Physical oil and futures align to tell story of a tighter market

New marine fuel regulations from 2020 are encouraging refiners to switch to crude grades that produce smaller quantities of high-sulfur fuel oil. (AFP)
Updated 23 November 2019

Physical oil and futures align to tell story of a tighter market

  • Premiums for heavier grades continue to rally because of the continuing US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela

LONDON: The physical crude oil market and the structure of the oil futures curve have rarely been more aligned over the past few years than in recent weeks, and they tell a counter-intuitive story of a tight oil market next year. 

While OPEC and the International Energy Agency point to a swelling oil glut next year due to booming non-OPEC supplies including in the US, the physical market offers a different story. Traders are prepared to pay near-record premiums for sweeter barrels as new marine fuel regulations from 2020 encourage refiners to switch to crude grades that produce smaller quantities of high-sulfur fuel oil. 

However, premiums for heavier grades, which produce more fuel oil, also continue to rally due to a deficit created by US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. In addition, the structure of the oil futures market shows that premiums of front months to later dates – known as backwardation – have narrowed in recent weeks, also suggesting the market’s expectations of a glut are diminishing somewhat. 

To be sure, benchmark oil futures do not necessarily follow the physical market and could still decline next year if global oil demand falls because of the US-China trade dispute or if US oil output surprises again on the upside. Soaring physical crude prices are also negatively impacting refining margins, often prompting refiners to cut processing. New marine fuel rules have created a rally in certain crude oil grades. 

From January 2020, the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) will ban ships from using fuels with a sulfur content above 0.5 percent, compared with 3.5 percent now, unless they have sulfur-cleaning kits called scrubbers. 

Nigeria’s biggest crude stream, Qua Iboe, is valued at a premium of $3.30 a barrel, the highest since 2013, Refinitiv Eikon data shows. Azeri Light, or BTC, has a premium of $5.10 to the benchmark, its highest since 2013. 

Both crudes are valued especially highly by simple refineries as they are ideal for producing IMO-compliant bunker fuel oil, said Eugene Lindell, an analyst at JBC Energy in Vienna. “The focus now is on not producing high-sulfur fuel oil at all costs. If you are a simple refinery, it comes down to choosing the right crude,” he said. “The end result is a lot of people are going to be seeking these grades and that boosts the price. They will remain strong and may increase further.” 

While the rally in those two light, sweet grades stands out, sour crudes such as Russian Urals have been supported by other factors. Urals in northwest Europe is trading at a premium of $1 a barrel to dated Brent, a record high. “The strength in sour crudes, despite IMO 2020, is due to the loss of sour crude supplies from Venezuela and Iran and high demand for heavy molecules to feed the conversion units of more complex refineries,” analysts at Energy Aspects wrote. 

US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela have forced the two OPEC members to cut oil exports sharply, tightening the market for sour crude. Voluntary OPEC cuts due to a supply pact that producers are expected to renew in December have also curbed output. Expectations of a growth slowdown in US shale could also tighten the market further. North Sea crude grades, which underpin the Brent futures contract, are also rallying. Ekofisk, one of the five grades that can set the value of dated Brent, jumped to its highest since 2013 on Tuesday.

The rally in physical crude is being reflected in strengthening time spreads in the Brent futures market, even though the outright price at $62 a barrel is well below this year’s high of $75. The first-month Brent contract is trading at a premium to the second month, indicating current tight supply. 

Backwardation persists for future months, although it becomes shallower next year. 

“We expect Brent oil prices to continue trading around our $60-a-barrel forecast with backwardation likely to persist as the ongoing OPEC cuts and slowing shale activity offset rising other non-OPEC supply and moderate demand growth,” Goldman Sachs said in a report this month.


Berlin’s ill-fated new airport finally ready for take-off

Updated 28 October 2020

Berlin’s ill-fated new airport finally ready for take-off

  • The airport, located in the south-east of the capital, was originally due to open in 2011
  • BER initially projected to cost $2 billion but already was past the $7.6 billion mark

BERLIN: Nine years late and eye-wateringly over budget, the Berlin region’s new international airport will finally open on Saturday — in the middle of a global pandemic that has crippled air travel.
“We are ready for take-off!” insists the management team at the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER), set to replace the German capital’s aging Tegel and Schoenefeld airports.
But the mood is one of relief rather than celebration.
Ever since construction began on BER in 2006, the project has been dogged by one failure after another, becoming a financial black hole and a national laughing stock — not exactly an example of German efficiency.
The airport, located in the south-east of the capital, was originally due to open in 2011.
Now it is opening its doors in the middle of the worst crisis the aviation industry has ever seen, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to suffocate air travel.
And as if that were not enough, there’s also the climate crisis: pressure group Extinction Rebellion is planning acts of “civil disobedience” on the opening day to protest against the impact of aviation on global warming.
Against that backdrop, “We will simply open, we will not have a party,” according to Engelbert Luetke Daldrup, president of the airport’s management company.
Lufthansa and EasyJet will be the first two airlines to touch down on the tarmac of what will be Germany’s third-largest airport, after Frankfurt and Munich.
A few days before the opening, around 200 staff were busy disinfecting the 360,000-square-meter Terminal 1.
Some 100 alcoholic hand gel dispensers have been installed and robot vacuum cleaners hum over the floors.
The “Magic Carpet,” a huge, bright red artwork by American artist Pae White suspended from the ceiling, brings a touch of color to the check-in hall.
The airport has been designed to welcome 27 million passengers a year, but in November it will see only 20 percent of usual air traffic thanks to the pandemic.
Terminal 2 won’t open until spring 2021.
About 15 shops and restaurants out of just over 100 will remain shut, while the rest will be forced to keep “limited opening hours” because of low traffic through the airport, a spokesman said
None of this good news for BER, initially projected to cost $2 billion but already past the $7.6 billion.
The airport has been granted $353 billion in state aid to help safeguard the jobs of the 20,000 people who will eventually work there until the end of 2020.
The health crisis is already having an impact on employment at the hub: at the end of July, Berlin’s airports announced the loss of 400 jobs out of a total of 2,100.
EasyJet has said it will cut 418 jobs in the German capital, and Europe’s leading airline Lufthansa, Germany’s flagship carrier, is to shed 30,000 jobs worldwide.
“We fear even greater job losses in the future,” a spokesman for the Verdi union said.
Luetke Daldrup hopes the situation will improve “from the spring onwards.” But the International Air Transport Association does not expect global air traffic to reach pre-crisis levels until 2024.
In the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, local leaders remain optimistic about the prospects for development.
“No hotel has so far postponed its investment plans because of the pandemic,” insists Olaf Luecke, president of the local branch of Germany’s hotel and catering trade union (DEHOGA).
Construction work began in September on two 14,000-square-meter (150,000-square-foot) hotel complexes, due to open in 2022.
And in anticipation of the opening of BER, US electric-car giant Tesla has chosen Brandenburg as the location of its first European factory, which is set to employ 40,000 people.
“Having new, modern infrastructure will be beneficial in any case, despite the pandemic,” according to Carsten Broenstrup of the state employers’ association.
But “if there is not a vaccine soon, it will be a very big problem,” he admits.