costs for a dip in its profits which rose 24% for the first half of 2010. In July, US oil firm ConocoPhillips, which owns a 20% stake in Lukoil, said it would sell its holdings. However, the Russian oil major issued no comment on whether it would buy-out ConocoPhillips’ holdings.

Reading investment notes and following the fortunes of Lukoil aside, I recently stumbled upon a brilliantly coined term – “petroaggressors” – courtesy of author and journalist Robert Slater. After all, little else can be said of Iran, Venezuela, Russia and others who are seeking to alter the energy security hegemony from the developed world in favour of the Third world.

In his latest book – Seizing Power: the global grab for oil wealth – Slater notes that the ranks of petroaggressors are flanked by countries such as India and China who are desperate to secure the supply of crude oil with very few scruples to fuel their respective economic growth.

It is mighty hard to imagine life without oil; such has been the dominance of the internal combustion engine on life in the developed world over the last six decades. Now the developing world is catching-up fast with the burgeoning economies of China and India leading the pack. End result is every economy, regardless of its scale is suddenly worried about its energy security. Slater opines that a grab for this finite hydrocarbon may and in some cases already is turning ugly.

In fact he writes that the West, led by the US (currently the world's largest consumer of crude oil), largely ignored the initial signs regarding supply and demand permutations. As the star of the major oil companies declines, Slater writes that their market share and place is being taken not by something better - but rather by state-run, unproductive and politics-ridden behemoths dubbed as National Oil Companies (NOCs).

If the peak oil hypothesis, ethical concerns, price speculation and crude price volatility were not enough, geopolitics and NOCs run by despots could make this 'crude' world reach a tipping point. Continuing on the subject of books, journalist Katherine Burton's latest work - Hedge Hunters: How Hedge Fund Masters Survived is a thoroughly decent one.

In it, she examines the fortunes of key players in the much maligned, but still surviving hedge fund industry. In the spirit of a true oilholic, I jumped straight to Chapter 9 on the inimitable Boone Pickens, before immersing myself in the rest of her book.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Oil rig © Cairn Energy Plc

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