Saturday, September 20, 2014

Buyers' market & an overdue oil price correction

Recent correction in the price of crude oil should come as no surprise. The Brent front month futures contract fell to a 26-month low last week lurking around the US$98 per barrel level.

The Oilholic has said so before, and he’ll say it again – there is plenty of the crude stuff around to mitigate geopolitical spikes. When that happens, and it has been something of a rarity over the last few years, the froth dissipates. In wake of Brent dipping below three figures, a multitude of commentators took to the airwaves attributing it to lower OECD demand (nothing new), lacklustre economic activity in China (been that way for a while), supply glut (not new either), refinery maintenance (it is that time of the year), Scottish Referendum (eh, what?) – take your pick.

Yet nothing’s changed on risk front, as geopolitical mishaps – Libya, Sudan, Iraq and Ebola virus hitting West African exploration – are all still in the background. What has actually gotten rid of the froth is a realisation by those trading paper or virtual contracts that the only way is not long!

It’s prudent to mention that the Oilholic doesn’t always advocate going short. But one has consistently being doing so since late May predicated on the belief of industry contacts, who use solver models to a tee, to actually buy physical crude oil, rather than place bets on a screen. Most of their comparisons factor in at least three sellers, if not more.

Nothing they've indicated in the last (nearly) five months has suggested that buyers are tense about procuring crude oil within what most physical traders consider to be a "fair value" spot trade, reflecting market conditions. For what it’s worth, with the US buying less, crude oil exporters have had to rework their selling strategies and find other clients in Asia, as one explained in a Forbes post earlier this month.

It remains a buyers’ market where you have two major importers, the US and China who are buying less, albeit for different reasons. In short, and going short on crude oil, what’s afoot is mirroring physical market reality which paper traders delayed over much of the second quarter of this year from taking hold. Furthermore, as oversupply has trumped Brent’s risk premium, WTI is finding support courtesy the internal American dynamic of higher refinery runs and a reduction of the Cushing, Oklahoma glut. End result means a lower Brent premium to the WTI. 

However, being pragmatic, Brent’s current slump won’t be sustained until the end of the year. For starters, OPEC is coming to the realisation that it may have to cut production. Secretary General Adalla Salem El-Badri has recently hinted at this.

While OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia is reasonably comfortable above a $85 price floor, hawks such as Iran and Venezuela aren’t. Secondly, economic activity is likely to pick up both within and outside the OECD in fits and starts. While Chinese economic data continues to give mixed signals, India is seeing a mini-bounce. 

Additionally, as analysts at Deutsche Bank noted, “With refineries likely to run hard after the maintenance period, this will support crude oil demand and eventually prompt crude prices, in our view. This may be one of the factors that could help to eliminate contango in the Brent crude oil term structure.”

While the general mood in the wider commodities market remains bearish, it should improve over the remainder of the year unless China, India and the US collectively post dire economic activity, something that’s hard to see at this point. The Oilholic is sticking to his Q1 forecast of a Brent price in the range of $90 to $105 for 2014, and for its premium to WTI coming down to $5.

Meanwhile, Moody's has lowered the Brent crude price assumptions it uses for ratings purposes to $90 per barrel through 2015, a $5 drop from the ratings agency's previous assumptions for 2015. It also reduced price assumptions for WTI crude to $85 per barrel from $90 through 2015.

The agency’s price assumptions for 2016 and thereafter are $90 per barrel for Brent crude and $85 for WTI crude, unchanged from previous assumptions. Moody’s continue to view Brent as a common proxy for oil prices on the world market, and WTI for North American crude.

On a closing note, here’s the Oilholic’s second take for Forbes on the role of China as a refining superpower. Recent events have meant that their refining party is taking a breather, but it’s by no means over. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: Russian Oil Extraction Facility © Lukoil. Graph: Brent curve structure, September 19, 2014 © Deutsche Bank

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

‘Crude’ sanctions on others always hurt Japan

The Oilholic finds himself in a rain-soaked Tokyo one final time before the big flying bus home! How Asian importing countries cope with sanctions on major oil & gas exporting jurisdictions is an interesting topic in this region reliant on foreign hydrocarbons for obvious reasons.

