Thursday, March 24, 2011

First thoughts from Houston…mine & others'

It is good to be back in the city that made the oil trade a business! With both ICE Brent and West Texas Intermediate forward month futures contract benchmarks above US$100 per barrel, Houston should be a happy place on this beautiful Thursday morning. Following a breakfast meeting with some ‘crude’ contacts, the viewpoints to emerge were more nuanced than I’d thought and some were in line with my chain of thoughts.

But first things first, last I checked WTI forward month futures contract was at US$106.35/b and ICE Brent at US$115.60/b. An energy partner at a law firm, a commodities trader, an industry veteran and an oil executive were all in agreement that geopolitical bias for crude prices – well – is almost always to the upside. Recent events in the Middle East and whats going on Libya in particular is having more of an impact on the Brent spread, as it is more reflective of global conditions. WTI is more reflective of conditions in the US mid-west and as such many here believe even US$100-plus does not reflect market demand vs. supply fundamentals.

Only medium term concern here, moving away from the geopolitical bias, is the perceived bottleneck associated with pipeline capacity (from Alberta, Canada) to Cushing and then southwards. This is unlikely to be relieved until 2013 (TCPL Keystone XL) or 2014 (Enbridge) and lets not forget the associated politics of it all.

The Libya situation, most experts here say, may create a short-term spike for both crude benchmarks, more so in Brent’s case – but it is not going to be 2008 all over again – in the words of four experienced Texans and the pragmatic SocGen analyst Mike Wittner.

Furthermore, market commentators here believe that over the next three quarters both speculative activity and investor capital flow in to the crude market (or shall we say the paper crude market) will be highly tactical as the current geopolitical risk premium (hopefully) eases gradually.

As expected, local feedback suggests utilisation rates of refineries and LNG terminals locally is still low. While I attach a caveat that four experts do not speak for the whole state, the belief here in Texas is that refining margins, which have been pathetic for the past six quarters may show some recovery towards the end of 2011.

© Gaurav Sharma 2011. Photo: Pump Jacks, Perryton, Texas © Joel Sartore/National Geographic

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