Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The enduring legend of El Dorado

Having spent much of one’s career dabbling in the commodities sphere in general and the crude oil market in particular, the Oilholic, while not claiming to have any doctorate in gold matters, is nonetheless fascinated by the unique appeal of the shiny yellow metal passed down the ages, stretching from ancient to the modern world. 

Gold, one humbly suggests is the ultimate fool’s commodity. Excepting industrial use, it is bought and sold for one purpose alone – selling for more than the purchase price coupled with a lust in many, perhaps all, cultures for wanting more of the stuff. This lust triggered the desire to colonise others and several gold rushes in the history of mankind. While California’s Gold Rush of the late 1840s is the stuff of legends, human history is littered with other gold rushes.

However one enduring legend, born here in Colombia, transcends all others and epitomises this lust – that’s the myth (or is it) of El Dorado. The Oilholic, out of morbid curiosity and certainly not wanting to miss out on Bogota’s splendid Museo del Oro, decided to dedicate his entire last day in South America towards probing the local legend that’s all too international. Scholars in the Colombian capital say that while toughing it out with the Incas in the 1530s, the Spanish Empire and its conquistadors started hearing tales about a tribe of natives high in the Andes Mountains where gold was much in abundance.

When the tales reached Spanish royalty, conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada was dispatched to lead an expeditionary force into the Colombian highlands. Upon gaining their first territorial victory in 1537, among the first pieces of local intelligence to reach the ears of Jimenez de Quesada’s soldiers was an ever more detailed narrative about that "Land of Gold."

Conquered Musica Indians told the Spanish that on the shores of Laguna de Guatavita or Lake Guatavita (35 miles northwest of modern Bogota) once lived a chieftain who periodically covered himself in gold dust during religious ceremonies and festivities, and then dived from a raft into the lake shedding the riches, as depicted here in an ancient artwork on display at the Museo del Oro (see left). On each occasion, natives then threw gold, emeralds and precious jewels into the lake to appease a mythical god that lived underwater.

Jiménez de Quesada’s men were told the ceremonies ended by turn of the 15th century, when the chieftain was killed and his subjects conquered by another Musica tribe some 50 years before their arrival. Part convinced by the tale, seeing locals displaying a liking for gold trinkets, and the promise of untold riches, the Spanish named the late Musica chieftain “El Dorado” or “The Golden One” and set about finding the lake.

With their conquest of the Colombian highlands complete, the Spanish finally located Lake Guatavita having dedicated lives, limbs and their local loot to the cause. The Spanish Crown ordered the lake to be drained by “all resourceful means”. Given the year was 1545, with all the resources of the time, Jiménez de Quesada’s men could only lower the water level to dabble at the edges of the lake.

A few hundred pieces of gold were indeed found, but Colombian and Spanish historical archives suggest there was no mass discovery. Furthermore, even if all of the gold was in deeper waters of Lake Guatavita – it was beyond human reach at the time. After the death of Jiménez de Quesada in 1579, businessman Antonio de Sepúlveda took on the mantle of draining Lake Guatavita.

In their previous attempt, Spanish soldiers could only muster three metres worth of drainage, but de Sepúlveda’s men managed 20 metres. At a great cost and further loss of lives, they found more gold but nothing on the scale the Spanish crown was hoping. 

Meanwhile, the legend of El Dorado and riches of the “new world” reached other European colonial powers. The English, Dutch and Portuguese all vowed to beat the Spanish to it. Better still all three, and even the Spanish at a later stage, concurred from the lack of success at Lake Guatavita that the promised gold paradise must be “somewhere else in Northern half of South America”, as it was the part of the continent they had encountered natives with a penchant for gold, and a breathtaking array of ornaments.

The legend of El Dorado got the era’s poster child in the form of adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh; trusted lieutenant of Queen Elizabeth I of England and purveyor of tobacco, another commodity unknown to his homeland before he introduced it from one of his many travels. 

Like his colonial peers, Sir Walter failed in his attempts to find the Land of Gold (that he often confusingly labelled "City of Gold") first in 1595 and then 1617, which in his opinion was somewhere in modern Guiana. Instead, he lost both his son (Watt Rayleigh in battle) and his head, having miffed King James I for starting a skirmish with the Spanish against the English monarch’s wishes.

