Whats Behind the Crash in Crude Oil?
Is it enough to point the finger of blame for the latest crash in crude oil on the arrival of global warming? Unusually warm weather in Russia, Europe, and the United States, with temperatures reaching the upper 60's in New York's financial district, weakened global demand for heating oil by 23% below normal last week, and a 30% drop in heating oil demand is also expected in the days ahead.
Quite often, markets seem designed to fool most people most of the time. Global economic growth and oil demand growth are usually linked, so given expectations for global GDP growth of 4.4% in 2007, it's logical to expect global demand for crude oil to increase by at least 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) this year. However, that would fall short of 1.8 million bpd of new oil supplies that OPEC expects to come on stream from Angola, Brazil, Canada, Kazakhstan, and Russia this year.
Non-OPEC oil output rose to 51.7 million barrels in the fourth quarter, or 3% higher than a year earlier. OPEC-10 said it would address the net increase in global oil supply in 2007, by lowering its oil output by 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) to 26.3 million bpd in November, and then lower oil output again in February by an additional 500,000 bpd to 25.8 mil bpd. "OPEC's reduction of 500,000 bpd has been scheduled to come into effect during the winter demand period, while addressing looming market imbalances for 2007," the cartel said on December 14th.
On January 5th, US crude oil prices had already plunged 10% over three days and touched a low of $55 per barrel, on news available to insiders, but not yet known by the public at large. OPEC was cheating on its pledge to cut its oil production to 26.3 million bpd in December. Instead, the cartel pumped 27 million bpd or 700,000 bpd above it's agreed upon quotas.
Ironically, the two biggest cheaters in OPEC were the two most vociferous price hawks, Iran and Venezuela. After pledging to cut its oil output by 176,000 bpd in December, Tehran left its oil output unchanged at 3.83 million bpd, while Caracas actually increased its oil output by 20,000 bpd last month, after pledging to reduce output by 138,000 bpd. Riyadh cheated by 80,000 bpd last month. It's hard to believe OPEC will meet its pledge to cut oil output by 500,000 bpd in February, when the December agreements have not been fully kept.
However, the sudden plunge in crude oil prices to $55 per barrel, was all the more puzzling, when one considers that US commercial oil stocks had fallen from 341.1 million barrels on November 17th, to as low as 319.7 million barrel last week. The sharp drop in US oil supplies suggested that OPEC was honoring its pledge to cut output 4.3% in November, and to defend US oil prices at $60 per barrel.
While the media focused on the balmy weather to explain the sudden 10% plunge of crude oil to as low as $55 /barrel on January 5th, what initially triggered the drop was a surprise move by Saudi Arabia to slash the price of Arabian Light, its finest blend, by $1.75 /barrel to a $7.50 /barrel discount to West Texas Sweet, for its US customers, the deepest discount in 10-months.
Saudi Arabia also cut the price of Arab Light to Asian buyers by a more modest 10 cents and to European buyers by 20 cents from January. About half of the Saudi kingdom's 7 million bpd of crude exports move to Asia. But why did Riyadh to decide to tip the delicate balance between fear and greed in the oil markets to the bearish camp, by slashing its US oil price by $1.75 /barrel on Jan 2nd?
Persian Gulf oil ministers have carefully avoided mentioning a target price for their oil, but Kuwaiti Energy Ministry Undersecretary Issa al-Oun said on Nov 14th, "The Gulf Cooperation Council states see oil prices between $55 and $60 a barrel as an acceptable level, but if they start to decline then there should be action." What is not known is whether al-Qun was referring to OPEC's reference crude basket price, which closed at $51.25 on Friday, or West Texas Sweet which trades at a higher price.
Russian Bear Shuns OPEC, Pumps record barrels of Oil
So far, Russian kingpin Vladimir Putin hasn't joined the OPEC cartel in cutting oil production, and instead, is pumping oil at full speed. Putin's lack of cooperation on oil production is creating bitterness within the ranks of OPEC, and might explain why most members of the cartel are cheating on their quotas. Oil production in Russia increased 2.1% year-on-year to a near record 9.75 million bpd in December.
