Friday, September 24, 2010

Crude Sort of a Month (So far)

We are nearing the end of September and crude oil just cannot shake off the linkage with perceived (rather than prevalent) risks to the health of the global economy. In fact, for lack of a better phrase - the “on” or “off” risk has been causing price fluctuation for some eight weeks now.

My contacts in the City also voice concerns about the next round of G20 opting for further regulation on commodities trading. Although it is the kind of rhetoric they have indeed heard time and again over the decades; it irks their collective psyche.

Overall, most expect crude oil prices to remain in the range of $73 to $85 until at least Q1 2011. Analysts at Société Générale CIB actually have a much wider ranged forecast to the tune of US$70 to US$85. In the oil business its best to avoid generalisations especially when it comes to forecasts, but a return to a US$100 plus price is not forecast by much of the wider market before Q1 2012 at the earliest.

Furthermore, crude stocks haven’t altered all that much. Société Générale CIB’s Global Head of Oil Research Mike Wittner notes in a recent investment note that:

“Despite 12 months of global economic recovery, stocks are little changed from a year ago, and are still at the top of their five-year range. OECD combined crude and product inventories remain stubbornly high at over 61 days forward cover. In other words, the increase in crude and product consumption over recent quarters has been matched by an increase in supply of about the same magnitude.”

In fact the big story, which Wittner also alludes to in his note, is the surprisingly large increase in supply from non-OPEC exporters while the cartel’s output itself has been stable. Looking ahead to the OPEC summit on Oct 14, which I will be attending in Vienna, the cartel is widely tipped to hold production levels steady at 29.0 million barrels per day.

Elsewhere in this crude world, Moody’s outlined potential Deepwater Horizon disaster liabilities for Transocean in an interesting report published on Monday. The report notes that Transocean’s credit risk has increased due to the disaster, although it is hard to quantify by how much.

While much depends on unknown variables, Transocean's stake is likely to be limited to 10% of the total liabilities, which could reach as much as US$60 billion, Moody's said. The recent downgrade of Transocean's long-term credit rating to Baa3 from Baa2 reflects that.

Kenneth Austin, Vice President & Senior Credit Officer at Moody's, feels that Transocean has sufficient cash, free cash flow and credit arrangements to address a US$6 billion responsibility without losing its investment-grade rating. “But any damages beyond that could force the company to consider ways to raise additional capital," he added.

For now, Transocean's indemnification agreement with BP - the largest partner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig and Macondo well - leaves BP responsible for the damages, unless the oil giant challenges the agreement in court, the report said.

Finally, the wider market has got word on what is being touted as the mother of all energy stock floatation’s and the largest share issue in corporate history – i.e. Petrobras’ attempt to raise something in the region of US$64.5 to US$74.7 billion. News emerged on Thursday that the final valuation was US$70 billion.

Following my earlier query, a company spokeswoman told me that Petrobras issued 2.4 billion common shares priced at BRL 29.65 (US$17.12) each and 1.87 billion preferred shares at BRL26.30 (US$15.25) each. The capital from the much delayed IPO will finance development of offshore drilling in the country’s territorial waters. The Brazilian government also gets its fair “share” in return for giving Petrobras access to up to 5 billion barrels of oil.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: Oil Drill Pump, North Dakota, USA © Phil Schermeister / National Geographic Society

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Veraciously Detailed Analysis of Prof. Gorelick

The debate over the “peak oil” hypothesis used to keep rearing its head from time to time in media and commodities circles – but of late it has become a bit of a permanent mainstream fixture, with regular discussions in the popular press.

No one discounts the fact that oil is a non-renewable and finite hydrocarbon, but the positions people take on either side of the hypothesis often evoke fierce emotions. Enter Prof. Steven M. Gorelick – the author of the brilliant book – Oil Panic and The Global Crisis: Predictions and Myths.

In my years as a journalist who has written on oil and follows crude markets closely, I feel this book is among the most engaging, detailed and well written ones that I have come across in its genre. Gorelick examines both sides of the argument and allied “crude” topics in some detail. He notes that commentators on either side of the peak oil debate, their respective stances and the arguments are not free of some pretty major assumptions. This pertains, but is not limited, to the complex issue of oil endowments and the methodology of working them out.