Yet Sir Walter’s conjecture about the existence of the Land of Gold in a widely circulated book, described as, and subsequently proven to be inflated nonsense, only fuelled the legend further. And so went the idiocy associated with it driven by lust. Countless more lives, limbs and ironically gold from colonial powers' treasuries were lost across South and Central America in the quest for El Dorado for another 300 years! Published in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem – Eldorado – just about summed it up:

“Gaily bedight, a gallant knight, in sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long, singing a song, in search of Eldorado.

But he grew old, this knight so bold, and o'er his heart a shadow,
Fell as he found, no spot of ground, that looked like Eldorado.

And as his strength, failed him at length, he met a pilgrim shadow
"Shadow," said he, "Where can it be - this land of Eldorado?"

"Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride, the shade replied – "If you seek for Eldorado!"

The last such recorded attempt, a source of much disdain in Bogota, was in 1898 when British expatriate Hartley Knowles’ company – Contractors Ltd – drained the Lake Guatavita so low that only mud and slime was left rendering it impossible to explore when sludgy. Subsequently, the mud baked in Colombian sunshine all that was left was nature’s version of concrete.

Having wasted millions and destroyed the area, all the nutcases could find were a few trinkets that fetched £500 at a Sotheby’s auction back then, and can be seen today at the British Museum! A much more impressive collection, should gold be your thing, can be found at the Museo del Oro (see examples on the right). 

Thankfully, Lake Guatavita was declared a protected area in 1965. Nature and rainfall restored some of its lost beauty in subsequent decades, after years of greed and pillaging ruined it. Private salvage, let alone draining the Lake, are now illegal and punishable by a custodial sentence, one is informed.

And well, no gold discovery on the scale of 15th Century projections put forward by Sir Walter and others was ever made. Yet the El Dorado legend and mankind’s attraction for the shiny yellow metal remains undiminished. Each time another asset class feels the squeeze or a currency gets shorted, headlines about “investors plying into gold” emerge with every price decline or uptick duly reported.

From Hollywood blockbusters to the Indian Wedding Season, star-crossed lovers’ offerings to central bank vault deposits, gold and its lure is all around us. Mankind it seems has never stopped looking for El Dorado in some way, shape or form!

On that note, the Oilholic must board flight AA1122 from his El Dorado; Bogota’s international airport in the small hours of the morning. That’s all from South America folks. It’s been a fascinating few weeks in this vibrant continent. Next stop Dallas, and then on to London Heathrow. Adiós América del Sur; adios Colombia! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo I: Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia, Photo II: El Dorado legend gold sculpture at Museo del Oro, Bogota. Photo III: Ancient gold ornaments at Museo del Oro. Photo IV: El Dorado International Airport, Bogota, Colombia © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Santos hopes to give peace a chance in Colombia

After a fascinating two weeks travelling around South America, the Oilholic is back where the journey on the continent started in Bogota, Colombia, before heading back to London. 

In using the Colombian capital (seen on the left from Mt. Monserrate) as a starting point, this blogger wanted to both feel first hand as well as write about how far this country has come following five decades of armed conflict resulting in a tragic human and socioeconomic cost, above all else. More so, as peace is finally getting a chance in 2015.

In September, President Juan Manuel Santos inked a preliminary agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC). After three prolonged attempts since the 1980s by successive Colombian governments to broker peace, the recent accord appears to be the best chance for achieving that objective.

Despite being the first president in decades to have an upper hand on FARC thanks largely to a heavy military build-up under his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, Santos staked his presidency on finding a solution to end the violence through peaceful means, though not at any cost.

Reaching an agreement depended on FARC doing jail time, as demanded by the court of public opinion so heavily traumatised by violence perpetrated by the rebels over the years on a daily basis. On that front there is some dissatisfaction with the proposed deal.

While the finer points are still to be worked out over the next six months, the Santos administration and FARC have broadly agreed that foot soldiers of the militant outfit would receive amnesty, but its leaders charged with “serious crimes” will face a special tribunal that would include foreign judges alongside Colombian ones.

Those FARC operatives who cooperate and confess to their crimes would receive lighter penalties including five to eight years of community service with restriction on movement, but not prison time in the strictest sense. However, those who do not cooperate could go to jail for up to 20 years. 