The last time Russia cooperated with OPEC to shore up oil prices was in December 2001, when US crude oil prices were trading at $18 per barrel. At that time, Moscow cut its output by 150,000 bpd, Mexico cut 100,000 bpd, Norway cut 200,000 bpd, and Oman cut its output by 40,000 bpd. OPEC slashed its output by a hefty 1.4 million bpd. So far, there is no such joint initiative on the table for 2007.
Largely due to booming crude oil and base metal prices, Russia's foreign trade surplus rose to $140.1 billion in the first ten months of 2006 from $117.2 billion in the same period a year ago. Oil accounted for 35.2% of Russia's exports in the first 10 months of 2006. Russia also derives 15% of its export revenues from metals, such as iron and steel exports which earned $22.5 billion, and non-ferrous metal exports of $16.5 billion in 2006. Russia is the world's fourth-largest steel maker, and the world's top nickel and second-largest aluminum producer.
In Rotterdam, Russian Urals crude oil fell below $50 per barrel for the first time in eighteen months, and should slow the Kremlin's massive build-up of foreign currency reserves, which hit a record $299.2 billion in December. Russia has the world's largest foreign reserves outside of Asia, and its holdings have grown by more than 50% from a year ago on the back of higher base metal, gold, and crude oil prices. Earlier this year Russia said the share of US dollars in its FX reserves had been cut to 50% and that of Euros increased to 40%, with the rest in yen and sterling.
Booming exports helped Russia's economy expand by 7.3% in November from a year earlier, and 6.8% higher over the first 11 months of 2006. To fuel its booming economy, Moscow is diverting more of its oil production to meet domestic needs and exporting less outside of the CIS. Oil exports to countries outside the CIS fell to 4.16 million bpd in December, or 12% below the peak in June of 4.76 mil bpd.
With Russian oil exports outside the CIS declining for the past six months, the recent growth of Russia's FX reserves is mainly linked to the appreciation of the Euro against the weakening dollar, said Russia's central bank deputy Chairman Alexei Ulyukayev on Nov 30th. In October, Ulyukayev said the central bank had started to buy Japanese yen for its reserves, and also mentioned the Australian and Canadian dollars and the Swiss franc as possible candidates for future purchase.
Russia's oil pipeline monopoly Transneft handles around 1.5 million barrels per day or a third of Russia's exports, but was losing money due to the appreciation of the rouble against the dollar. But on Dec 1st, Moscow approved a request by Transneft to allow it to switch to roubles from US dollars when charging shipping fees toward Russia's largest oil port of Primorsk and loading fees in the port.
Asian Oil Demand Stays Strong
Despite cheating by OPEC and record high Russian oil output, strong oil demand from Asia is expected to put a floor under crude prices at some point. Asia imports about two-thirds of its 24 million bpd crude oil needs, most of that from the Middle East. China surpassed Japan in 2004 as the world's second-largest oil consumer after the United States. China consumed 7.4 mil bpd of oil last month, compared to US demand of 20.7 mil bpd, which was 25% of global oil demand.
China imports 48% of its crude oil, a figure that is on the rise as domestic production stagnates and a booming economy fuels demand. On Dec 12th, the Energy Info Agency left its forecast for Chinese oil demand growth in 2007 unchanged at 500,000 barrels per day to 7.9 million bpd. US oil demand is expected to grow by 250,000 bpd to 20.9 mil bpd, with total world demand estimated at 86.5 mil bpd.
"Oil demand should be in part driven by the number of automobiles in emerging Asia surging from 60 million to more than 400 million by 2030," predicted ExxonMobil chairman Raymond on Nov 4, 2004. "Natural gas demand in the Asian region will grow even more quickly, tripling in the next 25 years, in line with power consumption." Raymond cited an estimate by the IEA that said China would rely on imports for 80% of its oil and about 30% of its natural gas in 2030.