The author examines data and market conjecture that both supports and rejects the idea that the world is running out of crude oil. Prior to entering the resource depletion debate, Gorelick charts the landscape, outlines the history of the oil trade and crude prospection and exploration.

Following on from that, he discusses the resource depletion argument followed by a refreshingly well backed-up chapter offering arguments against imminent global oil depletion. The veracity of the research is simply unquestionable and the figures are not substantiated by rants or guesswork, but by a methodical analysis which makes the author's argument sound extremely persuasive. If you are taken in by popular discourse or media chatter about the planet running out of oil, this book does indeed explode more than a few myths.

The text is backed-up by ample figures, graphics and forecasts from a variety of industry recognised sources, journals and organisations. Unlike a straight cut bland discourse, the narrative of this book is very engaging. It may well be data intensive, but if the whole point of the book is substantiating an argument - then the data adds value and makes for an informed argument - for which author deserves full credit.

Above anything else, I find myself in agreement with the author that the US, where production peaked a few decades ago, is a “pincushion of exploration relative to other parts of the world.” Backed-up by data, Gorelick explains that the Middle East, Eastern (& Central) Europe and Africa contain 75% of global crude reserves but account for only 13% of exploratory drilling. This must change.

Every key topic from the Malthusian doctrine to M.K. Hubert's approach, from Canadian Oil sands to drilling offshore and the relative cost of imported oil for consuming nations have been discussed in context of the resource depletion debate and in some detail.

Gorelick correctly notes that while the era of "easy" oil may well be over and how much oil is extracted from difficult sources remains to be seen. I quite agree with the author that the next or shall we say the current stage of extraction and prospection would ultimately be dictated by the price of oil.

Many commodities traders believe a US$50 per barrel price or above would ensure extraction from difficult to reach places. However, that is not to say that a high price equates to the planet running out of oil, according to the author. He writes so from a position of strength having spent years analysing industry data and I find it difficult not to be swayed by the force of his honest arguments.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Book Cover © Wiley

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Eni’s Rating Downgrade & Other News

Moody's Investors Service lowered the long-term senior unsecured ratings of Eni S.p.A. (Eni) and its guaranteed subsidiaries to Aa3 from Aa2 and the senior unsecured rating of Eni USA Inc. to A1 from Aa3. In a note on Monday, it said the outlook for all ratings is stable.

Eni qualifies as a Government-Related Issuer (GRI) under Moody's methodology for such entities, given its 30.3% direct and indirect ownership by the Italian state. The downgrade reflects Moody's expectation that deleveraging process initiated by Eni management and recovery in the group's credit metrics will be gradual and unlikely to restore sufficient headroom to help underpin its business case analysis within the Aa range.

In other news, the U.S. EIA has cut its forecast for global oil demand in light of lower forecasts for global growth. EIA now expects global oil consumption to rise by 1.4 million barrels per day in 2011 against last month's projection of 1.5 million barrels. The consumption growth forecast for 2010 was unchanged at 1.6 million barrels per day.

On the pricing front, the EIA expects spot West Texas Intermediate crude prices to average US$77 a barrel in Q4 2010, down from its previous forecast of US$81. It added that crude prices are likely to climb to US$84 by the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, as you know, BP published its internal report into the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and the resultant oil spill last week. Given the ol’ day job of mine, I wanted to read it cover to cover – all 193 pages of it – before blogging about it. Having finally read it, goes without saying the oil giant is stressing on the fact that a "sequence" of failures caused the tragedy for which a "number of parties" were responsible. (To be read as Transocean and Halliburton)

In the report, conducted by BP's head of safety Mark Bly, the oil giant noted eight key failures that collectively led to the explosion. Most notably, BP said that both its staff as well and Transocean staff interpreted a safety test reading incorrectly "over a 40-minute period" which should have flagged up risks of a blowout and action could have been taken on the influx of hydrocarbons into the well.

BP was also critical of the cementing of the well - carried out by Halliburton - and the well’s blowout preventer. The report also notes that improved engineering rigour, cement testing and communication of risk by Halliburton could have identified flaws in cement design and testing, quality assurance and risk assessment.

It added that a Transocean rig crew and a team working for Halliburton Sperry Sun may have been distracted by "end-of-well activities" and important monitoring was not carried out for more than seven hours as a consequence.