A judicial framework along similar lines would be applied to right-wing paramilitary forces and their supporters. In return, FARC, which still has over 6,000 combatants, has also agreed that the rules will only apply if they give up their weapons. 

The significance of the deal cannot be overstated even if public demand for stricter penalties on FARC is not being met. From M-19 to the still active ELN, Colombians have seen too much death and destruction, and the dark side of human conflict that no one needs to see.

Among the many expressions by Colombian artists summing up the tragedy of conflict within the country's borders, the Oilholic was privileged to see the late Alejandro Obregón’s Muerte a la bestia humana (Death to human beast) on display at the National Museum of Colombia in Downtown Bogota.

Friends here in Colombian capital say the painting (see right) was Obregón’s expression of disgust at those responsible for the kidnapping and gruesome murder of Gloria Lara de Echeverri, a government official abducted in June 23, 1982. 

Her body was found five months later on the steps of a church. While a FARC faction was alleged to have been behind the act, the case was never fully resolved and remains a source of debate to this day. For Obregón and his peers in the art community, Gloria Lara, like several of her countrymen and women were innocent victims who deserved better but lasting peace, bar the odd ineffective ceasefire aside, could not be brokered. 

So if an imperfect deal now offers a chance for peace, then it needs to be looked at. FARC knows its back is against the wall and has as much of a vested interest in making the deal work as the Santos administration. Things are changing in Colombia. While every life is precious, and 600 Colombians civilians were lost to conflict last year, 2015 has so far been the year to see the fewest deaths to armed conflict since 1985, according to local data.

While there is petty crime and gun violence in Bogota, it is no longer the kidnapping capital of the world, like it was back in the 1980s. Beleaguered FARC’s ire has been directed more towards near daily attacks on Colombian infrastructure, mainly power lines and oil pipelines.

One recent attack resulted in 15,000 barrels of crude spewing into a river. April saw heated exchanges of fire between government forces and FARC. However, while talks were progressing the skirmishes diminished in frequency and ferocity.

It now remains to be seen, if the agreement holds, and Santos has said the Colombian people will have their say on the final agreement. The visible human tragedy aside, disruption caused by conflict lowers the country’s GDP by 15% to 20% per annum according to some estimates. It appears a chance to change that is on the horizon. Here's hoping it holds. That’s all from Bogota for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’! 

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo I: View of Bogota, Colombia from Mt. Monserrate. Photo II: Muerte a la bestia humana by Alejandro Obregón on display at National Museum of Colombia in downtown Bogota © Gaurav Sharma, August 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Dilma and the Petrobras scandal's aftermath

Bidding Adiós to Buenos Aires, the Oilholic has landed in the bursting metropolis of Sao Paulo, Brazil, one’s penultimate stop in South America before returning to Bogota and flying back home following a two week trip to South America.

Walking down the city’s vibrant Avenida Paulista, a 1.75 mile thoroughfare that has several businesses, financial and cultural institutions (including the Museu de Arte de São Paulo), glitzy skyscrapers, malls, hotels and shops lining up either side of it, one gets a real buzz of modern Brazil.

However, the country’s President Dilma Rousseff would get a largely unwelcome buzz were she to walk down the avenue. Most in Brazil’s commercial heart lay the blame for the Petrobras corruption scandal, uncovered earlier in February, firmly on Rouseff’s door even tough she has not been directly implicated in anything uncovered by corruption investigators so far.

There have been several mass protests here in Sao Paulo, along with Rio de Janeiro and other major Brazilian cities calling for the President to be impeached. As the Oilholic noted earlier this year in a Forbes column, the scandal has politically scarred Rouseff, a former chairwoman of Petrobras’ board of directors, beyond repair in the unforgiving world of Brazilian politics.

Many of those facing investigations and jail time happen to be from her side of the Brazilian political spectrum – the Workers’ Party. That’s what fuels people’s anger. Mass protests grab headlines, but sporadic smaller protests – like one this blogger witnessed on Avenida Paulista – are commonplace (see above left).

For people who call the Americas third-largest oil producer behind the United States and Canada their home, Petrobras has always held a special place in hearts and minds. So to see it humiliated on the world stage and financially wounded by a corruption scandal plays on peoples minds in a struggling economy.

