DPC Pittsburgh by Night 1907
News reports about developments in the oil markets are coming fast and furious, and none of them indicate any stabilization, let alone rise, in oil prices. Quite the contrary. There are very large amounts of extra barrels flowing into the market, which is just, as one analyst puts it “even more oil flooding the market that nobody needs.” Saudi Arabia looks set to battle for sheer market share, even if it sends strangely contradictory messages.
While the US shale industry aggressively tries to convey an attitude based on confidence and breakeven prices that suddenly are claimed to be much lower than what seemed common knowledge until recently. Bloomberg says today that most shale is profitable even at $25 a barrel, and we might want some independent confirmation and/or analysis of that. Just hearing the industry claim it seems a bit flimsy; they have plenty reasons to paint the picture as rosy as they can get away with.
Last night, the Wall Street Journal reported on a Saudi price cut for the US, and a simultaneous price hike for Asia.
Oil prices tumbled to their lowest point in more than two years after Saudi Arabia unexpectedly cut prices for crude sold to the U.S., likely paving the way for further declines and adding to pressure on American energy producers. The decision by the world’s largest oil exporter sent the Dow industrials into negative territory for the day amid concerns about the pace of global growth. The move heightened worries over the resilience of the U.S. oil industry, which has expanded rapidly in recent years.
But that growth, driven largely by new production technology used to extract oil from shale-rock formations, has never been tested by a prolonged slump in prices. While lower crude prices generally help consumers by reducing the amount they pay for gasoline, analysts said falling energy prices will squeeze profit margins at many U.S. energy companies, particularly smaller firms or those with large debt loads. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia raised the prices for its oil in other locations, including Asia, where the country had cut its prices for four consecutive months.
Which led Barron’s to speculate on energy ETFs.
Saudi Arabia’s unexpected price cut to oil it ships to the U.S. is roiling the market for crude and squeezing a host of exchange-traded funds that hold energy stocks. The United States Oil Fund (USO) sinks 2.2% to $$29.12 in early trading, while iPath S&P GSCI Crude Oil Total Return Index ETN (OIL) falls 2.3%. West Texas Intermediate crude futures dropped to the lowest level in three years, recently down 2.1% to $76.77 a barrel.
Oil futures prices have tumbled by about one-quarter in recent months in a world awash with oil after production increases in the U.S. and, more recently, Libya. For weeks, speculation has swirled that the Saudis might be keen to hold prices low in order to keep a tight grip on market share and choke off competitors. Monday’s move by Saudi Arabia to cut prices for crude exports to U.S. customers, while at the same time a raising the prices it charges to countries in Asia, provides more evidence that the Saudis are bent on quashing competition.
But then just now Reuters says ‘recalled’ an email that detailed the cuts:
Saudi Aramco said it was recalling an email it sent on Thursday which had announced a sharp drop in January official selling oil prices for Asia and the United States. Official Selling Prices (OSPs) for oil from Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s largest producer and exporter, have been eagerly watched by the market in recent months for indications of the kingdom’s oil policies.
Some analysts have said sharp drops in OSPs over the past months are an indication the kingdom is fighting for market share with other producers, but others have said the OSPs only reflect the market and are a backward-looking rather than a forward-looking indicator.
“(The) Saudis making it clear they don’t want to lose market share,” Richard Mallinson, analyst at consultancy Energy Aspects told Reuters Global Oil Forum before Aramco recalled prices. It was not clear whether Aramco was recalling all prices or only some prices, or what changes if any had been made. It was also unclear whether and when a new email might follow.
The email, which was later recalled, showed Aramco had cut its January price for its Arab Light grade for Asian customers by $1.90 a barrel from December to a discount of $2 a barrel to the Oman/Dubai average. The Arab Light OSP to the United States was set at a premium of $0.90 a barrel to the Argus Sour Crude Index for January, down 70 cents from the previous month. The email also said Arab Light OSPs to Northwest Europe were raised by 20 cents for January from the previous month to a discount of $3.15 a barrel to the Brent Weighted Average.
That $24 a barrel breakeven price for shale contrasts somewhat with what Abhishek Deshpande, lead oil analyst at Natixis, says about Saudi oil: “..because of how Saudi Arabia uses its oil well to support its entire economy, the country’s budget calls for $90 a barrel to break even, despite that the cost of production is closer to $30.”
OPEC, the largest crude-oil cartel in the world, wanted others to feel its pain as oil prices collapsed. “OPEC wanted … to cut off production … and they wanted other non-OPEC [countries], especially in the US and Canada, to feel the pinch they are feeling,” says Abhishek Deshpande, lead oil analyst at Natixis. But in its rush to influence others, OPEC ended up hurting everyone in the process – including itself. Low oil prices, pushed down further by OPEC’s meeting last week,have impacted world economies, energy stocks, and several currencies. From the fate of the Russian rouble to Venezuelan deficits to American mutual funds full of Exxon or Chevron stock, OPEC’s decision was the shot heard round the world for troubled commodities.
