5 factors affecting oil prices right now

1. Unplanned supply outages, particularly in Africa are likely to continue to support Brent crude prices during 2014. Morgan Stanley sees supply outages remaining in the range of 1.5-2 million b/d with Libya likely to account for around 1 million b/d. As we discussed in an earlier article this is likely to be an underestimate as complex oil fields located in increasingly unstable countries means the probability of disruption is likely to rise. Analysts were increasingly optimistic about Libyan oil output as rebels started to return occupied crude export terminals to the government. However signs of a split in the government led by a rogue general point to further turmoil in the OPEC oil exporter. Meanwhile discontent in Nigeria stirred by oil wealth inequality and Islamic militants could well lead to further oil outages and an increased risk premium for companies operating in the region.

2. Although tensions between Ukraine and Russia appear to have eased for now, or at least Putin is making a tactical retreat ready for his next move, the prospect of further unrest in the region and sanctions against Russian oil companies is likely to remain a risk for oil prices. The next key dates are 25 May, when elections take place in Ukraine and then 3 June, the date Gazprom has said it may halt natural gas shipments to Ukraine unless the country pays in advance for its supplies.

3. The Chinese appear to have been aggressively filling their strategic oil stockpiles since the start of 2014. One reason they may have brought their stockpiling forward is in case of any disruption due to unrest between Ukraine and Russia. Although China’s record imports of 6.78 million b/d in April give the impression that oil demand is roaring ahead in reality some 360 thousand b/d has gone into stockpiles – totaling 43.5 million barrels so far this year. Barclay’s estimates that China may fill an additional 15 million barrels during 2014. According to Deutsche Bank the Chinese are dipping into the market whenever Brent falls near £105 per barrel.  Although the Chinese are likely to keep on buying later in the year the level of support is unlikely to be as strong as in the past five months.

4. US crude stockpiles are near 400 million barrels, the highest level since the Energy Information Administration began publishing weekly data in 1982. This is likely to be as high as it gets though in 2014. As the US heads into the summer driving season however demand from refineries is likely to start picking up calling on crude stockpiles and leading to higher oil prices during the second and third quarter (see article on seasonal crude price patterns).

5. Stronger global economic growth means oil demand is likely to grow strongly in 2014. According to the IEA OPEC will need to hike production by 900 thousand b/d in the third quarter from April levels in order to balance the increase in demand. While OPEC producers can potentially do this the ongoing issue of unplanned outages may prevent this increase in output being achieved (see point 1).

Oil supply outages are becoming more common and difficult to predict

Higher US oil output over the past few years has not led to lower oil prices in part due to a rise in unplanned oil supply outages negating the impact of higher US output while also adding a risk premium to prices. Unplanned oil outages have become increasingly common, averaging 1-2 million b/d over the past few years. The reason for the escalation in disruption is multifaceted. Global oil production is concentrated in a few key regions with many of the countries involved scoring badly on the ease of doing business, meanwhile the growing cost and complexity of oil fields and overall tighter global supply has left less room for error increasing the odds of disruption. Supply outages have focused on North Africa, in particular Libya and this region is likely to be the focus of future disruptions.
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Despite oil supply outages becoming increasingly common, they are also difficult to predict. Analysis from Morgan Stanley forecasts oil supply outages to remain around 1.5 million b/d for the rest for 2014 with Libya accounting for approximately 1 million b/d. This may well be an underestimate. According to research from Maplecroft since 2013 levels of conflict and political violence have jumped significantly in 48 countries as a consequence of popular revolutions and regime change, many of which are major oil producers (see map below). Of particular concern is now Nigeria, which produces around 2 million b/d.

The country is rated as ‘extreme risk’ in the CPVI for the fifth year running, due to persistent insecurity, including increasing risks of kidnapping and piracy. Violence in the country creates significant challenges for companies in terms of ensuring the safety of employees and facilities, as well as increasing their insurance and security costs. While the Islamist terror threat is likely to remain largely focused on the north-east, the Abuja bus station attack in April 2014, which left at least 75 people dead, demonstrates the ability of Boko Haram to carry out isolated attacks in the central or southern regions of the country.

The Niger Delta, home to the bulk of Nigeria’s oil resources, was thrust on to the world stage seven years ago when the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) carried out a series of attacks on oil companies significantly cutting oil production and disrupting global oil prices. MEND, like Boko Haram, taps into a deep sense of grievance in the Delta over the region’s failure to benefit from the steady flow of petrodollars. Although Boko Haram don’t have any oil of their own their rise is symptomatic of trends occurring across North Africa with al-Qaeda tapping into the discontent to recruit militants. This discontent is likely to lead to an increased risk premium for oil companies operating in the region and a greater chance of disruption to oil supplies.

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Related article: Oil prices caught in a vice

Are agricultural commodities underestimating the risk from El Nino?

Agricultural markets have not priced in the risk that supply will be disrupted by the appearance of an El Nino this year. That’s the view of Barclay’s who calculate that markets are only pricing in a 20% chance of a strong El Nino compared with estimates from meteorologists nearer 60%-70%.

Based on the past six El Nino events since 1986 agricultural commodities (otherwise known as ‘soft’s’) tend to rise in price by 10%-40% on average. According to the bank sugar and coffee prices rose the most as production is concentrated in areas where El Ninos have the most impact – Southeast Asia, India and South America. Palm oil is also identified as being vulnerable, being based in Southeast Asia and rising by an average of 32% over the past three El Nino episodes. Finally wheat is also said to be vulnerable since Australia as a major wheat producer is also affected by El Nino’s.

So why are soft commodity markets underestimating the risk from El Nino? Part of the reason is that all of the commodities mentioned have already seen sharp increases since the start of the year. Drought has affected coffee and sugar prices in Brazil and similarly for palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia while cold weather in the US and geopolitical concerns in Ukraine have buoyed wheat prices. Another factor is that global grain stocks are forecast to remain at comfortable levels during 2014/15. According to the FAO the stocks to use ratio will drop to 22.7% in 2014/15, down from 23.3% in 2013/14 but still comfortable by historical standards.

Related article: The commodity most affected by El Niño is…Nickel

Meteorologists may of course be overestimating the probability of El Nino occurring. The Southern Oscillation Index as its known gives an indication of the development and intensity of El Nino or La Nina events in the Pacific Ocean. Recently the index has swung away from signalling El Nino and towards La Nina (which can also affect commodity markets but more on that another time).

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