Showing posts with label assetisation of commodities. Show all posts
Showing posts with label assetisation of commodities. Show all posts

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

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Hallelujah, it’s Bearish Brent!

Mercury is not rising (at least where this blogger is), it’s not half past 10 (more like half past four), and it’s certainly not for the first time in history, but Hallelujah it’s Bearish Brent!

Sorry, a rather crude attempt to re-jingle that ‘80s hit song, but on a more serious note there is a bit of a commotion in the oil markets with bears roaming the streets. As the readers of this blog would testify, the Oilholic has short called Brent for a while now. Being precise, the said period covers most of the past six and current Brent front-month contracts.

Aggressive yelling of the word 'risk' proved this supply-side scribe wrong for June, but one has been on the money most of the time since the summer. July’s high of US$115.71 per barrel was daft with speculators using the initial flare-up in Iraq as a pretext to perk things up.

The Oilholic said it would not last, based on personal surmising, feedback from physical traders and their solver models. And to the cost of many speculators it didn’t. As one wrote in a Forbes post earlier this week, if an ongoing war (in the Middle East of all places) can’t prop up a benchmark perceived to be a common proxy for oil prices on the world market, then what can?

Rather controversially, and as explained before, the Oilholic maintains that Brent is suffering from risk fatigue in the face of lacklustre demand and erratic macroeconomic data. In Thursday’s trade, it has all come to down to one heck of a bear maul. Many in the City are now wondering whether a $90 per barrel floor might be breached for Brent; it already has in the WTI’s case and on more than one occasion in intraday trading.

All of this comes on the back of Saudi Arabia formally announcing it is reducing its selling price for oil in a move to protect its share in this buyers’ market. The price of OPEC basket of twelve crudes stood at $92.31 dollars a barrel on Wednesday, compared with $94.17 the previous day, according to its calculations.

With roughly 11 days worth of trading left on the November Brent front-month contract, perceived oversupply lends support to the bears. Nonetheless, a bit of caution is advised. While going short on Brent would be the correct call at the moment, Northern Hemisphere winter is drawing closer as is the OPEC meeting next month. So the Oilholic sees a partial price uptick on cards especially if OPEC initiates a production cut.

The dip in price ought to trouble sanction hit Russia too. According to an AFP report, Herman Gref, head of Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, said the country could repeat the fate of the Soviet Union if it doesn't reform its economic policies and avoid the "incompetent" leadership that led to the end of communism.

Speaking at the annual “Russia Calling” investment forum in Moscow, Gref said Russia imports too much, is too reliant on oil and gas exports and half of its economy is monopolised. The dynamic needs to change, according to Russia’s most senior banker, and one employed by a state-owned bank.

Away from Russia, here is the Oilholic's latest Forbes post on the prospects of shale exploration beyond North America. It seems initial hullabaloo and overexcitement has finally been replaced by sense of realism. That said, China, UK and Argentina remain investors’ best hope.

On a closing note, while major investment banks maybe in retreat from the commodities market and bears are engulfing it for the time being, FinEx group, an integrated asset management, private equity and hedge fund business, has decided to enter the rocky cauldron.

Its specialist boutique business – FinEx Commodity Partners – will be led by Simon Smith, former Managing Director and Head of OTC Commodity Solutions at Jefferies Bache. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo: Disused gas station, Preston, Connecticut, USA © Todd Gipstein / National Geographic.

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.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Notes on a scandal from an ex-Enron pragmatist

When the Enron scandal broke and that icon of corporate America filed for bankruptcy on December 1, 2001, the Oilholic was as stumped by the pace of events as those directly impacted by it. In the months and years that were to follow, bankruptcy proceedings for what was once 'America's Most Innovative Company' according to Fortune, turned out to be the most complex in US history.

It soon emerged that one of Enron's own – Dr Vincent Kaminski – a risk management expert especially headhunted in 1990s from Salomon Brothers and appointed Managing Director for Research, had repeatedly red flagged practices within the energy company's corridors of corporate power.

