Showing posts with label Houston Glut. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Houston Glut. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Summing up the ‘crude’ mood in Houston

The Oilholic finds the mood in Houston to be rather dark on his latest visit, and the weather here seems to be reflecting it. Oil price remains shaky, local refineries are battling strikes and shutdowns.

Meanwhile, as expected the Obama Administration has vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline project as the farcically prolonged tussle about an extension that’s meant to bring Canadian crude to Texan refineries continues.

Unsurprisingly, Texas is mirroring the globally evident trend of oil and gas sector job cuts, and costs of redundancies are more visible in an oil hub like Houston.

However, local commentators say the city (and by extension the state) has seen slumps in the global oil markets before, will see it again and remains capable enough to weather this latest one.

Dr Vincent Kaminski, an industry veteran and prominent academic at Rice University, says there’s no panic in the ranks even if the euphoria of a $100 per barrel price has long gone. “The word ‘caution’ is being branded about. No one can predict how long this period of lower oil prices is going to last. There is consensus that the price will bounce back, though not to the highs of 2013-14 unless there is a geopolitical development of a magnitude that would neutralise the impact of oversupply. Right now, there isn’t an obvious one.”

Kaminski feels what’s critical here is the management of this period of depressed prices, especially on the human capital front. Anecdotal evidence and published data suggests companies that are firing are not hiring with the same pace for the moment.

Deborah Byers, Managing Partner of global advisory firm EY’s Houston Office, says managing human resources is critical in the current climate. “My fear is that not everybody will get it right. Letting people go in a tough climate is a reactionary move; re-hiring talent when the market bounces back isn’t. A lot people in Houston have reacted very quickly. I agree that the supply glut has infused a bit of disciple in the sector, but it’s a nuanced situation to 2008-09.

“What we are seeing is a profound structural change leading to a transition towards a different type of market. In wake of the global financial crisis, we had a lack of demand scenario; what’s afoot now is a story of oversupply. That said, over the long-term the current situation would turn out to be a good story.”

Louis J. Davis, Chair of international law firm Baker & McKenzie’s North America Oil & Gas Practice, says the speed of the oil price decline caught many in Houston by surprise. “Some clients foresaw it, but not with the speed with which the decline hit home. Companies in the exploration and production (E&P) business are going to hold back on activity, lay down rigs and wait for a level of stability in the global markets. That’s unless they have existing well commitments.

“Nobody wants to drill uneconomic wells; including those who are hedged. It’s about keeping reserves up; and hedges are going to periodically roll-off within a 3 to 12 month window. By then, if a broader recovery, or at least a level of stability within a price bracket that's considered viable, is not achieved you'll find a lot of worried people.”

Furthermore, as Davis points out, even for those who are neatly hedged, their borrowing base is going to drop because they are not going to replenish their reserves by drilling additional wells. The Baker & McKenzie veteran says quite a few of his clients are in fine fettle but cautious.

“Many see opportunities when the market goes through a cyclical correction, and that hasn’t changed. There is a lot of money out there to buy promising assets at better prices. That said, interaction with people I’ve known for 40 years, as well as anecdotal evidence from a recent NAPE expo suggests the M&A deal flow is very slow right now. 

“Some deals that have been signed up are not closing, and no one is in a rush to close. Some are even taking the pain of letting their holding deposit slip. Yet, I’d say the present situation is troubling, but not an unseen one for Houston. We've been here before.”

Kaminski, Byers and Davis are united in their opinion that Houston’s economy is way more diversified than it was in the 1980s. As Kaminski points out – the city’s thriving Medical Center, adjacent to Rice University, employs more people than back office and ancillary staff at oil and gas companies.

Services, higher education, real estate and technology sectors are other major contributors to metropolitan and regional growth. There is evidence that the real estate market is slowing down in wake of oil and gas sector downturn. However, this is also not uniform across the greater Houston area; there are discrepancies from area to area.

Finally, Byers says corporate leaders within the sector always pause and reflect at such junctures. “For me personally, this is my fourth cyclical downturn – 1986, 1999, 2008-09 and now 2014-15. Couple of CEOs I’ve known and worked with for decades, say we’ve seen this before and we know what levers to pull. The question is how long will the duration of the downturn be and how long do we need to pull those levers before we switch back to an offensive mode.”

That’s a billion dollar question indeed; one that's guaranteed to be asked several times over the course of this year. That’s all for from Houston folks. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photos: Glimpses of downtown Houston, Texas, USA © Gaurav Sharma, 2015

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The year that was & ‘crude’ predictions for 2014

As crude year 2013 came to a close, the Oilholic found himself in Rotterdam gazing at the Cascade sculpture made by Atelier Van Lieshout, a multidisciplinary contemporary arts and design company.