Furthermore, BP said that there were "no indications" Transocean had tested intervention systems at the surface as was required by its company policy before they were deployed on the well. Crew may have had more time to respond before the explosion if they had diverted escaping fluids overboard, the report added.

BP’s outgoing Chief Executive Tony Hayward said, “To put it simply, there was a bad cement job and a failure of the shoe track barrier at the bottom of the well, which let hydrocarbons from the reservoir into the production casing. The negative pressure test was accepted when it should not have been, there were failures in well control procedures and in the blowout preventer; and the rig's fire and gas system did not prevent ignition.”

So there we have it – the oil giant is not absolving itself of the blame, but rather spreading it around. It came as no major surprise that both Halliburton and Transocean criticised and dismissed the report - though not necessarily in that order. The story is unlikely to go away as a national commission is expected to submit a report to President Barack Obama by mid-January 2011 followed by a Congressional investigation. The U.S. Justice department may yet step in as well if evidence of criminal wrongdoing of some sort emerges.

Away from the BP spill saga, French energy giant Total said last week that it could sell its 480 petrol stations in the UK as part of a strategic review of its British downstream operations as it refocuses on its core upstream strength and well something had to give.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo: US Oil rig © Rich Reid / National Geographic Society

Monday, September 06, 2010

From a Sobering August to Sept's Crude Forecast!

August has been a sobering month of sorts for the crude market. Overall, the average drop in WTI crude for the month was well above 8% and the premium between Brent crude and WTI crude futures contracts averaged about US$2. The market perhaps needed a tempering of expectations; poor economic data and fears of a double-dip recession did just that.

Even healthy US jobs data released last week could not stem the decline; though prices did recover by about 2% towards the end of last week. On Friday, the crude contract for October delivery lost 0.6% or US$0.41 to $74.60 a barrel on NYMEX. This is by no means a full blown slump (yet!) given that last week’s US EIA report was bearish for crude. It suggests that stocks built-up by 3.4 million barrels, a figure which was above market consensus but less than that published by the API. This is reflected in the current level of crude oil prices.

Looking specifically at ICE Brent crude oil futures, technical analysts remain mildly bullish in general predicting a pause and then a recovery over the next three weeks. In an investment note discussing the ICE Brent crude oil contract for October delivery, Société Générale CIB commodities technical analyst Stephanie Aymés notes that at first the market should drift lower but US$74.40/73.90 will hold and the recovery will resume to 77.20 and 77.70/78.00 or even 78.80 (Click chart above).

On the NYMEX WTI forward month futures contract, Aymés also sees a recovery. “73.40 more importantly 72.60 will hold, a further recovery will develop to 75.55/90 and 76.45 or even 77.05/77.25,” she notes. By and large, technical charts from Société Générale or elsewhere are not terribly exciting at the moment with the price still generally trading pretty much within the US$70-80 range.

Elsewhere in the crude world, here is a brilliant article from BBC reporter Konstantin Rozhnov on how Russia’s recently announced privatisation drive is sparking fears of a return to the Yeltsin era sale of assets.

On a crudely related note, after a series of delays, Brazil’s Petrobras finally unveiled its plans to sell up to US$64.5 billion of new common and preference stock in one of the largest public share offerings in the world.

A company spokeswoman said on Friday that the price of new shares would be announced on September 23rd. The IPO could well be expanded from US$64.5 billion to US$74.7 billion subject to demand; though initially Petrobras would issue 2.17 billion common shares and 1.58 billion preferred shares. The share capital will finance development of offshore drilling in the country’s territorial waters.

Lastly, the US Navy and BP said late on Sunday that the Macondo well which spilled over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico poses no further risk to the environment. Admiral Thad Allen, a US official leading the government’s efforts, made the announcement after engineers replaced a damaged valve on the sea bed.

Concurrently, The Sunday Times reported that BP had raised the target for its asset sales from US$30 billion to US$ 40 billion to cover the rising clean-up cost of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The paper, citing unnamed sources, also claimed that BP was revisiting the idea of selling a stake in its Alaskan assets.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Graphics © SGCIB / CQG Inc. Photo: Alaska, US © Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic Society


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