Mentioning Iran and of late curbs on Russia, deliberations over the past week with market commentators here in Tokyo, as well as Shanghai and Hong Kong, resulted in a consensus of opinion that Japan’s 30-odd oil & gas companies and regional gas-fired utilities feel the pain of such curbs more than corporate citizens of most other Asian importing nations.

The reason is simple enough; of the quartet of major Asian importers – namely China, Japan, India and South Korea – it’s the Japanese who are the most compliant when international pressures surface. Now, whether or not they can afford to is a different matter. According to the EIA and local publications, Japan consumed nearly 4.6 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2013, down from 4.7 million bpd in 2012. 

Going by the IEA’s latest projections, Japan is the third largest petroleum consumer in the world, behind the US and China. Yet domestic reserves are paltry in the region of 45.5 million barrels of oil equivalent, concentrated along the country’s western coastline. Inevitably, Japan imports most of its hydrocarbon requirements as a major industrialised nation.

Given the equation, if sanctions knock out or have the potential to knock out imports from one of its major partners, finding an alternative is neither easy nor simple. Forward planning also gets thrown right out of the window. We’ll discuss the recent Russian conundrum in a moment, but let’s examine the 2012 Iranian sanctions and the Japanese response to them first.

The country, almost immediately complied with requests to import less oil from Iran when European Union and US sanctions escalated in Q1 2012. At the time, Japan accounted for 17% of Iranian exports, above South Korea and India, but below China. The Japanese phased bid to reduce Iranian oil imports was lauded by the West, whereas China largely ignored the call, South Korea asked for more time and the Indians came up with ingenious ways to make remittances to Iran, until curbs on the insurance of tankers carrying Iranian crude began to bite.

Make no mistake, the sanctions on Iran hurt all four back in 2012, but Japan had to contend with the biggest refocusing exercise based on the level and speed of its compliance in moving away from Iranian crude. In the Oilholic’s opinion, for better or worse, that’s the price of being a G7 nation; and “having internationalism factored into the thinking,” adds a contact.

Fast forward to 2014, and the potential for securing of natural gas supplies from Russia to Japan seems to be taking a hit in wake of the Ukraine crisis. At the 21st World Petroleum Congress in June, when the tension had not escalated to the current level, prior to the downing of MH17, policymakers in on both sides were cooing over the potential for cooperation. 

The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan and the Energy Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences even put out a joint white paper at the Congress contemplating a subsea gas pipeline route from Korsakov, Russia, to Kashima, Japan with an onshore Ishikari-Tomakomai section. It was claimed that technical feasibility of the ambitious project, capable of carrying a projected 8 bcm of natural gas to the Pacific Coast of Eastern Japan, had been positive.

Now it’s all gone a bit cold. One can’t directly attribute it to Russia’s face-off with the West, but currently both Japan and Russia describe the project as “just another idea”. This blogger can assure you, people were way more excited about it in June at the WPC than they are at the moment, and one wonders why?

Afterall, post-Fukushima with the rise of natural gas in Japan’s energy mix, however wild a project might be, carries weight rather than being relegated to just an idea. Contrast this with China, which has recently inked a long-term supply contract with the Russians. Quod erat demonstrandum!

With the evening drawing to a close, it’s time to digress a little and disclose the venue of this animated conversation – that’s none other than Tokyo’s iconic Hotel Okura. While a wee tipple is not cheap (average JPY1,700 for a swig of single malt), visiting this modernist institution is something special. 

When Tokyo first hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, the hotel was built in preparation to welcome the world. Since then, Hotel Okura has hosted every serving US President from Richard Nixon onwards.

Author Ian Fleming made James Bond fictitiously check-in to the hotel while in Tokyo in a chapter of "You only live twice". In recent work of fiction, the hotel also makes an appearance in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. It’s eclectic lobby, paneling, general sense of tranquility and overall panache of modern Japan is simply splendid (see above left). 

So here’s to 007, Murakami, Queen and Country and all the rest; but also it could be the Oilholic’s last drink at Hotel Okura as we know it. Alas, this grand place is about to fall prey to cultural philistinism in the name of progress as Tokyo prepares to host the Olympic Games once again in 2020. 

Last time around, for the 1964 games, Tokyo got the wretched Nihonbashi Expressway, a ‘clever’ project which included building an expressway over the Nihonbashi bridge, obscuring the magnificent view of Mount Fuji from the bridge and covering-up an ancient river flowering through the heart of Tokyo with steel and much more (see below left)!