In global terms, according to BP’s latest statistics on the industry, Brazil is the world’s 9th largest oil and gas producer pumping out some 2.95 million barrels per day, with Petrobras as its custodian.  

Furthermore, as the US Energy Information Administration, notes, “Increasing domestic oil production has been a long term goal of the Brazilian government, and discoveries of large offshore, presalt oil deposits have already transformed Brazil into a top-10 liquid fuels producer.”

However, weak economic growth and the scandal implicating several high profile people at Petrobras has reduced the chances for production growth over the short term; at least of the kind that was hoped for back in 2010 according local sources. 

Clearly, going by the mood in Sao Paulo, not many want to let Rouseff off the hook, whether rightly or wrongly. That’s all from Brazil folks, as one leaves you with a view of the magnificent Catedral da Se de Sao Paulo (above right). Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo I: Anti-Dilma Rousseff protests on Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo, September 23, 2015. Photo II:  Catedral da Se de Sao Paulo, Brazil © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015.

Friday, October 23, 2015

'Crude' implications of Argentina's election

The Oilholic has hopped over from Santiago de Chile for a splash and dash pre-election visit to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. Braving fake banknotes, dodgy cab drivers, eateries where prices change daily and a services sector with few scruples if any, yours truly finds himself peeking at ongoing electioneering in the run-up to the October 25th presidential election, standing beside the Obelisco de Buenos Aires.

In all likelihood, a presidential run-off looms for a successor to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who claims to be leaving behind a “crisis free” country where of course inflation is close to 30% by unofficial accounts and the IMF expects the economy to shrink further.

Centre-left candidate Daniel Scioli, handpicked by Kirchner (who cannot seek a third term under the constitution), is vying with centre-right man and Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri. Not many in the Argentine capital, give the “third guy” Sergio Massa, a former ally of Kirchner's (before relations soured), much of a hope. However, his support – should a run-off happen – would be vital. 

The incoming president would have an almighty mess to deal with in a country that has the dubious title of slipping from being a developed economy at the turn of the previous century to a third world country in the 21st century. Both main candidates promise to lower inflation to single digits and stimulate growth. Some (but not all) in Buenos Aires are simply glad Kirchner would be gone.

Discussing what shape the country’s energy policy in general (and oil and gas policy in particular) takes would be pointless before we know who the next occupant of the President’s office is. Much still remains at stake, including Buenos Aires’ continued hostility to offshore oil and gas exploration in the Falkland Islands (or Las Malvinas) as the Argentines call it, given the history of the territory. Despite Kirchner’s whinging to deflect attention from internal political woes, oil and gas explorers in the contentious British territory, claimed by Buenos Aires, are not going to go away.

If anything, the oil price decline, rather than something Buenos Aires does, is likely to have a bigger impact on future prospects. Away from the contentious side issue, it’s the direction of Argentina’s shale exploration that’s of a much bigger significance in a global context.

As the US Energy Information Administration noted earlier this year, if you exclude the US and Canada – only Argentina and China happen to be producing either natural gas from shale formations or crude oil from tight formations (tight oil) at an international level. How the country’s promising Neuquen Basin develops further would have a massive bearing on the economy. But where we go from here, given for instance the Repsol versus Federal Government histrionics of the past, would be anyone’s guess. 

The Oilholic intends to probe the subject more deeply at a later stage both on this blog as well as for Forbes, once we know who the next Argentine president is.

However, for the moment, that’s all from Buenos Aires folks. Yours truly leaves you all with a breathtaking  view of the Andes Mountain range as seen from LAN Airlines flight 1447 coming from Santiago de Chile to Buenos Aires (right). Keep reading, keep it crude!

Update, October 26th: With 96% of the votes counted, according to the AFP, Scioli was marginally ahead with 36.7% of the vote, while Macri had 34.5%. Massa, who came a distant third has accepted defeat but not stated who he would be supporting. A presidential election run-off has been scheduled for November 22.

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo I: Obelisco de Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo II: Andes Mountain as seen from flight LAN1447 Santiago de Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Chile holds firm as copper market corrects

As the world’s leading producer of copper, there are grave concerns in Chile about China’s economic slowdown. The Oilholic doesn’t often touch on base metals on this blog, but being in Chile, one decided to break from tradition.

