Oil Market Report: Heeding the warnings
14 November 2018
In last month’s Report, we noted that since the middle of the year oil supply had increased sharply, with gains in the Middle East, Russia and the United States more than compensating for falls in production in Iran, Venezuela and elsewhere. New data show that the pace has accelerated, and this higher output, in combination with Iranian sanctions waivers issued by the US and steady demand growth, implies a stock build in 4Q18 of 0.7 mb/d. Already, OECD stocks have increased for four months in a row, with products back above the five-year average. In 1H19, based on our outlook for non-OPEC production and global demand, and assuming flat OPEC production (i.e. losses from Iran/Venezuela are offset by others), the implied stock build is currently 2 mb/d.
In the August edition of this Report we described the replacement of Iranian and Venezuelan barrels as “challenging”, and that there was a danger of prices rising too high too fast. Producers have heeded the warnings and more than met the challenge and today, the Big Three, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States, all see output at record levels. Total non-OPEC production in August, the latest month for which we have consolidated data, was 3.5 mb/d higher than a year ago, with the United States contributing an extraordinary 3.0 mb/d. Russia’s crude output has hit a new record of 11.4 mb/d, with companies suggesting that they could produce even more.
In early October, the price of Brent crude oil reached a four-year high above $86/bbl, reflecting the legitimate fears of market tightness. In our view, this was a dangerous “red zone” and it justified calls for producers to raise output. Today, the price has fallen to a more reasonable level close to $70/bbl, well below where it was in May before the US announced its change of policy on Iran. Lower prices are clearly a benefit to consumers, especially hard-pressed ones in developing countries that are suffering from the additional handicap of weak national currencies. For now, forecasts of oil demand growth remain solid with an increase of 1.3 mb/d this year and an increase to 1.4 mb/d in 2019, even though the macro-economic outlook is uncertain.
We should also recognise the interests of the producers. For many countries, even though their output might have increased, prices falling too far are unwelcome. Ministers from the Vienna Agreement countries will meet in early December, but we have already seen suggestions from leading producers that supply could be cut soon if customers, seeing ample supply, rising stocks, and slumping refining margins, request lower volumes.
Although the oil market appears to be more relaxed than it was a few weeks ago, and there might be a sense of “mission accomplished” that producers have met the challenge of replacing lost barrels, such is the volatility of events that rising stocks should be welcomed as a form of insurance, rather than a threat. The United States remains committed to reducing Iranian oil exports to zero from the 1.8 mb/d seen today; there are concerns as to the stability of production in Libya, Nigeria and Venezuela; and the tanker collision last week in Norwegian waters, although modest in impact, is another reminder of the vulnerability of the system to accidents.
The response to the call by the IEA and others to increase production is a reminder that the oil industry works best when it works together. Regular contacts between key players are essential in creating understanding, and even though oil diplomacy has succeeded so far this year, it needs to be maintained to ensure market stability.