Now atop a lot of flattening and rebuilding plans all over town, it seems Hotel Okura’s original main wing has been marked for demolition in August 2015, leaving only the South Tower operational. A proposed spending plan of US$980 million will see the wing open in the spring of 2019, reborn according to an employee as a “mixed-use tower” with 550 guest rooms and 18 stories of office space.

Life it seems will never be the same again for Hotel Okura and its many admirers including the Oilholic, who’d made it his mission not to leave Tokyo without visiting. Glad one got to see it before the demolition men get in. Well that’s all from the Far East folks as its time to bid a sad goodbye to the region!

Tokyo, Hong Kong, Macau and Shanghai, planes, trains, speedboats and automobiles – it was one heck of a crude ride that one will treasure forever. Next stop is London Heathrow, a reminder that all good things must end! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: Tokyo Stock Exchange. Photo 2: Lobby of the Hotel Okura, Tokyo. Photo 3: The Oilholic at Hotel Okura’s Orchid Bar. Photo 4: Nihonbashi Expressway, Tokyo, Japan  © Gaurav Sharma, September, 2014.

Monday, September 08, 2014

China’s thirst: A few 'crude' notes from Shanghai

The Oilholic finds himself in Shanghai, the financial capital of China. Home to some 24 million people, this bustling metropolis, and what makes it tick, explains away the country’s consumption pattern of hydrocarbons, colossal state-owned oil & gas companies and a progressive lurch forward in the world of finance.

China uses more energy per GDP unit than any other country in the world, and factored in that equation is Shanghai which burns more hydrocarbons that any other major Chinese metropolitan area. While savouring the glitzy lights of the Shanghai waterfront, should the haze and weather permit, most visitors either fail to notice or attach importance to oil tankers frequently passing up and down the Huangpu River (see above left, in the darkness below the Oriental Pearl TV & Radio Tower).

China is the world’s largest net importer of crude oil, and its financial gateway is also its gateway for imported crude to be processed and moved. The city’s Pudong district alone has 240,000 barrels per day (bpd) of refining capacity. According to a distillates market commentator, plans are being spearheaded by Sinopec to take old creaking facilities offline and replace them with a new cleaner low carbon refinery with a whopping 400,000 bpd processing capacity at Caojing Industrial Park, some 50 km south of downtown Shanghai.

The capacity would have to be whopping, catering to Shanghai's Yangshang Port which overtook Rotterdam in 2004 to become the world’s busiest container port by volume and cargoes. Of the city's two main airports – Pudong International – is the world’s third-biggest mover of air cargo. Then with an area of 6,340.5 sq km, Shanghai is the world’s largest city and China’s most populous. 

Its growing, and growing fast. In 2001, the Oilholic remembered watching a BBC report on the city’s construction drive. Much of it was focussed on Pudong’s financial district which resembled something of an urban metallic mess. As yours truly came out of the Lujiazui Metro Station on Friday afternoon to see for himself, the said urban mess has in fact progressed to a sprawling skyscrapered representation of Chinese economic prowess in less than a decade.

Furthermore, yet more skyscrapers keep springing up. A trader correctly pointed out that the Oilholic has arrived to witness the party a bit late. Guilty as charged, more so as flat macroeconomic data has taken some (but not all) of the fizz out of late. Nonetheless, the inexorable eastward movement of importers’ petrodollars is manifestly apparent, more so as Chinese imports (and refining capacity) rises, while US imports decline and conditions for OECD refiners remain challenging.

To provide some context, Wood McKenzie notes that by 2020, US crude oil imports would have fallen below 7 million bpd thanks to shale and lower demand, while China’s would have risen above 9 million bpd. Bearing the wider market dynamic in mind, Chinese regulators are trying to bolster Shanghai’s clout in the wider commodities and financial markets.

For instance, three reliable financial sector sources expressed confidence that the domestic market regulator will introduce options trading over the fourth quarter of this year. A spokesperson for Shanghai’s International Energy Exchange says it will commence the trading of crude oil futures this year. It must also be noted that Shanghai’s commodities exchanges are backed-up by those in Dalian and Zhengzhou.

