Showing posts with label Japan oil imports. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Japan oil imports. Show all posts

Friday, October 27, 2017

A 'Crude' view from Tokyo: Japan’s delight at oil & gas buyers’ market

The Oilholic is delighted to be back in Tokyo, some 6,000 miles east of London. However, this one’s a splash and dash trip barely days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s thumping election victory in a snap election the incumbent called. 

Though Abe is not universally popular by any means – as this blogger observed upon interaction with members of the voting public on behalf of IBTimes UK – the incumbent still coasted to an election victory offering a safe pair of hands and an economy that is tagging along nicely. 

It has been unquestionably helped in no small part by an oil and gas buyers’ market that corporate Japan and the country’s policymakers are pleased with. 

More so, as demand in Asia’s most advanced economy is on the decline courtesy of energy efficiencies that are miles ahead of many others in the industrialised world.

In fact, Japan’s oil demand has been in a structural decline for a number of years with the rise of cars with better mileage, usage of alternative fuels, very visible electric vehicles and last but not the least an ageing population. 

According to contacts within the analyst community in Tokyo, Japan’s average crude demand currently stands at 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd), down from its peak of 5.9 million bpd noted back in 2005. India has indeed overtaken Japan to become the world’s third-largest importer of crude oil with an average demand of 4.2 million bpd.

Nonetheless, whatever Japanese importers take is increasingly coming on their terms in a buyers’ market. In fact, the Oilholic’s sources in trading circles suggest spot Brent is at least $1.90 cheaper  per barrel compared to forward delivery toward the end of first quarter of 2018.

The natural gas market, though tied into the long-term contracts, is also spoilt for choice with Qatar, Australia and US consignments jostling for attention, and buyers awash with gas are looking for legislative changes to offload some of their surplus holding to near Asia. 

Most local commentators feel the decoupling of gas prices with the Japan Customs-cleared Crude (JCC), or the Japanese Crude Cocktail, if you would, is nearly complete. But then again, the JCC itself is not as high as it was a mere five years ago, and the days of $12-15 mmbtu gas prices and $10 premiums to the US Henry hub are a thing of the past. 

Unsurprisingly, Japan’s anti-monopoly regulator ended LNG re-sale restrictions over the course of the summer. The decision to end destination restriction clauses is 100% likely to lead to more trading of LNG cargoes by buyers in Japan, who can become sellers of their surplus holdings. And if Japan can do it, the wider region is bound to follow. 

In the fiscal year 2016-17, ended March, Japan imported 85 million tonnes of LNG worth about $30 billion, according to official data. So to say the country is in a strong position to renegotiate supply terms without destination restriction clauses would be an understatement. As the world’s biggest importer of LNG – it is in a commanding position to renegotiate with Qatar and Malaysia its two biggest suppliers. 


Away from crude matters, here is a link to one’s IBTimes UK exclusive on the ongoing Kobe Steel scandal, based on the comments of a whistleblower, who gave his take to your truly on the state of affairs and how a culture of fear led to the ongoing fiasco.

And on that note, it’s time to say goodbye to Tokyo. It was a brief three-day visit, but always a pleasure to be in this vibrant global capital of commerce. 

However, before one takes your leave, here’s a glimpse of some midnight petroheads – driving a convoy of what appears to be go-carts – in the small hours of the night, whom the Oilholic spotted while on pleasant evening walk back from Roppongi Hills to his hotel in Shiba Park. Only in Japan!

That’s all from the land of the rising sun. It time for BA006 back to London Heathrow. More soon. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’. 

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© Gaurav Sharma 2017. Photo 1: Tokyo skyline, Japan. Photo 2: Midnight go kart racers in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, Japan © Gaurav Sharma 2017. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Japan’s return to Iranian market ‘complicated’

The Oilholic is back in Tokyo, some 6,000 miles east of London, and is finding Japan Inc. rather content with a crude oil buyers’ market. In fact, if anything, even the relatively higher oil price, has fallen to a third of the level this blogger noted when he was last here (in September 2014).

One outstanding issue – of re-establishing ties with the Iranian market – remains ‘complicated’ to quote analysts and legal professionals in the Japanese capital. Up until 2006, the point of the first wave of stringent UN sanctions on Iran against its nuclear programme, Tokyo enjoyed good ties with Tehran, symbolised first among other things by its stake in the Islamic republic’s Azadegan oilfield

However, that was then, and by 2010 matters progressively worsened as the US and European Union moved to impose yet more stringent sanctions on Iran following an escalation of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and the West’s wariness of it. 

Subsequently, Japan duly shunned Iran in wake of international sanctions, even if it wasn’t easy for the largest liquefied natural gas importer and third-largest net importer of crude oil and oil products in the world to do so. Following Iran’s return to the international fold and a lifting of international sanctions, unsurprisingly Japan’s government was among the first to follow China in resuming ties with the country’s oil and gas sector, and the wider economy. 

In February, a framework was also put in place under which Tehran would guarantee $10 billion in investment projects financed by the coveted Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and insured by Nippon Export and Investment finance. There’s one nagging problem though – the US is yet to fully lift its sanctions on Tehran and that makes Japanese banks, heavily intertwined with American financial system, wary of participating.

Unless commercial banks participate and capital flow mechanisms are established, JBIC cannot finance a project. And in any case an international remittance system needs to work, and major commercial banks, not just Japanese ones, need to resume normal operation before things can get off the ground. Not much of that has happened. 

Experts at law firm Baker & McKenzie’s Tokyo office say the appetite for investment in Iran is definitely there, yet very few Japanese companies have actually signed deals on account of risk associated with falling foul of US sanctions. 