Saudi Arabia Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi made similar remarks on Sept 12th, 2006. "Over the past three decades, the developing countries of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America have accounted for half of the increase in global oil demand, and are expected to account for 75% of the 30 million barrels per day projected increase in world oil demand by 2025. "The transportation sector is forecast to account for 60% of oil use due to the increase in vehicle ownership worldwide, which will grow from 135 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants today to 190 vehicles by 2025," Naimi predicted.
China's crude oil imports soared by 16% or nearly 400,000 bpd last year to 2.9 million bpd, up from 2005's tepid 3% rise. Liang Shuhe, director with the Chinese Foreign Trade Department said that China's demand for crude oil would total about 290 million tons in 2006, of which 48% were imports. The fast growth of the economy forced China to depend more on imports because of the limited domestic production, and the steady increase in imports is likely to continue.
On the supply side, Asia is unlikely to pump more than 100,000 bpd of new crude from a handful of fields, focusing instead its attention on Angola, which became China's biggest supplier last year and is due to become OPEC's 12th member this year. Some 350,000 bpd of new Angolan crude is expected on stream in 2007.
Beijing's plans for its strategic oil stocks, whose capacity will reach 100 million barrels by 2008, will present more volatility for oil markets. The 33 million-barrel tank farm in Ningbo has been filled to at least one-third capacity with Russian and Middle East crude. The 30% fall in oil prices to $56 /bl might spur China into action.
Global Oil Company shares Rattled by Crude Oil plunge
Traders in Oil company shares were completely blindsided by the 3-day rout in crude oil prices to $55 per barrel. The Amex Oil Index (XOI), which contains 12 global energy companies including British Petroleum, BP.N Chevron, CVX.N Exxon Mobil, XOM.N, Sunoco, SUN.N, and Total, TOT.N, had been climbing alongside a rising S&P 500 index in the fourth quarter, while betting that crude oil prices would stabilize between $60 and $64 per barrel, and would no longer pose a threat to profits.
The distortions of the global liquidity glut that pushed the S&P 500 to a 5 ½-year high had also pushed XOI far out of alignment with the price of crude oil, which was trading $15 per barrel below its peak of $76 /bl in August. The fourth quarter rally in the XOI index began on October 3rd just hours after Kuwait oil minister al-Sabah said OPEC would defend oil prices with supply cutbacks.
Interestingly enough, the XOI index topped out on Dec 14th, exactly the same day that OPEC pledged to lower its oil output by 500,000 bpd to 25.8 mil bpd in February. Since that day, the XOI index has tumbled by 8.5 percent. The latest slide in crude oil from a high of $64.15 /bl began six days later on Dec 20th.
If the latest plunge in crude oil to roughly $56 /bl is sustained over the year, Exxon Mobil would lose nearly $3 billion in profits, or $540 million for every dollar off the price of oil per barrel. Chevron and ConocoPhillips, the second and third-largest US oil companies, would lose about $330 million and $200 million respectively, for every dollar off the price of crude oil per barrel per year.
Gold Rattled by Plunge in Crude Oil, Slumping Euro
Gold was held hostage to movements in crude oil for most of 2006, until the fourth quarter, when it was able to shake-off the yoke of "black gold." But much like traders in the XOI, gold traders were operating in Q'4 under the assumption that OPEC would work its magic, be true to its word, and act to stabilize the price of crude oil in the $58 to $64 /barrel zone, or an average of around $61 per barrel.
With a stabilized crude oil market in the background, gold traders were free to focus on the plight of the deficit ridden US dollar, speculative fever in China for gold and red-chip stocks, and central bank diversification out of the US dollar, and into other currencies, including gold. The yellow metal had managed to climb to as high at 11.25 barrels of crude oil per ounce of gold last week, from 8.5 barrels in August.