As for corporate deal flow, propped up by state-owned enterprises, it’s a case of more said the better. A Reuters report suggests spending by state-controlled oil & gas majors is likely to rise over the coming months, led by Sinopec and PetroChina, as the industry recovers from a government probe into industry graft allegations.

Some market commentators here in Shanghai are forecasting an overall annualised jump of over 45% in the total value of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) by Chinese companies, with oil & gas majors leading the way. It can’t be said for sure whether that’s a fair assessment or an overoptimistic take by local commentators, but it is in line with empirical evidence from elsewhere. 

For instance, Mergermarket recently noted that China was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest market for M&A deals in the region, with deals worth US$128.4 billion over the first half of the year. Recent studies by EY, PwC and Deloitte have also noted the Chinese clout in terms energy sector M&A deals.

There’s potential for foreign direct investment as well. For instance, a stake, possibly as high as 30%, is up for grabs at Sinopec Sales, the company’s retail and marketing unit, which could be worth Yuan 100 billion (£10.04 billion, $16.29 billion) in terms of market valuation. It has attracted 37 bidders, including international participants and joint consortiums, according to local media.

Rather unusually, Sinopec Chairman Fu Chengyu also told media outlets that new stakeholders could be offered seats on its board. As with everything in China, it’s not done till it’s done. However, should such a level of holistic reform at regulatory and corporate levels go through to fruition, this blogger can see two major Asian commodities and financial markets – i.e. Hong Kong and Singapore – really feeling the heat.

Yet, there are stumbling blocks in Shanghai’s march forward. Red tape is a big one, for everything is described by spokespeople as “imminent” but with no verifiable timeline for execution or a firm date. While one can sense the positive intent for reforms, that alone won’t lead to end-delivery.

Another is pollution in the city, which is making residents restless about new refinery capacity, and rightly so. Shanghai’s horrendous traffic jams pose another problem though a fantastic metro, mass rail transit systems and not to mention the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation railway line do make residents and visitors’ lives a significantly easier.

Finally, the biggest stumbling block is the Yuan, which isn’t a fully convertible currency. The Oilholic thinks it’s probably why Shanghai's Free Trade Area (FTA), due to celebrate the first anniversary of its establishment this month, has largely turned out to be a dud so far. The 28.78 sq km zone in where else but Pudong was supposedly modelled on a mini Hong Kong.

The FTA found promises of attracting a wider range businesses and looser custom intervention easy to deliver along with swanky logistics and construction work. However, a full convertible Yuan and a market-based interest rate mechanism have proved to be anything but deliverable.

While the authorities have permitted companies in the FTA open “special accounts” facilitating cross-border capital flows, transactions between these and overseas accounts can hardly be described as “free transfers” in a British or American business sense. It’s also difficult to envisage how the creation of 8 spot trading platforms for commodities ranging from iron ore to cotton would work in the FTA, as is being planned, without a convertible currency.

All in all, and to be quite honest, FTA fans expecting a fully convertible Yuan were perhaps being overoptimistic. The Chinese will find their currency pathway at their convenience and in their own time. Nonetheless, crude reality is that the Chinese juggernaut will roll on, and in the context of the commodities market, dominate the discourse for some time yet.

That’s all for the moment from China folks as its time to bid a sad goodbye to Shanghai! It was great being here to get a first hand feel of the Chinese oil & gas sphere rather than commentating on it from the comfort of a desk in London. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: Shanghai Huangpu River Waterfront. Photo 2: Pudong Financial District. Photo 3: Flag of the Peoples Republic of China. Photo 4: East Nanjing Road. Photo 5: Traffic Jam, Shanghai, China © Gaurav Sharma, September, 2014.

Friday, September 05, 2014

That need for speed: Meet Shanghai’s Maglev

After years of wanting to, months of planning, waiting, visa applications and what have you, the Oilholic has finally made it to China, via Shanghai’s sprawling Pudong International Airport.

Before even entering the city limits, you get a sense of expansiveness, development, progress and a country in overdrive, despite Chinese economic data being less than flattering of late. It’s all capped by a general desire for getting things done, something that’s epitomised by one project in particular – the Shanghai Maglev Train, acknowledged as the world’s first commercially operated magnetic levitation line.