Over the last decade, China has displayed a voracious appetite for copper, with much of it coming from Chile. Clear indications point to a slowdown and even Beijing admits the country’s growth would be nowhere the double digit percentages it has posted in recent years that made the commodities world grow accustomed to the party.

No party lasts forever, and what the Oilholic finds here in Santiago de Chile is that no one need teach the Chileans that lesson. Policymakers, while anxious about it, saw China’s slowdown coming and are in confident mood they’ll weather the storm. The Chilean government can’t ignore the fact that the Chinese consume just shy of 50% of the world's refined copper, and as such Beijing is both directly and indirectly a major trading partner.

However, local economists’ thoughts and financial journals here in Chile appear to suggest one of the world’s leading copper producers is gearing up for a compound annual growth rate in Chinese copper demand in the range 2.5-3.5%; that’s less than half of the near 8% demand noted between 2010 and 2014.

If anything local forecasts are towards the lower end of Wall Street predictions and those put out by major European investment banks including Societe Generale, Barclays and Deutsche Bank. Droughts in Chile and other disruptions have tempered market sentiment on the oversupply front.

Disruptions in PNG and Zambia have also helped as have cuts announced by Glencore. To this effect, local analysts feel while the copper market is heading for leaner times, the effect would be less pronounced than say in the case of nickel or zinc. Supply/demand imbalances will persist but not to the extent feared both in Chile and beyond.

However, there is one thing though. As with oil, given the extent to which commodities have become an asset class, it is worth examining what the punters think. For the few this blogger has had a chance to interact with here in Chile, the copper market remains net short, using the COMEX copper (not LME three-month futures) contract as a benchmark.

The positioning might be net short, but it isn’t as bad as what local analysts noted over the first quarter of this year, especially mid-February to late-March. So right now, smaller end of life miners in Chile appear to be in trouble, but others including the majors operating in the country appear to be holding firm on their cautious outlook.

Finally, past crises have taught most regional governments a thing or two about managing the situation in troubling times. Some like Venezuela consciously choose not to learn, while others like Chile do learn and manage their exposure to volatility better.

There’s no reason to believe why 2015 would be any different. President Michelle Bachelet who oversaw the 2008-09 downturn during her previous stint in office, remains a steady hand, despite declining domestic poll ratings. That’s all for the moment folks as one heads to Buenos Aires for a short pre-election hop. In the meantime, this blogger leaves you with an amazing view from Cerro San Cristobal. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’! 

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo I: Flag of Chile in Santiago. Photo II: Cerro San Cristobal - Santiago, Chile © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Curious case of the Pisco Sour

Following a weekend in Lima, the Oilholic has crossed over to Santiago de Chile. However, before one gets down to commodities related matters, there is the not so little matter of ‘not settling’ where the splendid regional cocktail Pisco Sour originates, a subject of much disquiet between Peru and Chile.

But first the recipe – you’ll need 25ml Lemon Juice, one egg white, 50ml Pisco (either Chilean or Peruvian), 20ml simple syrup. Give it an almighty shake with ice cubes, pour from shaker and add a dash of bitters. The end result is that delicious stuff in the photo on the left. That dear readers is the national drink of both Peru and Chile!

The origin of the main liquor base – Pisco, a colourless to yellow amber grape brandy made from distilling grape wine into a high proof spirit (below right) – is hotly contested. First known production dates back to the 16th century. Peruvians claim the name and first production site originates from the town of Pisco, while the Chileans claim the word “pisco”, a derivative of a term for a common bird, was used all along the Pacific Coastline of South America since the early days of Spanish settlers.

Going one step further, should names of towns matter, the Chileans renamed the town of La Unión in 1936 as Pisco Elqui so as to reinforce their claims over the name Pisco. Chile’s Pisco production volume dwarfs Peru’s by a ratio of 10 bottles to one. However, on the international stage Peruvians have the bragging rights as the “finer pisco” (at least in their opinion) is exported 3.5 times more than the Chilean produce.