Of course, leading law firms are ever willing to conduct due diligence to protect their clients’ foray into Iran. Furthermore, Washington has lifted sanctions on non-US banks, but nothing is quite so straightforward.

Partial US sanctions require anyone international banks deal with in Iran is not on the US Treasury’s “Specially Designated Nationals” (SDN) roster. The sanctions also cover any company that’s 50% or over 50% owned by an entity or person blocked by the US State Department, even if the company in question is not on the Treasury Department’s SDN roster. 

The only ‘crude’ saving grace is that a stagnant Japanese economy’s demand for oil is at its lowest since 1988, while glut troubled suppliers are queuing up twice over to sell their cargo at discounted prices. Given current oil and gas market permutations, the headache is as much Iran’s to contend with. That’s all from Tokyo for the moment folks. Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’! 

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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo: Tokyo Skyline from Sumida River ferry, Tokyo, Japan © Gaurav Sharma, March 2016.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Talking Russia, China, shale 'debt' & more in Texas

The Oilholic finds himself in Houston, Texas for Baker & McKenzie’s 2015 Oil & Gas Institute. When yours truly was last in Texas back in February, the mood was rather sombre as leading oil futures benchmarks were still on a downward slide.

That was then, what we have now is stagnancy in the US$50-75 per barrel price range which probably encompasses both the WTI and Brent. We are not getting away from the said range anytime soon as one noted in a column for Forbes last Friday before flying out here.

Given the nature of such discourse, some delegates here at the Institute agreed and others disagreed with the Oilholic’s take on the short-term direction of the oil markets, especially as a lot is going on in this ‘crude’ world that such industry events are particularly sound in bringing to the fore.

The 2015 instalment of this particular Baker & McKenzie event had a great array of speakers and delegates – from Shell to Citigroup, Cameron International to Chevron. The legal eagles, the macroeconomists, the internationalists, the sector specialists, the industry veterans, and of course the opinionated, who never sit on the fence on matters shaping the direction of the market, were all there in good numbers.

(L to R) Louis J. Davis, Greg McNab, Natalie Regoli, James Donnell and David Hackett of Baker & McKenzie discuss the North American Market in wake of the oil price decline
The situation in Russia propped up fairly early on in proceedings. Alexey Frolov, a legal expert from Baker & McKenzie’s Moscow office, was keen to point out that it was not just the sanctions that were hurting Russia’s oil & gas industry; related macroeconomics of the day was sapping confidence away as well.

But Frolov also pointed to a degree of resilience within Russian confines, and a more flexible domestic taxation regime which was helping sustain high production levels unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It does remain unclear though how long Russia can keep this up.

Meanwhile, Cameron International’s Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Brad Eastman flagged up something rather interesting. “We see Chinese companies continue to back rig building projects, even if they are being mothballed elsewhere in the world given the current market conditions. Chinese companies wish to continue their march in to the rig-building industry.”

Here’s China indulging in something that is really bold, some say unusual. So even if no one is exactly queuing up to buy or lease those Chinese rigs, it is another example that China operates on a whole different level to rest of the natural resources players and participants.

As for US shale, people say there is distressed debt out there and the end might be supposedly nigh for some small players. Well hear this – based on the Oilholic’s direct research here in Texas of looking into 37 independent US players, sometimes known as mom n’ pop oil & gas firms, and another 11 mid-sized companies; a dollar of their debt would fetch between 83 cents to 92 cents if hypothetically sold by their creditors.

That’s hardly distressed debt even at the lower end of the range. On hearing the Oilholic’s findings, Louis J. Davis, Chair of Baker & McKenzie’s North America Oil & Gas Practice, said: “An 8 to 17 cents discount does not constitute as distressed. Rewind the clock back to 2008-09 and you’d be looking at 35 to 40 cents to the dollar on unprofitable plays – that’s distress. This is not.”

Quite simply, creditors and investors are keeping the faith. But to curb the Oilholic’s enthusiasm, alas Davis added the words “for now”.

“You have to remember that many players [both large and small] would be coming off their existing oil price hedges by the end of the current calendar year. That’s when we’ll really know who’s in trouble or not.

“However, blanket assumptions that US shale, and by extension some independents are dead in the water, is a load of nonsense. Usual caveats apply to the Bakken players, but nothing I know from clients large or small in the Eagle Ford suggest otherwise,” Davis concluded.

As with events of this nature, the Oilholic of course wears several hats – most notably for Sharecast / Digital Look and Forbes. Hence, it’s worth flagging up other interesting slants and exclusive soundbites mined for these publications by this blogger.

The subject of oil & gas mergers and acquisitions in the current climate dominated the Institute’s morning session, as one wrote on Forbes earlier today. How to deal with the prospect of Iran’s possible return to the crude oil market also came up. Click here for one’s Sharecast report; treading carefully was the verdict of experts and industry players alike.

Separately, a Pemex official described in some detail how UK-listed oil and gas companies were sizing up potential opportunities in Mexico. Lastly, yours truly also had the pleasure of interviewing Anne Ka Tse Hung, a Tokyo-based partner at Baker & McKenzie, for Sharecast on the subject of the LNG industry facing a buyers’ market.

Hung noted that the market in Asia had completely turned on its head for Japanese utilities, from the panic buying of natural gas at a premium in wake of the Fukushima tragedy in 2011, to currently asking exporters to bid for supply contracts as competition intensifies and prices fall. That’s all for the moment from Houston folks! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo: A panel session at the Baker & McKenzie 2015 Oil & Gas Institute, Houston, Texas, USA © Gaurav Sharma, May 2015.

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.

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