The Americans, Brits, Germans, Swiss and Japanese, have all flirted with magnetic levitation. Birmingham and Berlin even had low-speed pilot maglev trains before being abandoned owing to costs and other permutations. That’s where China is different – they wanted it done, wanted to spend towards that need for speed and the end result is splendid.

The Oilholic got from Pudong International to Longyang Road Metro Station, close to Shanghai’s financial district some 30.5km from the airport, in 8 minutes and 10 seconds at a speed of 301km/hr (see right), according to the speed indicator in one’s carriage.

Had yours truly travelled earlier in the afternoon, when the Maglev does 431 km/hr, it would have taken 7 minutes, a Guinness Book World Record land speed for public transit carriage. A non-commercial scientifically monitored journey on November 12, 2003 saw the maglev hit 501km/hr. Now beat that!

The need for this speed does not require the ‘crude’ stuff, but it doesn’t come cheap either. It’s almost certainly why the Brits and Germans abandoned projects after initial efforts. That sort of thing however doesn’t hold the Chinese back. This high-speed thrill ride cost US$1.33 billion to build entering commercial service in January 2004.

While yours truly was indeed enjoying the thrill ride, one got an acute sense that there were more thrill seekers onboard than regular commuters. There’s a reason for that; unlike the Oilholic, not everyone likes to get off an airplane head straight to the financial district!

So you still have to get on the Shanghai Metro at Longyang Road to go further, which you could have done earlier in any case since the metro line actually goes to Pudong International Airport. The tickets are pricey by local standards going at RMB85 (US$13.80, £8.50) for a return ticket and day-metro pass, RMB80 for a return and RMB50 for a single-journey. While this blogger, felt it was worth his while for the experience, the roughly 30% average carriage occupancy rate suggests that average Shanghai dwellers don’t in the main.

Nonetheless, that’s not something to knock the Maglev down with. You’ll get a similar occupancy dynamic if you compared the Heathrow Express and the cheaper option of taking the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line from the airport. Except, that in the case of Shanghai Maglev, it’s not an express – it’s a super-cool super-express. Having used mass transit and public transport systems from 67 airports (and counting) and many rail/seaport hubs, the Oilholic can safely say nothing beats this experience; not even the TGV or Shinkansen.

The initial train set was built by a joint venture of Siemens and ThyssenKrupp. Since then, under a limited technology transfer deal, the first Chinese built four-car train has also gone into service. 

Nonetheless, the Shanghai Maglev remains a demonstration project. Costs and other factors have delayed expansion beyond Shanghai. Most analysts and local media commentators here reckon the Pudong- Longyang Road Maglev Line will probably be it for the foreseeable future if not forever. If the Chinese reckon the Maglev is turning out to be difficult in terms of feasibility and affordability then there sure as hell isn’t much of chance for the rest of us.

If that’s the case, this blogger is privileged to have ridden on the “fastest ground transport toll in the present world” to quote the Guinness Book. And whatever the economics, it’s a pretty slick train ride into town.

Righty, enough of gawking and admiring a mass transit system that’s unlikely to take-off in Europe and time to get down to the dynamics of the oil & gas market. That's all for the moment from Shanghai folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1 (click on images to enlarge) : Shanghai Maglev Train. Photo 2: Carriage interior at 301km/hr speed. Photo 3: Shanghai Maglev's Guinness Book Record Certificate. Photo 4: Shanghai Maglev Train arrives at Longyang Road Metro Station. Photo 5: Illustration of magnetic levitation technology at SMT museum, Shanghai, China © Gaurav Sharma, September 2014.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Bright lights, energy finance & PE in Hong Kong

It is jolly good to be back in Hong Kong after nearly a decade and half. The city is home to some 7 million souls who live, work and sleep mostly in high-rise buildings given it is one of the world’s most densely populated places and space is at a premium.

Having soaked in the dazzling lights, magnificent views from the Victoria Peak (see left) and the ubiquitous Star Ferry ride from Central pier on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, the Oilholic decided to probe what’s afoot in terms of energy sector finance, and the market in general, in this part of the world. 

The timing couldn’t be better as the Hang Seng Index recently soared to a six-year high and that can only bode well for the 48 companies on there who account for 60% of market capitalisation of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. While might have opted to list in New York, rather than here, CGN Power Co, mainland China’s largest nuclear power producer by operational capacity, has decided to file for a US$2 billion initial public offering in Hong Kong.