But the sudden and unexpected plunge in crude oil and other base metals, took its toll on gold and silver last week, tumbling to their lowest levels in more than two months as schizophrenic hedge funds bailed out of precious metals after the dollar surged on a doctored US jobs report. Spot gold fell as low as $602.45 an ounce, the lowest since, after rising as high as $626.00 earlier in the day.
Gold formed a "double-top" at 11.25 barrels of crude oil last week, which partly explains why gold fell $19 per ounce and crude oil simultaneously rallied $1.30 /barrel above its low of the day on Jan 5th. Computerized commodity traders were un-winding long gold /short crude oil spreads. Still, if Saudi Arabia is signaling a new floor for US oil prices at $55 per barrel, instead of $60 per barrel as previously assumed, then headline inflation numbers in G-7 countries would start to move lower in the months ahead, and dampen speculative demand for gold and silver.
Adding to gold's woes, the Euro did an abrupt U-turn and fell to the psychological $1.30 level, where bargain hunters emerged. US Labor apparatchniks said on Jan 5th, the US economy created 167,000 new jobs in December, and revised previous figures upwards by 29,000 jobs. That allows the Federal Reserve to avoid rate cuts for the first quarter of 2007, and delays a speculative attack against the dollar.
Still, the Euro is underpinned by expectations of a quarter-point ECB repo rate hike to 3.75% in February, to counter explosive Euro M3 money supply growth. "Data on money supply and loans to the non-financial sector in the Euro zone show that there is a lot of liquidity in the system and that there is a potential danger of pressure on price growth," said Slovenian central banker Mitja Gaspari on Dec 29th.
The Euro also gets support from some unsavory characters. Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, "is calculating and receiving oil revenues based on Euros for the 2007 budget," said government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham on Dec 18th. Most international banks have already stopped US dollar transactions with the Islamic Republic of Iran because of pressure from Washington.
Banco Central de Venezuela has slashed the percentage of its $35.9 billion worth of reserves invested in US dollars to 80% from 95% a year ago, said Domingo Maza Zavala, a member at the central bank. Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil supplier, has boosted its Euro holdings to 15%, from less than 5% in the same period. "The US dollar has suffered a long process of deterioration. The diversification strategy started this year," Zavala said on Dec 18th.
Traders Unwind "Yen Carry" Trade in Gold
In an age of near universal cynicism on the part of traders and citizens towards government statistics on inflation, it's entirely natural for official government inflation data to be widely at odds with the reality faced by consumers and businesses, and regarded with utter disbelief. Yet it's hard for even the most strident of gold bugs to admit that the recent sharp drop in crude oil and other commodities won't put a damper on inflationary expectations.
Nowhere on Earth is there more deep disbelief and skepticism about inflation data than in Japan, especially after Tokyo's financial warlords rigged the core CPI components last August, and shaved 0.4% off the core inflation data with the stroke of a pen. That slick maneuver handcuffed the Bank of Japan from raising its overnight loan rate to 0.50% for the past four months. Tokyo was able to buy more time to keep the Nikkei-225 index afloat with a cheap yen policy, but Tokyo gold prices were also climbing to near record highs of 77,000-yen /oz last week.
However, Tokyo's financial warlords might finally be relenting to a BoJ rate hike to 0.50% on January 18th, according the local newspapers. That triggered a sharp downward reversal for Tokyo gold, forming what Japanese candlestick traders call a "Bearish Engulfing" pattern, and signaling an interim top for gold. The Japanese yen 6-month Libor rate jumped 11 basis points to 0.57%, its highest in five years and briefly lifted the yen against the Australian dollar, the Euro, and Korean won.
On January 5th, Japanese Finance Minister Koji Omi said the ruling LDP party wants the BoJ to support the economy through monetary policy, "But there is no change in our stance to leave it up to the BOJ to decide whether it should raise interest rates or not." Later Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said "What's important is for us not to be distracted by current foreign exchange rates, but to raise productivity."