This eight metre high sculpture, in a city that was once the world's busiest port [before Shanghai overtook it in 2004], comprises of 18 stacked oil drums, which give an appearance of having descended from the sky. They combine to form a monumental column from which the life-size drums drip a viscous mass acquiring the shapes of human figures [see left, click to enlarge].

Perhaps these figures and barrels symbolise us and our sticky relationship with the crude oil markets. For all the huffing and puffing, bears and bulls, predictions and forecasts, dips influenced by macroeconomics and spikes triggered by geopolitics – the year-end Brent crude oil price level came in near where it was at the end of 2012; in fact it was 0.3% lower! On the other hand, the WTI reversed its 7 percent annualised reversal recorded at the end of 2012, to finish round about 8 percent higher in year-over-year terms on the last day of trading in 2013.

Was there an exact science in the good and bad predictions about price levels we saw last year – nope! Does the Oilholic feel both benchmark prices are running contrary to supply-side dynamics given the current macroeconomic backdrop – yup! Did paper barrels stuff the actual merchants waiting at the end of  pipelines to collect their crude cargo – you bet!

Watching Bloomberg TV on January 2 brought home the news that money managers raised their net-long positions for WTI by 4.4 percent in the week ended December 24; the fourth consecutive increase and longest streak since July, according to the broadcaster. This side of the pond, money managers followed their friends on the other side and raised net bullish bets on Brent crude to the highest level in 10 weeks, according to ICE Futures Europe.

Speculative bets that prices will rise [in futures and options combined], outnumbered short positions by 136,611 lots in the week ended December 31, according to ICE's weekly Commitments of Traders report. The addition of 7,670 contracts, or 6 percent, brought the net-long positions to the highest level since October 22. It seems for some, the only way is up, because the fine line between pragmatic trading and gambling has long gone in actual fact.

The Oilholic predicted a Brent price in the range of US$105 to $115 in January last year. As Brent came in flat at year-end, yours truly was on the money. The heart said then, as it does now, even that range – despite being proved correct – was in fact overtly bullish but workable in this barmy paper barrel driven market.

For 2014, hoping that some of the supply-side positivity would be factored in to the mindset of traders, the Oilholic's prediction is for a Brent price in the range of $90 to $105 and WTI price range of $85 to $105. Brent's premium to the WTI should in all likelihood come down and average around $5 barrel.

The Oilholic's opinion is in sync with some, but also quite contrary to many of the bullish City forecasts. That's for them to maintain – this blogger is quietly confident that more Iraqi and Iranian crude will come on the market at some point over 2014. The US isn't importing as much and incremental barrels will henceforth come on to the markets. These will hopefully trigger a much needed price correction.

Of all the price prediction notes in this blogger's Inbox over the first week of 2014, one put out by Steven Wood and Terry Marshall of Moody's appears to be the most pragmatic. Their price assumptions, used for "ratings purposes only rather than as predictions", are for Brent to average $95 per barrel in 2014 and $90 in 2015, compared to $90 per barrel in 2014 and $85 in 2015 for WTI. As both analysts noted: "Oversupply will cool oil prices in 2014."

"A drop in Chinese growth and a surge in OPEC production pose the biggest risks to oil prices as we head into the New Year. Prices could fall if Chinese GDP growth slows significantly and OPEC members go above targeted production of 30 million barrels per day (bpd)," they added.

Away from crude price predictions on a standalone basis and reflecting on the year that was, the US EIA said prices of energy commodities decreased only modestly or increased last year, while prices of non-energy commodities like wheat and copper generally fell significantly.

Natural gas, western coal, electricity and WTI crude prices increased, while Brent, petroleum products and eastern coal prices decreased slightly. "In total, the divergence between price trends for energy and non-energy commodities grew after the summer of 2013. This is in contrast to 2012 when metals prices were stable or experienced slight increases, and a severe drought drove prices of some agricultural commodities higher in the second half of the year," it added.

From the EIA to OPEC where both its meetings in lovely Vienna last year, duly attended by the Oilholic, turned out to be predictable affairs with the "official" quota still at 30 million bpd. And we still don't have a long overdue successor to Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri. The Oilholic also managed to grab a moment with Saudi oil minister Ali Al-Naimi at a media scrum in May. Away from the meetings, the year actually began in terrible fashion for OPEC following a terror attack on an Algerian facility, but easing of tensions with Iran towards the end of the year, was a positive development.

It was also the year in which the Brits not only got excited about their own shale exploration prospects, but also inked their first contract to import proceeds of the US shale bonanza via Sabine Pass. Analysts liked it, Brits cheered it, but US politicians and energy intensive industries stateside didn't. The Keystone XL pipeline project, stuck in the quagmire of US politics, also dragged on.

That yours truly moaned about the banality of market forecasts based on short-termism more than once was not unexpected; a blog on the bankrolling of Thatcherism by the oil and gas sector after the Iron Lady's death in May certainly was.