For regional energy companies, Asia’s self-styled capital of finance has always been a key destination for equity finance, even though real estate and services stocks understandably dominate the market. In CGN Power’s case, the move is part of its strategic goal to turn-on more nuclear reactors and turn-off coal-fired power plants. The listing will see it in the company of China Resources, CLP Holdings, Hong Kong and China Gas Company, Hong Kong Electric Holdings (Towngas), Kunlun Energy (formerly CNPC Hong Kong) and of course trader SS United Group Oil & Gas Company to name a few prominent players. 

Away from public listings, the search for liquidity and capital raising exercises bring many mainland, regional and (of late) Western energy firms to the doors of Hong Kong’s Private Equity (PE) players, a trend that’s now firmly entrenched here and continues to rise. According to a local contact, there are currently just under 400 major PE companies operating in Hong Kong. The Chinese special administrative region (SAR) and former British colony is Asia’s second largest PE centre, second only to mainland China.

The energy sector (including oil & gas and cleantech), one is reliably informed, comes third in terms of PE finance after real estate and regional start-ups. A striking feature of PE funding flows originating in Hong Kong is the depth of international investment. The Oilholic noted oil & gas investments in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and of course mainland China.

Furthermore, synergy and happy co-existence with PE groups based in mainland China is seeing funding stretch to jurisdictions previously untouched by them with the sizing up of international assets well beyond Australasia with oilfield services companies and independent E&P companies being the unsurprising targets (or shall we say beneficiaries).

For instance, Denise Lay, Chief Financial Officer of Tethys Petroleum, a London and Toronto-Listed oil and gas exploration firm, recently told yours truly in a Forbes interview about her company’s decision to sell 50% (plus one share) of its Kazakh assets to SinoHan, part of HanHong, a Beijing, China-based private equity fund.

Some notable PE players on everyone’s radar for oil & gas investments include Affinity Equity Partners, Baring PE Asia and Silver Grace AM. The funding pool, according to three local analysts is set to expand. One even complained of there being too much investment capital around and not enough deals, which is causing assets to go for inflated prices.

“But amid the synergy and seamless funding flows, there’s a bit of competition as well between SAR Hong Kong and China. For instance, the Hong Kong local administration is unashamedly pro-PE. Part of its overtures to attract more PE funds to be domiciled in Hong Kong includes amendment and extension of the current offshore fund exemption,” adds another.

Away from PE, most state-owned Chinese oil & gas firms have approached Hong Kong’s capital markets although the extent of their presence varies. While it’s a view that is not universally shared, for the Oilholic, the SAR with a convertible Hong Kong dollar (unlike the Yuan RMB which isn’t) serves as a good base for regional expansion and overseas forays for these guys.

On an unrelated note, one isn’t trying to establish any connect between gambling and the preferred currency, but the Hong Kong dollar is also the  legal tender of choice in the casinos of nearby Macau. 

The Oilholic discovered it the hard way this afternoon, having paid a visit to the Wynn Casino and trying to insert a Macau pataca note into the slot machine only to be told to use Hong Kong dollars. 

As of last year, gambling revenue in the former Portuguese colony and another Chinese SAR of US$45.2 billion, seven times the total of the Las Vegas strip, has made it the world’s largest gambling destination. Since photography is not permitted inside casinos, even with the presentation of an international press ID as the Oilholic did, here’s the exterior of the Wynn Casino with rival MGM in the background.

According to the World Bank, Macau’s GDP per capita came in at US$91,376 last year. That makes it the richest country globally after Luxembourg, Norway and Qatar. Mainland money flowing around Macau is pretty apparent, but not sure how much of it is filtering through to the masses.

There have been repeated calls of late for a better wages by casino workers facing higher inflation. It is a soundtrack gamblers from many countries ought to be pretty familiar with - wages not keeping pace with inflation. That’s all from Hong Kong and Macau folks! It’s time to head off to Shanghai. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: Hong Kong evening sky as seen from the Victoria Peak, Central, Hong Kong. Photo 2: Wynn Casino & Resort with MGM in the background, Macau © Gaurav Sharma, September 2014.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Geopolitical loving: When Abe met Modi

The Oilholic finds himself roughly 6,000 miles east of London in Tokyo, Japan. While yours truly is here for cultural and ‘crude’ pursuits, another visitor was in town to firm up a crucial strategic tie-up. It was none other than India’s recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who popped in to see Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe.

