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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China’s grain hoarding surge creating artificial scarcity in global food markets

The artificial scarcity that China has created in global agricultural commodity markets is going to become more extreme over the next ten years. This ‘hamster like’ behavior as the excellent Dim Sums blog describes it is distorting global agricultural markets, sending inaccurate pricing signals and undermining global food security.

China’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) has just released its first ten-year projections of Chinese commodity supply, demand and stock levels. CAAS projects that carry-in stocks of wheat, rice and corn will rise from 217 Mt in 2014 before plateauing at 300 Mt from 2019 to 2023. Note that although Chinese grain stocks have long been kept secret they are thought to be a good approximation.

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CAAS expects wheat stocks to rise from an excessive 80% of consumption in 2014 to 97% in 2023. Rice stocks are expected to rise from a mere 46% of consumption in 2014 to 70% in 2023. Corn stocks-to-use is expected to rise from 30% to 40% between 2014 and 2018 before falling back to 30% in 2023. Finally cotton stocks are likely to close to 130% of consumption through to 2015 before gradually beginning to slide down to 70 percent by 2023 (the decline due to reform of the current cotton price support policy).

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Why does China need to hoard so much? China views the financial support of its 700 million farmers as crucial for both its food supply and political stability, previously stating that poor logistics and environmental vulnerability necessitate stockpiling of agricultural commodities. Although as investment continues to go into building infrastructure (roads, railways etc), the less this argument carries weight.

Despite protestations by the Chinese leadership at the recent Plenum that they would let the market play a more “decisive” role in resource allocation it seems that the status-quo is set to continue, it is likely to be several years yet before Beijing risks deviating from its current support program for strategic food crops.

Related article: Chinese stockbuilding of strategic ags unlikely to end soon