So how low could oil go? Standard Chartered analysts expect a “chaotic” quarter ahead, saying OPEC’s decision to keep the production target unchanged is “extremely negative for oil prices for 2015”. The bank slashed its 2015 average price forecast for Brent crude oil by $16 a barrel to $85. Other forecasts are lower. Citi Research estimated an average 2015 price of $72 for WTI and $80 for ICE Brent. Natixis’s Deshpande said their average 2015 Brent forecast is around $74, with WTI around $69. These prices have real-world effects on world economies. Everyone in the sector is smarting. Deshpande said because of how Saudi Arabia uses its oil well to support its entire economy, the country’s budget calls for $90 a barrel to break even, despite that the cost of production is closer to $30.
Other OPEC members have even higher budgetary breakevens. Saudi Arabia is sitting on a “war chest” of money it stockpiled when prices were high, Deshpande said. Citi analysts said Saudi Arabia has about $800bn in cash reserves. Venezuela, on the other hand, is a prime example of a country squandering its riches. Citi said for every $10 drop in oil prices Venezuela loses about $7.5bn in revenues. “Already weak fiscally, this should call for reducing energy subsidies. But domestic politics including the 2015 election makes this nearly impossible,” they said. OPEC countries as a whole could lose $200bn in revenue if Brent prices stay at $80, which is about $600 per capita annually, Citi said.
And that in turn makes you wonder how the Saudis feel about Bakken shale oil being sold at $49.69 a barrel.
Oil market analysts are debating if oil will fall to $50. In North Dakota, prices are already there. Crude sold at the wellhead in the Bakken shale region in North Dakota fell to $49.69 a barrel on Nov. 28, according to the marketing arm of Plains All American Pipeline LP. That’s down 47% from this year’s peak in June, and 29% less than the $70.15 paid for Brent, the global benchmark. The cheaper price for North Dakota crude underscores how geographic and logistical hurdles can amplify the stress that plunging futures prices have put on drillers in new shale plays that have helped push U.S. oil production to the highest level in 31 years. Other booming areas such as the Niobrara in Colorado and the Permian in Texas have also seen large discounts to Brent and U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate.
“You have gathering fees, trucking, terminaling, pipeline and rail fees,” Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates LLC in Houston, said Dec. 2. “If you’re selling at the wellhead, you’re getting a very low number relative to WTI.” Discounted prices at the wellhead have been exacerbated by a 39% drop in Brent futures since June 19 to $69.92 a barrel yesterday. Prices have fallen as global demand growth fails to keep pace with surging oil production from the U.S. and Canada. Much of that new output is coming from areas that are facing steep discounts. Bakken crude was posted at $50.44 a barrel Dec. 2. Crude from Colorado’s Niobrara shale was priced at $54.55, according to Plains. Eagle Ford crude cost $63.25, and oil from the Oklahoma panhandle was $58.25.
American consumers probably still feel good about developments like ever lower prices at the pump, but they should be careful what they wish for.
$2 gasoline is back in the U.S. An Oncue Express station in Oklahoma City was selling the motor fuel for $1.99 a gallon today, becoming the first one to drop below $2 in the U.S. since July 30, 2010, Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy Organization Inc., said by e-mail from Chicago. “We knew when we saw crude oil prices drop last week that we’d break the $2 threshold pretty soon, but we didn’t know if it would happen in South Carolina, Texas, Missouri or Oklahoma,” said DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy. “Today’s national average, $2.74, now makes the current price we pay a whopping 51 cents per gallon less than what we paid a year ago.”
Gasoline is sliding after OPEC decided last week not to cut production amid a global glut of oil that has already dragged international oil prices down by 37% in the past five months. Pump prices have fallen by almost a dollar since reaching this year’s high on April 26. 15% of the nation’s gas stations are selling fuel below $2.50 a gallon, “and it may not be long before others join OnCue Express in that exclusive club that’s below $2,” said Gregg Laskoski, another senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy. Retail gasoline averaged $2.746 a gallon in the U.S. yesterday, data compiled by AAA show. Stations will cut prices by another 15 to 20 cents a gallon as they catch up to the plunge in oil, AAA’s Michael Green said.
And here’s the reason to be careful with those wishes: job losses.
After the biggest slump in oil prices since the start of the global financial crisis, the prime minister of Norway says western Europe’s largest crude producer must become less reliant on its fossil fuels. “We need new industries, a new tax system and a better climate for investment in Norway,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg said yesterday in an interview in Oslo. The comments follow threats from SAFE, one of Norway’s three main oil unions, which warned this week it will respond with industrial action unless the government acts to stem job losses. Solberg said that far from triggering government support, plunging oil prices should be used by the industry as an opportunity to improve competitiveness.
A 39% slump in oil prices since June is killing jobs in Norway, which relies on fossil fuels to generate more than one-fifth of its gross domestic product. In the past few months, Norway has lost about 7,000 oil jobs and SAFE said this week it was up to the government to reverse that trend. Solberg says protecting oil jobs will ultimately make it harder for the economy to wean itself off its commodities reliance. “We need to lower our cost of production in the development of new fields,” she said. “Oil production is not going to rise, it will slowly fall in Norway.”