There’s been something of a political loving between these two heads of state. Abe hardly follows anyone on Twitter; Modi being one of the only four people he currently does follow! The Japanese PM was the first among international counterparts to congratulate Modi following his stunning mandate after elections in India. If you think that’s not a big deal, well US President Barack Obama got a welcoming handshake from Abe; NHK footage of Modi’s arrival in Japan shows one heck of a ‘best pal’ Abe-Modi bear hug. Protocol and formality not required between friends seems to be the message.

It is only Modi’s second and most prominent foreign visit since he assumed office this year; no offence to Nepal which was the first destination of his choice. Both leaders lean right, though the Indian PM’s right-wing credentials are stronger in a strictly domestic sense. The Japanese and Indian media went positively ballistic over the visit, atop giving it front-page stuff prominence. It’s extraordinary for all of this to be related to a bilateral meeting between two heads of state, with no priors, unless there was a collaborative attitude behind the scenes.

Any analyst worth his/her weight would note that at the heart of it is a move to counterbalance China, a country that has an uneasy relationship with both India and Japan. As if to underscore the point, Modi, visibly moved with the superb reception he received, criticised the “expansionist” maritime agenda of certain states. Wonder who he could possibly be referring to with the South China Sea so close-by?

Both countries are wary of China, have similar economic problems (cue inflationary concerns) and remain major importers of natural resources. As if for good measure, throw religion into the mix as Japan’s primary faith – Buddhism – was founded in the Indian subcontinent. So finding common ground or the pretext of a common ground is not hard for Abe and Modi.

Now is the Abe-Modi summit a big deal? In the Oilholic’s opinion, the answer is yes. We’ll come to natural resources and ‘crude’ matters shortly, but hear this out first – Japan is to invest US$34 billion spread over the next five years in terms of deal valuation. The trade between the two is insipid at the moment, either side of 1% of the total export pile in each case with the Japanese exporting marginally more than they’re importing from India. That makes the announcement a very positive development.

Japan, according to both men, could turn to India for its rare earth needs, a market led by China. While claims of India becoming a wholesale manufacturing base for Japanese electronics and engineering giants are a bit overblown, to quote the Indian PM: “We see a new era of cooperation in high-end defence technology and equipment.”

As for exchanging views on inflation - India’s, until recently was out of control and has only just been somewhat reigned in with the country's economy starting to gain momentum. Japan's on the other hand, “Abenomics” or not, has not managed to gain momentum (economy has shrunk in annualised terms last quarter by 6.8%). Inflation, thanks to a sales tax rise which came into effect in April, is not under control either with the country’s Consumer Prices Index (CPI) up 3.4% in July. That's well above the Bank of Japan’s target rate of 2%.

Given both countries are major importers of crude oil and natural gas, even a minor price rise has a major knock-on effect right from the point of importation to further down the consumer chain. At the moment, both are benefitting from a two-month decline in oil prices. Both PMs think they can work together towards the procurement of liquefied natural gas, according to an Indian source. The idea of two major importers strategising together sounds good, but concrete details are yet to be released.

If there was one hiccup, the two sides did not reach an agreement over the transfer of nuclear technology to India. Politics aside, Japan for its part is still grappling with the effects of Fukushima on all fronts - legal, natural and physical. Tepco, the company which operated the plant, is still in courts. The latest lawsuit - by workers demanding compensation - is a big one.

But not to digress, how did the men describe the summit themselves? For Modi, it was an “upgrade” in bilateral relations. For Abe, it was “a meeting of minds”. China would, and should, view it very differently. There is one not-so-mute point. Abe did not take any direct or indirect swipes at China, Modi (as mentioned above) was not so restrained. One wonders if in Modi’s quest for geopolitical rebalancing in Asia, would it serve in India well to improve relations with Japan and let them deteriorate with China?

That’s all the contemplation from Tokyo for the moment folks. The Oilholic is heading to Hong Kong, albeit briefly, after a gap of over a decade. Its a sunny day here at Narita Airport as one takes off. More soon, keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: Tokyo Bay Waterfront. Photo 2: Narita International Aiport, Japan © Gaurav Sharma, September 2014.