Volatility to increase in tanker market following oil price war
The market expected OPEC+ to cut supply as the COVID-19 epidemic has spread from China to Europe, the Americas and Middle East. However, the negotiations failed due to strong resistance from Russia, which is of the view that the policy of capping production by OPEC+ producers to support the oil price is facilitating the development of US shale oil, with Russia losing its market share to increasing exports from the US.
After the failure of production cut talks in Vienna, Saudi Arabia started a price war by slashing the official selling prices for crude for key buyers in the international market and hinted at raising crude oil production to full capacity of 12.3 mbpd from April 2020. The ‘shock and awe’ tactics of Saudi Arabia could be a move to impose maximum pain in the quickest possible way to Russia and other producers, in an effort to renegotiate the proposed production cut and then quickly reverse the production surge and thereafter implement the production cut if a deal is reached.
However, the recent move by Saudi Arabia could lead to:
a) Renegotiation on a production cut between OPEC and Russia
b) Prolonged price war between OPEC, Russia and US producers
If there are fresh negotiations to implement a production cut by OPEC+ producers to accommodate the effect of declining oil demand, crude oil prices are expected to normalise.
But if there is a prolonged price war between Saudi Arabia, Russia and US shale oil producers, lower crude oil prices will lead to some improvement in global oil demand and refinery runs. At the same time, onshore stocking activity will also increase, especially in countries such as China as they build their Strategic Petroleum Reserve. A global supply glut is also likely to lead to an increase in floating storage especially among oil producers.
At the same time, sustained weakness in oil prices will eventually hurt US shale oil producers because of their relatively higher cost of production. In such circumstances, the market share of Middle Eastern crude will increase at the expense of US crude.
Meanwhile, tanker rates surged due to a sudden increase in VLCC chartering from Bahri, Saudi Arabia’s national shipping arm. Bahri fixed at least 18 VLCCs since the Kingdom aims to pump more crude into the market as its price war with Russia escalates. The VLCC earnings on Middle East–China (TD3C) route skyrocketed to $166,000pd on 11 March from $30,300pd on 06 March.
If Saudi Arabia manages to strike a deal with Russia to cut production in the short term, tanker rates will plummet to the pre-price war levels because of the ongoing weakness in crude oil trade on account of the spread of COVID-19 globally. On the other hand, if there is a prolonged price war, tonnage demand will rise initially with the increase in oil demand and stocking activity, which in turn will keep freight rates above pre-price war levels.
However, once sustained weakness in oil prices starts hurting US crude production, Middle Eastern crude will start displacing US crude in Asia. This in turn will squeeze tonne-mile demand for tankers as the distance between the US to Asia is almost double the distance between the Middle East to Asia. Thus we estimate that every barrel per day of annual decline in US exports to Asia at the expense of the Middle East will lead to about a 2.5% decline in overall tonne-mile demand for tankers. Freight rates in such a situation will plunge below the pre-price war levels.