There was dismay in Santiago, when Lima won a significant battle by being recognised as the original home of Pisco by the European Union in 2013. Yet, Chile’s usage of the word Pisco to describe its brandy cannot be curtailed, given its commonality. So much so for the liquor, but the tussle doesn’t end here! The cocktail is just as hotly disputed. According to bartenders in Lima’s Larcomar area, the cocktail originated in the city and was invented by an American named Victor Morris in the 1920s. 

When Morris, who had been living in Peru since 1903, opened Morris' Bar in Lima, the cocktail became his specialty. However, the recipe underwent several changes until Mario Bruiget, a Peruvian employee of Morris, added Angostura bitters and egg whites to the mix, thus creating the cocktail mix that has stood the test of time since 1926.

However, in Santiago de Chile, the story is widely dismissed. On the contrary, bartenders in the Chilean capital’s Providencia area say it was an English sailor Elliot Stubb who came up with the idea in 1872. Stubb, they say, mixed Key lime juice, syrup, and ice cubes to create the cocktail well known in Chile, some 50 years before the modern Peruvian version was even around.

Rubbish, no proof – retort the Peruvians again, while adding that the Chileans pinched the idea when Morris advertised the drink in 1924 in a local newspaper in the port of Valparaíso, Chile. Guess that doesn’t settle this one then. All the Oilholic can say is – whether sipped in Peru or Chile – it’s a splendid beverage! Cheers! That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo I: Pisco Sour in Lima, Peru. Photo II: Pisco on rocks, Santigo, Chile. Photo III: Enojoying Pisco Sour in Santiago, Chile © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Crude conjecture: The IMF & a view from Peru

The Oilholic is just about to wrap-up a touristy weekend in Lima, Peru, before heading over to Santiago de Chile. One arrives barely a week after International Monetary Fund annual meetings held here from October 5 to 12.

The IMF’s decision to choose Lima as the venue had a ‘crude’ subtext; ok perhaps a ‘natural resource’ centric subtext. In March 2014, the fund’s Survey Magazine: Countries & Regions had predicted that commodity exporting countries of the Andean region, including Peru, could achieve sustainable economic growth levels and match the output rates of industrialised economies in percentage terms.

Extractive industries – chiefly oil, gas and mining – would play a growing role, it added. Of course, that was before the oil price started slumping from July 2014 onwards. By the time the first day of the Lima meet arrived this month, the IMF was predicting that should headline regional growth touch 1% over 2015, we’d be lucky. It also confirmed that Latin America would see its fifth successive year of economic output deceleration.

There is clear evidence of the oil price decline hurting Peru. However, as the Oilholic wrote on, the political climate in the run up to the April 2016 presidential election, is also spooking investors. President Ollanta Humala had to appoint his seventh Prime Minister in less than four years earlier this year and is in a tussle with Congress over the state’s role in oil and gas exploration.

All the while, the stars aren’t quite aligning, crudely speaking and are unlikely to do so for a while yet. Both benchmarks are currently languishing below $50 per barrel, and even the Oilholic’s $60 medium term equilibrium projection won’t quite cut it for Peru, where production has been declining since the mid-1990s (though proven reserves have been revised upwards to 740 million barrels).

Soundings over the past week have been anything but positive Latin American oil and gas producers in general, and we’re not just talking about the IMF here. The International Energy Agency said last week that the global economic outlook was “more pessimistic” and expected a marked slowdown in oil demand growth, with the commodities downturn hurting economic activity of exporting nations.

“Oil at $50 a barrel is a powerful driver in rebalancing the global oil market...But a projected marked slowdown in demand growth next year, and the anticipated arrival of additional Iranian barrels will keep the market oversupplied through 2016,” it added. In near tandem with the IEA, several brokers and rating agency Moody’s also revised their respective oil price assumptions “on oversupply and weakening demand.”

Moody's lowered its oil price assumption in 2016 for Brent to $53 from $57 per barrel and for the WTI to $48 from $52 per barrel. The rating agency expects both prices to rise by $7 per barrel in 2017, or a $5 per barrel reduction from its prior forecast.

Steve Wood, a Moody's senior analyst, said, "Oil prices will remain lower for a longer period, as large built-up inventories and oversupply cause oil prices to increase at a slower rate. Although supply should begin to drop as capital spending declines, increased Iranian exports could place additional pressure on oil prices in 2016."

