Monday, July 15, 2013

Speculators make the oil price belie market logic

The fickle crude oil market is yet again giving an indication about how divorced it is from macroeconomic fundamentals and why a concoction of confused geopolitics and canny speculation is behind the recent peaks and troughs. To give a bit of background – the WTI forward month futures contract surpassed the US$106 per barrel level last week; the highest it has been in 16 months. Concurrently, the spread between WTI and Brent crude narrowed to a near 33-month low of US$1.19 in intraday on July 11 [versus a high of US$29.70 in September 2011].
Less than a couple of weeks ago Goldman Sachs closed its trading recommendation to buy WTI and sell Brent. In a note to clients, the bank’s analysts said they expected the spread to narrow in the medium term as new pipelines help shift the Cushing, Oklahoma glut, a physical US crude oil delivery point down to the Houston trading hub, thus removing pressure from the WTI forward month futures contract to the waterborne Brent.
Goldman Sachs' analysts were by no means alone in their thinking. Such a viewpoint about the spread is shared by many on Wall Street, albeit in a nuanced sort of way. While Cushing's impact in narrowing the spread is a valid one, the response of the WTI to events elsewhere defies market logic.
Sadly Egypt is in turmoil, Syria is still burning, Libya’s problems persist and Iraq is not finding its feet as quick as outside-in observers would like it to. However, does this merit a WTI spike to record highs? The Oilholic says no! Agreed, that oil prices were also supported last week by US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's comments that economic stimulus measures were "still" necessary. But most of the upward price pressure is speculators' mischief - pure and simple.
Less than two months ago, we were being peddled with the argument that US shale was a game changer – not just by supply-side analysts, but by the IEA as well. So if that is the case, why are rational WTI traders spooked by fears of a wider conflict in the Middle East? Syria and Egypt do not even contribute meaningfully to the global oil market supply train, let alone to the North American market. Furthermore, China and India are both facing tough times if not a downturn.
And you know what, give this blogger a break if you really think the US demand for distillates rose so much in 10 days that it merited the WTI spiking by the amount that it has? Let's dissect the supply-side argument. Last week's EIA data showed that US oil stocks fell by about 10 million barrels for a second consecutive week. That marked a total stockpile decline of 20.2 million barrels in two weeks, the biggest since 1982.
However, that is still not enough to detract the value of net US inventories which are well above their five-year average. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest thus far that the equation would alter for the remainder of 2013 with media outlets reporting the same. The latest one, from the BBC, based on IEA figures calmly declares the scare over 'peak oil' subsiding. US crude production rose 1.8% to 7.4 million barrels per day last week, the most since January 1992 and in fact on May 24, US supplies rose to 397.6 million, the highest inventory level since 1931!
But for all of that, somehow Bernanke's reassurances on a continuation of Federal stimulus, flare-ups in the Middle East [no longer a big deal from a US supply-side standpoint] and a temporary stockpile decline were enough for the latest spike. Why? Because it is a tried and tested way for those who trade in paper barrels to make money.
A very well connected analogy can be drawn between what's happening with the WTI and Brent futures' recent "past". Digging up the Brent data for the last 36 months, you will see mini pretexts akin to the ones we've seen in the last 10 days, being deployed by speculators to push to the futures contract ever higher; in some instances above $110 level by going long. They then rely on publicity hungry politicians to bemoan how consumers are feeling the pinch. Maybe an Ed Markey can come alone and raise the issue of releasing strategic petroleum reserves (SPRs) and put some downward pressure – especially now that he's in the US Senate.
Simultaneously, of course the high price starts hurting the economy as survey data factors in the drag of rising oil prices, usually within a three-month timeframe, and most notably on the input/output prices equation. The same speculators then go short, blaming an economic slowdown, some far-fetched reason of "uptick" in supply somewhere somehow and the Chinese not consuming as much as they should! And soon the price starts falling. This latest WTI spike is no different.

Neither the underlying macroeconomic fundamentals nor the supply-demand scenarios have altered significantly over the last two weeks. Even the pretexts used by speculators to make money haven't changed either. The Oilholic suspects a correction is round the corner and the benchmark is a short! (Click graph above to enlarge)
Away from crude pricing matters to some significant news for India and Indonesia. It seems both countries are reacting to curb fuel subsidies under plans revealed last month. The Indian government agreed to a new gas pricing formula which doubled domestic natural gas prices to $8.40/million British thermal units (mmbtu) from $4.20/mmbtu.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government is working on plans to increase the price of petrol by 44% to Rupiah 6,500 ($2.50) per gallon and diesel by 22% to Rupiah 5,500. With the hand of both governments being forced by budgetary constraints, that's good economics but bad politics. In Asia, it's often the other way around, especially with general elections on the horizon - as is the case with both countries.
Elsewhere, yours truly recently had the chance to read a Moody's report on the outlook for the global integrated oil and gas industry. According to the ratings agency, the outlook will remain stable over the next 12 to 18 months, reflecting the likelihood of subdued earnings growth during this period.

Analyst Francois Lauras, who authored the report, said, "We expect the net income of the global oil and gas sector to fall within the stable range of minus 10% to 10% well into 2014 as robust oil prices and a slight pick-up in US natural gas prices help offset ongoing fragility in the refining segment." 
"Although oil prices may moderate, we expect demand growth in Asia and persistent geopolitical risk to keep prices at elevated levels," he added.
The agency anticipates that integrated oil companies will concentrate on reinvesting cash flows into their upstream activities, driven by "robust" oil prices, favourable long-term trends in energy consumption and the prospects of higher returns.
However, major projects are exerting pressure on operating and capital efficiency measures as they are often complex, highly capital intensive and have long lead times. In the near term, Moody's expects that industry players will continue to dispose of non-core, peripheral assets to complement operating cash flows and fund large capex programmes, as well as make dividend payouts without impairing their balance sheets.
Finally, the agency said it could change its outlook to negative if a substantial drop in oil prices were triggered by a further deterioration in the world economy. It would also consider changing its outlook to positive if its forecast for the sector's net income increased by more than 10% over the next 12-18 months.

Moody's has maintained the stable outlook since September 2011. In the meantime, whatever the macroeconomic climate might be, it hardly ever rains on the speculators' parade. That's all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!
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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo: Pump Jacks, Perryton, Texas, USA © Joel Sartore / National Geographic. Graph: WTI Crude Futures US$/barrel © BBC /

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