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Through a Glass Darkly — Why OPEC Cuts Appear to Have Fallen Flat

When macroeconomic concerns cloud the oil market outlook so darkly that even bullish OPEC news fails to stem a selloff as seemed to happen this week, can satellite imaging and machine learning still provide actionable signals or are the data they unlock drowned out by broader underlying worries? On July 2, OPEC and its partners delivered a nine-month extension of their production cuts in what appeared to be a bold, price-supportive move but the news was upstaged by a slew of poor economic indicators and markets greeted it with a fall. Past production cuts have generally proved more effective at lifting prices when the market was already seen as having touched bottom than when it was in the earlier stages of a down cycle, when bullish signals act at best as mitigating factors. Even in a demand slowdown, however, accurate data do matter — by illuminating the broader context in which weak demand may be playing out, by helping market participants size up the downturn, or by giving advance warning of a looming inflection point.

While trade worries and gloomy indicators played a leading role in this week’s selloff, that’s not the whole story. Satellite measurements showing a large buildup in global crude inventories go a long way towards explaining why it was those indicators, rather than the OPEC cuts, that resonated most with the market. Kayrros measurements point to a steep overhang in global crude stocks compared to last year’s levels. The build makes it clear that OPEC cuts alone have not sufficed to offset expanding US production amid signs of a slowdown in demand growth during the last six months, and it is this combination that may be casting doubt on the impact of yet another round of cuts of the same magnitude.

Few countries are more directly at risk from the OPEC cuts, Iran sanctions and any further escalation of tensions in The Gulf than Japan

Japan is a case in point. Few countries are more directly at risk from the OPEC cuts, Iran sanctions and any further escalation of tensions and armed confrontation in The Gulf than Japan, with its sky-high dependence on Gulf imports. And yet few seem to benefit from a higher stock cushion. Japan was very much in the spotlight this week as this is where Vladimir Putin broke the news of the OPEC cuts at the G20 summit and offered a preview of the producer group’s meeting before it even happened. Japan gets 60% of its crude imports from just Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and much of the rest from other OPEC and non-OPEC Gulf exporters. But Japan has greatly lowered its exposure to Iran since the previous round of sanctions in 2012–2015 by refraining from ramping up its imports back to preexisting levels when the sanctions ended in 2016. After drawing down its commercial crude stocks in late 2018-early 2019, Japan more recently rebuilt them with a vengeance, to the point that they now stand in demand cover terms at their highest point for the season since Kayrros began its tracking in 2016. It sure helps that Japanese oil demand has been in long-term, secular decline due to its aging population, efficiency gains, and fuel substitution — a decline likely exacerbated by the current economic situation. In other Asian countries, the main outlets for oil from OPEC and The Gulf, crude stocks also look high. Chinese stocks, in particular, look to be more than ample.

Less visible to the market are the latest satellite measurements suggesting that global crude stocks may have peaked a couple of weeks before the OPEC meeting. If sustained, this could hint at a coming turnaround in market fundamentals under the full effect of Iran sanctions that could prove supportive of oil prices — albeit with a lag. The lifting of US sanctions waivers as of early May so far seems to have succeeded in cutting Iran’s exports to a trickle. Tankers loaded Iranian crude in May but Kayrros tracking shows many have yet to deliver. With part of the Iranian fleet thus tied up in floating storage near import terminals, notably offshore China, fewer vessels than usual were available to load last month at Iranian ports, slashing Iranian liftings to their lowest level since the Iran-Iraq war. Buyers such as Japan initially ramped up their imports ahead of time as a precaution, causing their domestic stocks to rise. Those imports have now worked their way into the system and the reduction in Iranian exports is now being fully felt through stock draws. In a partial reversal from earlier trends, Kayrros measured two consecutive weekly dips in global crude inventories in the second half of June. Lower crude imports have caused Japan’s crude inventories in particular to draw by an average 200,000 bpd in the last month, albeit from a high base.

Meanwhile, Kayrros machine learning algorithms, which have a strong track record of accurate demand forecasts up to nine months ahead, confirm a slowdown in global end-user demand for oil products, notably in Japan. Refinery demand for crude has also taken a hit, but lower refinery runs in some countries at least conceal a regional reallocation of refining activity as some oil importing economies appear to have offshored their Iran risk to China. Apparent crude oil demand was surprisingly weak recently in the US, Europe, and India but remained robust in China. Some countries, including Japan and South Korea, have recently reduced their domestic refinery runs and have been relying on higher product imports from China to meet domestic end-user demand, in effect offshoring part of their crude supply risk to China.

The heightened geopolitical risk described by political analysts as a hallmark of the present has its mirror image in the state of oil market.

While demand pressures have recently taken center stage, price risks are not all on the downside. Once again, the latest (satellite) measurements suggest that the trajectory of stocks may well depend on Iran’s ability to sell its oil under sanctions as it did before the end of the waivers — clearly one of the wildcards facing the market. The demand outlook and the prospects for US light tight oil supply growth are other dimensions of the oil market where Kayrros measurements provide unique insights. China’s willingness to take in Iranian barrels under US sanctions remains uncertain and must be seen in the broader context of US-Chinese relations and trade negotiations. Should they get the greenlight from their Chinese buyers, several Iranian tankers that have been spotted offshore China apparently stand ready to unload on short notice. If not, Iranian production, which so far has remained remarkably resilient, would be at risk. Having been much more successful in skirting US sanctions from November to April than it is usually given credit for, Iran is now facing a tougher challenge. A sustained decline in Iranian supply to the market could not only prove geopolitically volatile by bringing Iran’s economic crisis to a boil, but would also dramatically sharpen OPEC’s punch and affect oil markets in a big way by offsetting demand concerns.

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