As is evident, sentiment on the supply glut persisting in 2016, is gaining traction. These are particularly worrying times for smaller oil and gas exporters, a club that Peru is a member of. That’s all from Lima folks, as the Oilholic leaves you with a view of the Pacific Ocean from Larcomar. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo I: IMF Meetings Banner at Lima Airport, Peru. Photo II: A view of the Pacific Ocean from Larcomar, Lima, Peru. © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015

Friday, October 16, 2015

Why ‘chiflados’ in Caracas infuriate Colombians

Colombia and Venezuela haven’t always been the best of friends over the last 15 years, since the late Hugo Chavez swept to power. However, here in Bogota, the Oilholic finds relations between the two neighbours at an all time low, largely down to a select bunch of “chiflados oportunistas en Caracas” (loosely translated as opportunistic crackpots in Caracas), who blame everyone but themselves for  the effects their own mad economic policies, say locals.

But first some background – A general election is slated for 6 December in Venezuela with oil nowhere near the three-figure per barrel price the country needs to balance its budget. Regional analysts fear a sovereign default and monthly inflation according to independent forecasts is in double figures as Caracas hasn’t published official data for a while (even the fudged version). Meanwhile, industrial production is in doldrums as the government continues to print money. 

The Venezuelan Bolivar’s official exchange rate to the dollar is VEF6.34, but you’d be lucky if anyone in Bogota or elsewhere in Latin America would be willing to exchange the greenback for VEF635; forget the decimal point! Price controls and availability have played havoc with what Venezuelans can and cannot buy. More often than not, it is no longer a choice in a country that famously ran out of loo rolls last year. So what does President Nicolas Maduro do? Why blame it all on “conspirators” in Colombia! 

Now hear the Oilholic out, as he narrates a tale of farce, as narrated to him by an economics student at the local university, which this blogger has independently verified. With the Venezuelan Bolívar more or less not quite worth the paper its printed on – as explained above – most of the country’s citizens (including Chavistas, and quite a few regional central banks if rumours are to be believed) – turn to DolarToday, or more specifically to the website’s twitter account, to get an unofficial exchange rate based on what rate the Bolívar changes hands in Cucuta, a Colombian town near the border with Venezuela (The website currently puts the Bolivar just shy of VEF800 to the dollar). 

It is where Venezuelans and Colombians meet to exchange cheap price-controlled fuel, among other stuff from the false economy created by Caracas, to smuggle over to Colombia. The preferred currency, is of course, the Colombian peso, as the dollar’s exchange rate to the Bolívar is calculated indirectly from the value of the peso with little choice to do anything else but. 

The final calculation is extremely irregular, as the Colombian peso itself grapples with market volatility, but what the fine folks in Cucata come up with and DolarToday reports is still considered a damn sight better than the official peg, according to most contacts in Colombia and beyond, including the narrator of the story himself. 

So far so much for the story, but what conclusions did President Maduro take? Well in the opinion of the Venezuelan President, DolarToday is a conspiracy by the US, their pals in Colombia and evil bankers to wreck Venezuela’s economy; as if it needs their help! Smuggling across the border and of course food shortages in the country have been promptly blamed on private enterprise players “without scruples” and Colombians, carefully omitting Venezuela’s National Guard personnel, without whose alleged complicity, it is doubtful much would move across the border.

Maduro subsequently closed the border crossing from Tachira, Venezuela to Norte de Santander, Colombia earlier this quarter. He also announced special emergency measures in 13 Venezuelan municipalities in proximity of the Colombian border. The shenanigans prompted an angry response form President Juan Manuel Santos, Maduro’s counterpart in Bogota. Both countries recalled their respective ambassadors in wake of the incident. 

However, in line with the prevalent theme of finding scapegoats, Maduro’s government didn’t stop there. Nearly 2,000 Colombians have been deported from Venezuela, according newspapers here. Another 20,000 have fled back to Colombia, something which President Santos has described as a humanitarian crisis. Santos also chastised Venezuela at the Organisation of American States (OAS) noting that Caracas was blaming its “own economic incompetence on others” (translating literally from Spanish).