And may I volunteer as an aside that Norway’s intentions to become less reliant on oil are perhaps a little past their best before date? They have this large sovereign oil fund, but never thought of using it to diversify their economy?
Perhaps the numero uno reason that oil prices will keep sinking is production becoming available in the Middle East. And in North Africa, where Libya recently reportedly brought an extra 800,000 barrels/day to the fray. Now it’s Iraq’s turn. Bloomberg put 300,000 barrels in its headline, only to say this in the article: “As much as 300,000 barrels a day of Kirkuk blend will be shipped through the Turkish pipeline under the terms of the deal, according to the KRG. Another 250,000 barrels daily of oil produced in the Kurdish region will be exported through the same route”. I corrected the headline.
Not only is OPEC refraining from cutting oil output to stem the five-month plunge in prices, it’s adding to the supply glut. Just five days after OPEC decided to maintain production levels, Iraq, the group’s second-biggest member, inked an export deal with the Kurds that may add about 300,000 barrels a day to world supplies. In a global market that neighboring Kuwait estimates is facing a daily oversupply of 1.8 million barrels, the accord stands to deepen crude’s 38% plunge since late June. Or as Carsten Fritsch, analyst at Commerzbank, put it: There’ll be “even more oil flooding the market that nobody needs.”
Benchmark Brent crude slumped immediately after the deal was signed Dec. 2 in Baghdad, dropping 2.8% to $70.54 a barrel. Prices, which slipped 0.9% yesterday to reach the lowest since 2010, were at $70.38 at 1:30 p.m. Singapore time today. Futures are down about 10% since OPEC’s Nov. 27 decision. The agreement seeks to end months of feuding between the Kurds and officials in Iraq over the right to crude proceeds, a dispute that has hindered their joint effort to push back Islamic State militants. The deal allows for as much as 550,000 barrels a day of crude to be shipped by pipeline from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in Turkey, according to the regional government. The Kurds were already exporting about 220,000 barrels daily, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The Kurdish Regional Government expanded its control of Iraq’s oil resources in June when it deployed forces to defend Kirkuk, the largest field in the north of the country, from Islamic militants. The Kurds have been shipping crude through Turkey in defiance of the central government, which took legal action to block the sales, leaving some tankers loaded with Kurdish oil stranded at sea. As much as 300,000 barrels a day of Kirkuk blend will be shipped through the Turkish pipeline under the terms of the deal, according to the KRG. Another 250,000 barrels daily of oil produced in the Kurdish region will be exported through the same route, according to the government in Baghdad.
What it will all lead to, and increasingly so as prices fail to recover and instead keep falling, is the disappearance and withdrawal of financing in the oil industry, especially the insanely overleveraged shale patches. The financiers will need a little more time to consolidate, minimize and liquidate their losses, but they will get up and leave. So all the talk of growing the industry sounds just a tad south of fully credible. This is an industry that lost over $100 billion a year for at least three years running, i.e. didn’t produce sufficient revenue even at $100 a barrel, and at $60 they would be fine, without much of their previous external financing?
Two energy-related companies are postponing financings after a plunge in oil prices made their high-yield, high-risk debt more difficult to sell. New Atlas, a newly formed unit of oil and gas producer Atlas Energy Group, put on hold a $155 million loan it was seeking to refinance debt, according to five people with knowledge of the deal, who asked not be identified because the decision is private. EnTrans International, a manufacturer of equipment used in fracking, delayed selling a $250 million bond, according to three other people with knowledge of that transaction. Investors in bonds of junk-rated energy companies are facing losses of more than $11 billion as oil prices dropped to a five-year-low of $63.72 a barrel this week. This is deepening concern that the riskiest oil explorers won’t be able to meet their obligations, and sending their borrowing costs to the highest since 2010.
More than half of Cleveland, Tennessee-based EnTrans’s revenue comes from equipment sales to the hydraulic fracturing and the energy industry, Moody’s Investors Service said in a Nov. 17 report. The notes, which were being arranged by Credit Suisse, would have been used to refinance debt. Gary Riley, chief executive officer at EnTrans International, said yesterday in an e-mail commenting on the deal status that “the decision to defer or go forward has not been made.” Riley didn’t respond to questions seeking comment today. Deutsche Bank and Citigroup were managing New Atlas’s financing and had scheduled a meeting with lenders for this morning, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Perhaps those sub-$50 Bakken prices tell us pretty much where global prices are ahead. And then we’ll take it from there. With 1.8 million barrels “that nobody needs” added to the shale industries growth intentions, where can prices go but down, unless someone starts a big war somewhere? Yesterday’s news that US new oil and gas well permits were off 40% last month may signal where the future of shale is really located.
But oil is a field that knows a lot of inertia, long term contracts, future contracts, so changes come with a time lag. It’s also a field increasingly inhabited by desperate producers and government leaders, who wake up screaming in the middle of the night from dreaming about their heads impaled on stakes along desert roads.