Apart from routine visits to OPEC, ever the intrepid traveller, this blogger blogged from lands far away and some not so far away. The year began with a memorable visit to the Chicago Board of Trade at the kind invitation of Phil Flynn of Price Futures; a friend and analyst who never sits on the fence in any debate and is most likely to be vindicated as the Brent-WTI spread narrows over 2014.

This was followed by a hop across The Lakes to Toronto to gauge opinion on Keystone XL. Jaunts to the G8 2013 Summit in Northern Ireland, crude ol' Norway, Abu Dhabi and a first visit to Muscat and Khasab to profile Oman's oil and gas sector followed thereafter.

Before calling time on 2013 in Rotterdam, the Oilholic headed out to the Oil Capitals of Europe and North America – chasing the uptick in oilfield services sector activity in Aberdeen, and Platts' response to the Houston Glut in the shape of its new Light Houston Sweet (LHS) benchmark. Moving away from travels, yours truly also reviewed another seven books for your consideration.

For all intents and purposes, it's been a crude old year! And it wouldn't have been half as spiffing without the support and feedback of you all - the dear readers of this humble blog. For those of you, who wanted this blogger on Twitter; you are welcome to follow @The_Oilholic

There goes the look back at Crude Year 2013. As the Oilholic Synonymous Report embarks upon its fifth year on the Worldwide Web and the seventh year of its virtual existence – here's to 2014! That's all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

To follow The Oilholic on Twitter click here.

To email: gaurav.sharma@oilholicssynonymous.com


© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: Cascade sculpture by Atelier Van Lieshout Company, Rotterdam, The Netherlands © Gaurav Sharma, January 1, 2014.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

On a 'crude' UK raid, IEA & the 'Houston glut'

There was only story in London town last week, when late in the day on May 14, European Commission (EC) regulators swooped down on the offices of major oil companies having R&M operations in the UK, investigating fuel price fixing allegations. While the EC did not name names, BP, Shell and Statoil confirmed their offices had been among those ‘visited’ by the officials.
 
More details emerged overnight, as pricing information provider Platts admitted it was also paid a visit. The EC said the investigation relates to the pricing of oil, refined products and biofuels. As part of its probe, it will be examining whether the companies may have prevented others from participating in the pricing process in order to "distort" published prices.
 
That process, according to sources, is none other than Platts’ Market On Close (MOC) price assessment mechanism. "Any such behaviour, if established, may amount to violations of European antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive business practices and abuses of a dominant market position," the EC said, but clarified in the same breath that the raids itself did not imply any guilt on part of the companies.
 
The probe extends to alleged trading malpractices dating back almost over 10 years. All oil companies concerned, at least the ones who admitted to have been visited by EC regulators, said they were cooperating with the authorities. Platts issued a similar statement reiterating its cooperation.
 
So what does it mean? For starters, the line of inquiry is nothing new. Following a very vocal campaign led by British parliamentarian Robert Halfon, the UK's Office of Fair Trading (OFT) investigated the issue of price fixing and exonerated the oil companies in January. Not satisfied, Halfon kept up the pressure and here we are.
 
"I have been raising the issue of alleged fuel price fixing time and again in the House of Commons. With the EC raids, I'd say the OFT has been caught cold and simply needs to look at this again. The issue has cross-party support in the UK," he said.
 
In wake of the raids, the OFT merely said that it stood by its original investigation and was assisting the EC in its investigations. Question is, if, and it’s a big if, any wrongdoing is established, then what would the penalties be like and how would they be enforced? Parallels could be drawn between the Libor rate rigging scandal and the fines that followed imposed by US, UK and European authorities. The largest fine (to date) has been CHF1.4 billion (US$1.44 billion) awarded against UBS.
 
So assuming that wrongdoing is established, and fines are of a similar nature, Fitch Ratings reckons the companies involved could cope. "These producers typically have between US$10 billion and US$20 billion of cash on their balance sheets. Significantly bigger fines would still be manageable, as shown by BP's ability to cope with the cost of the Macondo oil spill, but would be more likely to have an impact on ratings," said Jeffrey Woodruff, Senior Director (Corporates) at Fitch Ratings.
 
Other than fines, if an oil company is found to have distorted prices, it could face longer-term risks from damage to its reputation. While these risks are less easy to predict and would depend on the extent of any wrongdoing, scope does exist for commercial damage, even for sectors with polarising positions in the public mind, according to Fitch. Given we are in the 'early days' phase, let's see what happens or rather doesn't.
 
While the EC was busy raiding oil companies, the IEA was telling the world how the US shale bonanza was sending ripples through the oil industry. In its Medium-Term Oil Market Report (MTOMR), it noted: "the effects of continued growth in North American supply – led by US light, tight oil (LTO) and Canadian oil sands – will cascade through the global oil market."
 