"When we say we do not give markets any surprises, that doesn't mean we are dependent on markets," warned BoJ member Kiyohiko Nishimura on Dec 6th. "It's not true that we cannot act unless the views of the market and the BOJ match. If necessary, we could act in a way that is different from the market's view." Whether a BoJ rate hike can put a lid on Tokyo gold remains to be seen, since Japan's interest rates would remain the cheapest on earth and negative when adjusted for inflation.
London "Sunday Times" says Israel plans to attack Iran
Crude oil briefly bounced $1.25 cents to $57.75 / barrel following an article in the "Sunday Times" of London, indicating that Israel has drawn up plans to destroy Iranian uranium enrichment facilities with a tactical nuclear strike. The Times said "Israelis have become increasingly convinced that a "second holocaust" of the Jews is brewing, stoked by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president and chief Holocaust denier, who has repeatedly called for Israel to be destroyed."
But speculation of a future war between Israel and Iran is baseless. That's the majority opinion of Tel-Aviv traders and the crude oil markets these days. The Tel-Aviv-100 stock index rose to a record high of 945.5 last week, up 15% from a year earlier, close behind the MSCI Emerging market index which gained 19 percent. Israel's economy expanded by a healthy 5% last year, losing 0.9% of growth due to $3.4 billion of damages from the summer war with Hizbollah.
The earliest clue of an impending war between Israel and Iran can be found in the Israeli shekel exchange rate. Yet the shekel gained 10% against the US dollar to a 5-½ year high in 2006. The Bank of Israel lowered its overnight loan rate by 100 basis points to 4.50%, or 75 basis points below the US fed funds rate, in order to rescue the dollar. Nearly $20 billion of foreign direct investment flowed into Israel last year, bolstering the shekel, led by a $4.5 billion investment from Warren Buffet.
Israel cannot play Russian roulette and attack Iran, because its nuclear facilities are inhabited by Russian technicians, and Israel imports 60% of its oil from Russia. Because Israel has limited fossil fuels, its energy supply from Russia is of extreme importance for the functioning of its economy. Therefore, Ahmadinejad holds the trump card, while his chief ally, Russian kingpin Vladimir Putin controls most of Israel's oil supply, and can bring the Israeli economy to its knees.
Tehran is rewarding Moscow with a contract for LUKOIL, to give it a role in producing oil from Azadegan, one of the largest unexploited oil fields in the world. "LUKOIL has carried out some exploration at Azadegan and, according to a contract that will be signed in the future, Iran will allow the Russian party to participate in recovering oil in Azadegan directly," said Russia's Atomic Energy Agency chief, Sergei Kiriyenko.
"Russia sees no political obstacles to putting the Bushehr nuclear power plant into operation as scheduled. It is Russia's position that Iran has the right to civilian nuclear energy, in compliance with non-proliferation regulations," Kiriyenko said on Dec 12th. Russian Deputy Industry and Energy Minister Ivan Matyorov said Iran has also offered to cooperate with Russian oil and gas companies in exploring for new deposits, both on its own territory and in other countries.
"Iranians believe that Gazprom in particular is an effective world leader, and they would like to cooperate with it. Specifically, Iranian companies have extended their presence in Venezuela and Bolivia in this domain, and they would like to cooperate with Gazprom in these regions as well," Matyorov said. He said Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft could soon start developing deposits in Iran.
Ahmadinejad holds another trump card over Israel. Some 12% of China's crude imports come from Iran. On Dec 20th, Iran and China's CNOOC, CEO.N, 0883.HK signed a $16 billion deal to develop Iran's northern Pars gas field and build plants to produce liquified natural gas. CNOOC would have a 50% share of the produced LNG. Sinopec 0386.HK, SHI.N, is negotiating with Tehran to develop the giant Yadavaran oil field and to buy 10 million tons of natural gas per year for 25 years.
