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.


SABIC posts net profit of SR1.09 billion in third quarter

Updated 25 October 2020

SABIC posts net profit of SR1.09 billion in third quarter

  • SABIC’s ongoing fight to help the world overcome the pandemic continued playing a central role this quarter as part of the company’s global CSR program

RIYADH: Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC) on Sunday reported a 19 percent increase in its third quarter earnings as compared to the previous quarter.

The company’s revenue for the third quarter of the current fiscal year reached SR29.3 billion ($7.81 billion). SABIC recorded a net profit of SR1.09 billion.

Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) at SR5.67 billion also represented a 62 percent increase quarter over quarter and a 26 percent decrease as compared to Q3 of the previous year.

Income from operations amounted to SR2.1 billion, which was reportedly higher than the loss from operations of SR1.26 billion in the previous quarter and lower than the profit from operations in the third quarter of 2019.

However, the revenues plunged by 11 percent year-on-year due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Yousef Al-Banyan, SABIC vice chairman and CEO, said: “The third quarter of 2020 benefited from an improvement in economic activity and an increase in oil price, which translated into higher product prices. During this time, the strength of our global supply chain continued to allow us to meet the challenges facing the global economy, while our business and operational performance continued to demonstrate resilience. This reflected in higher sales volumes and improved margins in the third quarter of 2020.”

He said faced with the pandemic, the whole world had to adapt to a "new normal."

“We recognize the important role that the chemical industry plays in the recovery of the global economy and our role within that. As the road to recovery continues, we will remain focused on protecting the health and welfare of our employees, supporting the business requirements of our customers, and collaborating with governments and health authorities around the world,” the CEO said.

The third quarter also saw SABIC commence the implementation phase of its alignment as the chemical arm of Saudi Aramco, positioning it well to achieve long-term growth and to create and deliver value for its stakeholders.

Al Benyan said: “The portfolios of SABIC and Saudi Aramco complement one another, and we are both global organizations with a deep understanding of the worldwide marketplace. Together, we have embarked on a new journey based on shared values. We share the responsibility of defining the path of both companies and realize the vital importance of creating and delivering value for our shareholders.”

The reporting period witnessed numerous examples of SABIC’s ongoing collaboration with its partners to deliver sustainable solutions.

In September, Aramco, SABIC and the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, demonstrated the successful production of blue ammonia and the world’s first shipment of the product from Saudi Arabia to Japan. Another major milestone was reached through a groundbreaking initiative with Spanish energy leader Iberdrola to transform its polycarbonate facility in Cartagena, Spain, into the world’s first large-scale chemical production site to run entirely on renewable power.

During the same month, SABIC partnered with a leading UK supermarket chain, Tesco, to conduct a trial proving that soft plastic — that would typically go to waste — can be recycled multiple times into new food grade plastic as part of a closed loop recycling system.

SABIC’s ongoing fight to help the world overcome the pandemic continued playing a central role this quarter as part of the company’s global CSR program. To date, the company has delivered 191 global programs in 22 countries, aimed at reaching over 32 million beneficiaries.

In Saudi Arabia, SABIC’s NUSANED initiative has supported local industry development and SABIC’s localization agenda. It also signed a SR37 million JV deal to manufacture sustainable wood plastic composites.