While geopolitical risks persist, according to the IEA, market fundamentals were indicative of a more comfortable global oil supply/demand scenario over the next five years at the very least. The MTOMR projected North American supply to grow by 3.9 million barrels per day (mbpd) from 2012 to 2018, or nearly two-thirds of total forecast non-OPEC supply growth of 6 mbpd.
 
World liquid production capacity is expected to grow by 8.4 mbpd – significantly faster than demand – which is projected to expand by 6.9 mbpd. Global refining capacity will post even steeper growth, surging by 9.5 mbpd, led by China and the Middle East. According to the IEA, having helped offset record supply disruptions in 2012, North American supply is expected to continue to compensate for declines and delays elsewhere, but only if necessary infrastructure is put in place. Failing that, bottlenecks could pressure prices lower and slow development.
 
Meanwhile, OPEC oil will remain a key part of the oil mix but its production capacity growth will be adversely affected by "growing insecurity in North and Sub-Saharan Africa", the agency said. OPEC capacity is expected to gain 1.75 mbpd to 36.75 mbpd, about 750,000 bpd less than forecast in the 2012 MTOMR. Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will lead the growth, but OPEC's lower-than-expected aggregate additions to global capacity will boost the relative share of North America, the agency said.
 
Away from supply-demand scenarios and on to pricing, Morgan Stanley forecasts Brent's premium to the WTI narrow further while progress continues to be made in clearing a supply glut at the US benchamark’s delivery point of Cushing, Oklahoma, over the coming months. It was above the US$8 mark when the Oilholic last checked, well down on the $20 it averaged for much of 2012.However, analysts at the investment bank do attach a caveat.

Have you heard of the Houston glut? There is no disguising the fact that Houston has been the recipient of the vast majority of the "new" inland crude oil supplies in the Gulf Coast [no prizes for guessing where that is coming from]. The state's extraction processes have become ever more efficient accompanied by its own oil boom to complement the existing E&P activity.
 
Lest we forget, North Dakota has overtaken every other US oil producing state in terms of its oil output, but not the great state of Texas. Yet, infrastructural limitations persist when it comes to dispatching the crude eastwards from Texas to the refineries in Louisiana.
 
So Morgan Stanley analysts note: "A growing glut of crude in Houston suggests WTI-Brent is near a trough and should widen again [at least marginally] later this year. Houston lacks a benchmark, but physical traders indicate that Houston is already pricing about $4 per barrel under Brent, given physical limitations in moving crude out of the area."
 
The Oilholic can confirm that anecdotal evidence does seem to indicate this is the case. So it would be fair to say that Morgan Staley is bang-on in its assessment that the "Houston regional pricing" would only erode further as more crude reaches the area, adding that any move in Brent-WTI towards $6-7 a barrel [from the current $8-plus] should prove unsustainable.
 
Capacity to bring incremental crude to St. James refineries in Louisiana is limited, so the Louisiana Light Sweet (LLS) will continue to trade well above Houston pricing; a trend that is likely to continue even after the reversal of the Houston-Houma pipeline – the main crude artery between the Houston physical market and St. James.
 
On a closing note, it seems the 'Bloomberg Snoopgate' affair escalated last week with the Bank of England joining the chorus of indignation. It all began earlier this month when news emerged of Bloomberg's practice of giving its reporters "limited" access to some data considered proprietary, including when a customer looked into broad categories such as equities or bonds.
 
The scoop – first reported by the FT – led to a full apology by Matthew Winkler, Editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, for allowing journalists "limited" access to sensitive data about how clients used its terminals, saying it was "inexcusable". However, Winkler insisted that important and confidential customer data had been protected. Problem is, they aren't just any customers – they include the leading central banks in the OECD.
 
The US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan have all said they were examining the use of data by Bloomberg. However, the language used by the Bank of England is the sternest so far. The British central bank described the events at Bloomberg as "reprehensible."
 
A spokesperson said, "The protection of confidential information is vital here at the bank. What seems to have happened at Bloomberg is reprehensible. Bank officials are in close contact with Bloomberg…We will also be liaising with other central banks on this matter."
 
In these past few days there have been signs that 'Bloomberg Snoopgate' is growing bigger as Brazil’s central bank and the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (the Chinese territory's de facto central bank) have also expressed their indignation. Having been a Bank of England and UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) correspondent, yours truly can personally testify how seriously central banks take issue with such things and so they should.
 
Yet, in describing Bloomberg's practice as "reprehensible", the Bank of England has indicated how serious it thinks the breach of confidence was and how miffed it is. The UK central bank has since received assurances from Bloomberg that there would be no repeat of the issue! You bet! That's all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!
 
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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo: Abandoned gas station © Todd Gipstein / National Geographic 

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