Why is Iran cheating on its pledge to OPEC?
Iran is home to approximately 10% of the world's oil and is the second largest exporter in OPEC, producing 3.8 million bpd. At the same time, Iran sits atop the world's second-largest reserves of natural gas. Today, 85% of Iran's export earnings, as well as half of its budget and a quarter of its economy is derived from energy exports. Despite oil exports of 2.5 million barrels a day however, Iran currently imports more than 40% of its annual consumption of gasoline from India, France, Turkey, and China, at an estimated cost of more than $3 billion annually.
Yet given a difficult investment environment and concerns over its nuclear program, Iran has been unable to upgrade its oil facilities, nor increase production capacity for the past few years. Oil production was stagnant last year, which resulted in the oil sector expanding by just 0.6% in real terms. Instead, Iran's economy is being driven by higher government spending, which grew by 5.4% in real terms in 2006, the highest rate of growth in five years.
Strong government spending is eroding much of Iran's oil revenue. While hydrocarbon revenue increased 28.3% last year, government expenditures grew a massive 39.6 percent. Tehran provides subsides for many staple items and housing, which total $25 billion a year. These subsidies are now costing the government roughly 15% of Iran's GDP. Heavily subsidized gasoline is just 35 cents a gallon.
The latest plunge in crude oil, perhaps inspired by Saudi Arabia, is likely to put a squeeze on Iran's budget surplus, which could turn into a deficit if oil prices fall towards $45 per barrel. To finance the government's subsidies, Iran's central bank increased the broad money supply by 36% in 2006, sending inflation soaring to 14.6% in September. Tehran cannot afford to cutback on oil production and reduce its oil income, without cutting back on subsidies and risk riots in the streets.
Iran's all-out commitment to nuclear invincibility is also worrisome to its Sunni neighbors. Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Arab states now fear that US troops might withdraw hastily, leaving an Iraq dominated by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias. That in turn could lead to the emergence of a Shi'ite Crescent linking Iran, Iraq, and Syria with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
While apparently ruling out the military option for 2007, the Europeans and the US are quietly engaging in economic warfare with Iran, by demanding that international banks and oil companies to pull out of dozens of Iranian projects, including development of Iran's two massive new oil fields Azadegan and Yardavan that could expand Iran's output by 800,000 bpd over the next four years.
US officials already have already warned that they will hold China accountable under Washington's unilateral sanctions laws if Beijing proceeds with a $16-billion project to develop Iran's North Pars gas field. Japan's INPEX had secured the right to lead the $2 billion-plus development of Azadegan with a 75% stake, but pulled out of the deal in October under heavy US pressure.
In late 2005, Dutch bank ABN Amro agreed to pay $80 million in fines stemming in part from improper transactions with Iran through its subsidiary in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. UBS Bank and Credit Suisse of Switzerland recently announced they were suspending most new business with Iran, and British-based HSBC said it would no longer accept dollar transactions from within Iran.
The United States is expected to announce sanctions against Bank Sepah, a big Iranian commercial bank, under a presidential order aimed at freezing the assets of proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. Bank Sepah, established in 1925 is the oldest of the Iranian banks, and has a large network of branches in Iran as well as offices in Paris, Frankfurt and Rome.
Can economic warfare succeed in toppling Iran's Ayatollah Khameini before he gets the bomb in 2009? If US military intervention against Iran has been ruled out for 2007, the big question is whether Saudi Arabia is behind the latest plunge in oil prices, to wreck havoc on Iran's budget and economy? Meanwhile, Iran is banking on strong demand for crude oil from Asia to put upward pressure on the price, and there will be plenty of jawboning from Ahmadinejad.
Global Money Trends newsletter has published an E-mail alert for paid subscribers on January 4th, with another explanation for the latest plunge in crude oil prices, and its implications for the global stock markets. Our accurate forecasts for the Chinese and Asian stock markets were published on January 2nd.
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