Alas, in a remarkably stupendous act, Kaminski and his team of 50 analysts, while specifically hired to red flag were often ignored when and where it mattered. Cited cautions ranged from advising against the use of creative accounting, "terminally stupid" structuring of Enron's special purpose vehicles (SPVs) to conceal debt by then CFO Andrew Fastow, and the ultimately disastrous policy of securing Enron's debt against stock in the corporation itself.

What transpired has been the subject of several books – some good (especially Elkind & McLean's), some bad and some opportunistic with little insight despite grandiose pretensions to the contrary. Having lapped all of these up, and covered the scandal in a journalistic capacity, the Oilholic had long wanted to meet the former risk manager of Enron.

At last, a chance encounter in 2012, followed by a visit to Houston last November, finally made it possible. These days Kaminski is an academic at Rice University and has written no less than three books; the latest one being on energy markets. Yet, not a single one on the Enron fiasco, one might inquire, for a man so close to it all?

At peace and reasonably mellow in the Houston suburb of The Woodlands, which he calls home, the former Enron executive says, even though it rankles, the whole episode was "in the past", and despite what was said in the popular press – neither was he the only one warning about impending trouble ahead nor could he have altered Enron's course on his own.

"A single person cannot stop a tanker and I wasn't the only insider who warned that there were problems on the horizon. Looking back, I always approached every problem at Enron in good faith, gave the best answers I could come up with on risk scenarios, based on the information I had and my interpretation of it, even if bosses did not like it.

"If honesty was deemed too candid or crude then so be it! Whatever I did at Enron, the red flags I raised, was what I was paid for. Nothing less could have been expected of me; I saw it as my fiduciary duty."

He agrees that Enron's collapse was a huge blow to Houston's economy and overall wellbeing at the time. "There was a chain reaction that affected other parts of the regional economy. In fact, energy trading and marketing itself went through a crisis which lasted a few years."

To this day, Kaminski says he has no way of knowing whether justice was done or not and isn't alone in thinking that. "By the time of the final winding-up process, Enron had about 3,000 entities created all over the world. It was an extremely complex company."

But does the current generation of Rice University students ask him about Enron? "Right now, I am teaching a different generation. Most of my students are typically 25 to 30 years old. When the Enron scandal unfolded [over a decade ago] they were teenagers. A lot has happened in the corporate world since then, which they have had to take in as they've matured. The financial tsunami that was the global financial crisis, and what emerged in its wake, dwarfed what happened at Enron. For them, Enron is but a footnote in corporate history."

"That scandal devastated public trust in one brand, however big it may have been at the time. But the global financial crisis eroded public trust in an entire sector – investment banking. Perhaps as a result, Enron's collapse has ceased to generate as much interest these days. That's a pity! Depending on one's point of view, the extent of the use [or misuse] of SPVs and the number that was discovered at collapsing financial institutions in 2007-09, was several times over what was eventually catalogued at Enron."

Hence, the ex-Enron executive turned academic doubts whether the world really learnt from the scandal. "Enron was a warning from history, from the energy business to other sectors. I describe my former employer as a canary in a coal mine demonstrating the dangers of excessive leverage, of having a non-transparent accounting system and all those sliced and diced SPVs."

"Pre-crisis, the financial sector was guilty of formally removing 'potentially' bad assets from the parent company to SPVs. However, in real financial terms that wasn't the case. When things took a turn for the worse, all the assets and liabilities put on to SPVs came back to be reabsorbed into the balance sheets."

Formally they were separate and 'special', Kaminski notes, but for all practical reasons there was no effective transfer of risk.

"Rewind the clock back and there was no effective transfer of risk in the case of Enron either when its horror story of SPVs and creative accounting came out in all its unsavoury detail. So if lessons were learnt, where is the evidence? Now, let's forget scruples for a moment and simply take it as a basic mistake. Even so, there is no evidence lessons were learned from the Enron fiasco."

He adds that those who don't have an open mind will never learn. "This is not exclusive to the energy business or financial services. It's perhaps true of everything in life. Arrogance and greed also play a part, especially in the minds of those who think they can somehow extricate themselves when the tide turns."

