Oil Market Report: A floor under prices?


13 December 2018

Oil prices have been volatile recently, but volatility is not in the interests of producers or consumers (Photograph: Shutterstock)

OPEC and some non-OPEC oil ministers met in Vienna last week and agreed to curb their output by 1.2 mb/d in order to address growing surpluses in the market. The agreement aims to achieve relative stability and to bring the market towards balance. So far, the Brent crude oil price seems to have found a floor, remaining close to $60/bbl much where it was when the ministers met. Recently, prices have been volatile; in early October Brent crude oil prices reached $86/bbl on concerns that the market could tighten as Iranian sanctions were implemented. Then, thirty-seven days later, they fell back to $58/bbl as producers more than met the challenge of replacing Iranian and other barrels. Such volatility is not in the interests of producers or consumers.

Last week’s meeting reminded us that the Big Three of oil – Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States – whose total liquids production now comprises about 40% of the global total, are the dominant players. Cooperation between Russia and Saudi Arabia is now the basis of production management with these two countries having a large capacity to swing output one way or the other. For them, prices falling further would place their budgets under great stress. The third, non-playing member, so to speak, of the Big Three is the United States, which is now the world’s biggest crude oil producer and where production management is a company level, economically driven decision. The United States is also the world’s biggest consumer and lower prices are welcome, although its producers will want to see them stay high enough to encourage further investment.

While the US was not present in Vienna, nobody could ignore its growing influence. On the day OPEC ministers sat down to talk, an important piece of data was published: according to the Energy Information Administration, in the week to 30 November the US was a net exporter of crude and products for the first time since at least 1991. The number, 211 kb/d, is modest and even if it proves to be an isolated data point, the long-term trend is clear. In 2018 to date, US net imports have averaged 3.1 mb/d. Ten years ago, just ahead of the shale revolution, the figure was 11.1 mb/d. As production grows inexorably, so will net imports decline and rising US exports will provide competition in many markets, including to some of the countries meeting in Vienna last week.

New data in this Report shows little change to our 2018 estimates. Demand will grow by 1.3 mb/d although there are signs that the pace is slackening in some countries as the impact of higher prices lingers. As far as non-OPEC supply is concerned, our estimate for growth is revised slightly up to 2.4 mb/d. For 2019, our demand growth outlook remains at 1.4 mb/d even though oil prices have fallen back considerably since the early October peak. Some of the support provided by lower prices will be offset by weaker economic growth globally, and particularly in some emerging economies. For non-OPEC supply, we have revised our growth forecast for 2019 down by 415 kb/d, partly due to expected cuts from Russia agreed last week, and to lower growth in Canada. The serious build-up of stocks arising from logistical bottlenecks in Alberta led the provincial government to act very decisively to curb output. The initial cutback of 325 kb/d for three months to allow blockages to ease is a significant development. Apart from lowering production, it should narrow the differential between West Canadian Select prices and WTI, which reached $51/bbl at one point.

Time will tell how effective the new production agreement will be in re-balancing the oil market. The next meeting of the Vienna Agreement countries takes place in April, and we hope that the intervening period is less volatile than has recently been the case.

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