Friday, March 20, 2015

Oil prices, OPEC shenanigans & the North Sea

It has been a crude fortnight of ups and downs for oil futures benchmarks. Essentially, supply-side fundamentals have not materially altered. There’s still around 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil hitting the markets in excess of what’s required.

Barrels put in storage are at an all time high, thanks either to those forced to store or those playing contango. US inventories also remain at a record high levels. 

However, the biggest story in the oil market, as well as the wider commodities market, is the strength of the US dollar. All things being equal, the dollar’s strength is currently keeping both Brent and WTI front month futures contracts at cyclical lows. The past five trading days saw quite a few spikes and dives but Friday’s close came in broadly near to the previous week’s close (see graph on the left, click to enlarge).

In the Oilholic’s opinion, a sustained period of oil prices below $60 is not ideal for unconventional exploration. Nonetheless, not all, but a sufficiently large plethora of producers just continue to grin and bear it. While that keeps happening, and the dollar remains strong, oil prices will not find support. We could very well be in the $40-60 range until June at the very least. Unless excess supply falls from 1.3 million bpd to around 750,000 bpd, it is hard to see how the oil price will receive support from supply constriction. 

Additionally, Fitch Ratings reckons should Brent continue to lurk around $55, credit ratings of European, Middle Eastern and African oil companies would take a hit. European companies that went into the slump with stretched credit profiles remain particularly vulnerable.

In a note to clients, Fitch said its downgrade of Total to 'AA-' in February was in part due to weaker current prices, and the weaker environment played a major part in the downgrade and subsequent default of Afren.

"Our investigation into the effect on Western European oil companies' credit profiles with Brent at $55 in 2015 shows that ENI (A+/Negative) and BG Group (A-/Negative) were among those most affected. Both outlooks reflect operational concerns, ENI because of weakness in its downstream and gas and power businesses, BG Group due to historical production delays. Weaker oil prices exacerbate these problems," the agency added.

Of course, Fitch recognises the cyclical nature of oil prices, so the readers need not expect wholesale downgrades in response to a price drop. Additionally, Afren remains an exception rather than the norm, as discussed several times over on this blog.

Moving on, the Oilholic has encountered empirical and anecdotal evidence of private equity money at the ready to take advantage of the oil price slump for scooping up US shale prospects eyeing better times in the future. For one’s Forbes report on the subject click here. The Oilholic has also examined the state of affairs in Mexico in another detailed Forbes report published here.

Elsewhere, a statement earlier this week by a Kuwaiti official claiming that there is no appetite for an OPEC meeting before the scheduled date of June 5, pretty much ends all hopes of the likes of Nigeria and Venezuela in calling an emergency meeting. The official also said OPEC had “no choice” but to continue producing at its current levels or risk losing market share.

In any case, the Oilholic believes chatter put out by Nigeria and Venezuela calling for an OPEC meeting in the interest of self-preservation was a non-starter. Given that we’re little over two months away from the next meeting and the fact that it takes 4-6 weeks to get everyone to agree to a meeting date, current soundbites from the ‘cut production’ brigade don’t make sense.

Meanwhile, the UK Treasury finally acknowledged that taxation of North Sea oil and gas exploration needed a radical overhaul. In his final budget, before the Brits see a General Election on May 7, Chancellor George Osborne cut the country’s Petroleum Revenue Tax from its current level of 50% to 35% largely aimed at supporting investment in maturing offshore prospects.

Furthermore, the country’s supplementary rate of taxation, lowered from 32% to 30% in December, was cut further down to 20% and its collection at a lower rate backdated to January. Altogether, the UK’s total tax levy would fall from 60% to 50%.

Osborne’s move was widely welcomed by the industry. Some are fretting that he’s left it too late. Yet others reckon a case of better late than never could go a long way with the North Sea’s glory days well behind it. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Graph: Tracking Friday oil prices close, year to date 2015 © Gaurav Sharma, March 20, 2015.

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