The Colombian President might well have felt aggrieved but he need not have bothered. The chiflados in Caracas know what they are. For example, when Venezuela was hit by an outbreak of chikungunya (last year), a disease marked by joint pains and bouts of fever according to the WHO website, the government’s response was as removed from reality as it currently is when it comes to DollarToday and smuggling across the Colombia-Venezuela border.

At the time, a group of doctors west of Caracas calling for emergency help saw their leader accused of leading a “terrorist campaign” of misinformation. With a warrant was issued for his arrest, the poor man fled the country. Close to 200,000 were affected according media sources outside of Venezuela but government statistics put the figure below 26,500. 

Each time economists and independent analysts challenge any data published by PDVSA or INE or any Venezuelan government institution, it is dismissed by Caracas as “politically motivated.” And so the story goes with countless such examples, albeit an international spat like the one with Colombia are relatively rare. Maduro is also miffed with neighbouring Guyana at the moment, for allowing ExxonMobil to carry out oil exploration in “disputed waters” which prompted a strong response at the UN from the latter.

Expect more nonsense from Caracas as the Venezuelan election approaches. However, here’s one telling fact from Colombian experts to sign off with – over the past year the Venezuelan Bolívar’s value has plummeted by 93% against the peso in the unofficial market. Now that’s something. 

The Oilholic tried to change pesos for the bolivar officially in the Colombian capital, but found few takers and got lots of strange looks! That’s all from Bogota for the moment folks as one heads to Peru! Back here later in the month, keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!   

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Plaza de Bolívar, Bogota, Colombia © Gaurav Sharma, October 2015

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Latin America's commodities downturn problem

The Oilholic finds himself roughly 5,300 miles west of London in Bogota, Colombia wandering around the city’s rustic and charming La Candelaria area. 

It’s the beginning of a journey through South America to find out how the recent commodities downturn is affecting the market mood and investment outlook in what (still) remains a very commodity-exports driven continent. 

One gets a sense of opportunities missed and dismay from those who saw the downturn coming – not just here in Colombia, but looking outside in at Chile, Argentina, Peru and of course that colossal corruption scandal at Petrobas in Brazil. While the sun was shining, and China’s double digit economic growth was fuelling the commodities boom, attempts should have been made at macroeconomic diversification instead of relying on a party that was bound to end sooner or later.

We’re not just talking oil and gas here; take in everything from minerals to soya beans, or copper specifically in the case of Chile. Most Latin American currencies got marginal power boosters during the commodities boom, if not a case of full blown Dutch disease, which resulted in lacklustre performance from non-commodities sectors that became increasingly uncompetitive and to an extent unproductive over the last 10 years.

The International Monetary Fund reckons come the end of 2015, if headline regional growth touches 1% we’d be lucky. In fact, in its latest update the IMF confirmed that Latin America would see its fifth successive year of economic output deceleration. While past commodity busts have triggered regional financial crises, thankfully not many locally as well as internationally, including the IMF, expect a repeat this time around. That’s largely down to the fact LatAm economies, with notable exception of Venezuela, have not indulged in fiscal populism and daft economic policies.

In sync, ratings agencies, while negative on the economic outlook of many countries in the region, but only fear a sovereign default in Venezuela. However, another negative aspect of dependency on the commodities market is that investment – especially on terms prior to the market correction – would be hard to come by.

Just ask Mexico! As the Oilholic noted in a recent column for Forbes, phase I of round one of Mexico’s oil and gas licensing was a damp squib. Hence, with the September 2015 (phase II) bidding round, the Mexicans had to adjust their thinking to attract (and eventually) secure a decent take-up of available blocks.

Peru’s nascent oil and gas market, Colombia’s emerging and hitherto impressive one face similar challenges as will the copper market in Chile. Argentina faces a general election on October 25th while Brazil is in a technical recession with the IMF seeing few improvement prospects for 2016.

Productivity, in all five countries is down with workers spending hours in a day commuting, and traffic jams (the first of which the Oilholic has already experienced) are legendary enough to give Bangkok and Delhi a run for their money. 

Over the coming weeks yours truly will make sense of it all talking to experts, policymakers, fellow analysts and local folks one is likely to meet and greet while having the odd touristy mumble about. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. La Candelaria, Bogota, Colombia © Gaurav Sharma, October, 2015