As early as 2004-05, the Rice University academic says he was debating with colleagues that a financial crisis could be on the horizon as the US property market bubbled up.

"Some people branded me as crazy, some called me pessimistic. They said the world is mature enough to manage the situation and progress in economic and financial sciences had created tools for effective management of market and credit risks. Some even agreed that we'll have a train wreck of a global economy, but to my amazement remarked that they knew how to "get out in time."

Kaminski says while it can be true of individuals who can perhaps get out in time, it cannot be true of large corporations and the entire financial system. "They would invariably take a hit, which in some cases – as the financial crisis showed – was a fatal hit. Furthermore, the financial system itself was scarred on a global scale."

Over the years, this blogger has often heard Kaminski compare chief risk officers (CROs) to food tasters in medieval royal courts.

"Indeed, being a risk manager is a job with limited upside. You cannot slow 'acting poison' and the cooks don’t like you as you always complain that the food tastes funny. So if they catch you in a dark place, they will rough you up!" he laughs.

"I have said time and again that risk managers should be truly independent. In a recent column for Energy Risk, I gave the example of the CRO at Lehman Brothers, who was asked to leave the room when senior executives were talking business. It is both weird and outrageous in equal measure that a CRO would be treated in this way. I would resign on the spot if this happened to me as a matter of principle."

He also thinks CROs should be reporting directly to the board rather than the CEO because they need true independence. "Furthermore, the board should not have excessive or blind confidence in any C-suite executive just because the media has given him or her rock-star status."

A switch from the corporate world to academia has certainly not diminished Kaminski’s sense of humour and knack for being candid.

"Maybe having your CEO on the cover of Business Week [Cue: Enron's then CEO Jeff Skilling] could be the first warning sign of trouble! The second signal could be a new shining tower [see above left - what was once Enron’s is now occupied by a firm Skilling called a 'dinosaur' or legacy oil company – Chevron] and the third could be your company's name on a stadium! Our local baseball team – Houston Astros – called a stadium that was 'Enron Field' their home, then 'Enron Failed'. Thankfully, it's now shaken it off and is simply Minute Maid Park [a drinks brand from Coca-Cola's portfolio]."

"But jokes apart, excessive reliance or confidence in any single individual should be a red flag. I feel it's prudent to mention that I am not suggesting companies should not reward success, that's different. What I am saying is that the future of a company should not rely on one single individual."

Switching to 'crude' matters, Kaminski says trading remains an expensive thing for energy companies and is likely to get even costlier in light of higher capital requirements for registering as a swap dealer and added compliance costs. "So the industry will go through a slowdown and witness consolidation as we are already seeing."

On a more macro footing, he agrees that the assetization of black gold will continue as investors seek diversity in uncertain times. As for the US shale bonanza versus the natural gas exports paradigm, should exports materialise in incremental volumes, the [domestic] price of natural gas will eventually have to go up stateside, he adds.

"Right now, the price [of US natural gas] is low because it is abundant. However, to a large extent that abundance is down to it being cross-subsidised by the oil industry [and natural gas liquids]. I believe in one economic law – nothing can go on forever.

"As far as the LNG business is concerned, it will still be a reasonably good business, but not with the level of profitability that most people expect, once you add the cost of liquefaction, transportation, etc."

The Oilholic and the ex-Enron pragmatist also agreed that there will be a lot of additional capacity coming onstream beyond American shores. "We could be looking at the price of natural gas in the US going up and global LNG prices going down. There will still be a decent profit margin but it's not going to be fantastic," he concludes.

And that's your lot for the moment! It was an absolute pleasure speaking to Dr Kaminski! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: Dr Vincent Kaminski at El Paso Trading Room, Rice University, Houston. Photo 2: Chevron Houston, formerly the Enron Towers. Photo 3: Dr Kaminski & the Oilholic, in The Woodlands, Texas, USA © Gaurav Sharma, November 22, 2013.

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