OPEC and its allies are seeking to pump less for longer in a quest for higher prices. The world’s biggest independent oil trader says their efforts could be in vain.
Demand isn’t expanding as much as expected, and U.S. shale output is growing faster than forecast, according to Vitol Group. That’s increasing the burden on the world’s biggest producers, who need to stick to their pledges to cut supply just to keep prices from falling, said Kho Hui Meng, the head of the company’s Asian arm.
Oil has given up all its gains since the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producers signed a deal late last year to limit supply for six months from January. Prices have been hit by surging output in the U.S., which is not part of the agreement. Any recovery in crude will depend on sustained usage by nations such as China, India and the U.S. as much as OPEC’s efforts to control supply.
“What we need is real demand growth, faster demand growth,” Kho, the president of Vitol Asia Pte., said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur. “Growth is there, but not fast enough.”
While consumption was forecast to expand this year by about 1.3 million barrels a day, growth has been limited to about 800,000 barrels a day so far in 2017, he said, adding that U.S. output had grown 400,000-500,000 barrels a day more than expected. “If demand goes back to where it should, where it’s forecast, then it’ll help, but my gut feel tells me it is still a bit long,” he said.
The International Energy Agency has trimmed its forecasts for global oil demand growth this year by about 100,000 barrels a day to 1.3 million a day as a result of weaker consumption in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries and an abrupt slowdown in economic activity in India and Russia, according to a report last month. The Paris-based IEA cut its estimate for India’s 2017 oil-demand growth by 11 percent.
There’s also concern that consumption may slow in China, the world’s second-biggest oil user. Independent refiners, which account for about a third of the nation’s capacity, have received lower crude import quotas compared with a year earlier, promptings speculation their purchases could slow.
“The oil market is looking for growth but there’s no growth,” Vitol’s Kho said, adding that the refiners may only get approval for the same volume of imports as last year. And while U.S. gasoline consumption is expected to hit its seasonal summer peak soon, demand growth “is not there yet,” he said.
The world’s biggest crude exporter is nevertheless bullish. Saudi Arabia expects 2017 global consumption to grow at a rate close to that of 2016, Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said on Monday. “We look for China’s oil demand growth to match last year’s, on the back of a robust transport sector, while India’s anticipated annual economic growth of more than seven percent will continue to drive healthy growth,” he said in Kuala Lumpur.
While some fear a slowdown in Chinese oil demand, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. doesn’t see any cause for concern. Growth in the nation’s car fleet will support gasoline demand, with increasing truck sales and air travel also helping fuel consumption, it said in a report dated May 9.
Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world’s largest crude producers, signaled this week they could extend production cuts into 2018, doubling down on an effort to eliminate a surplus. It was the first time they said they would consider prolonging their output reductions for longer than the six-month extension that’s widely expected to be agreed at an OPEC meeting on May 25.
Global oil inventories probably increased in the first quarter despite OPEC’s near-perfect implementation of production cuts aimed at clearing the surplus, the IEA said last month.
“We’ve always talked about the call on OPEC, how much OPEC oil is needed to satisfy world demand,” said Nawaf Al-Sabah, chief executive officer of Kufpec, a unit of state-run Kuwait Petroleum Corp. “Now, in this new paradigm, it’s really becoming the call on shale. And the market is setting itself at the marginal cost of a shale barrel.”
U.S. output has jumped for 11 weeks through the end of April to 9.29 million barrels a day, the most since August 2015, Energy Information Administration data show. American benchmark West Texas Intermediate is trading near $46 a barrel in New York, while global marker Brent crude is near $49 a barrel in London. Both are more than 50 percent below their peaks in 2014.
“I am still watching the U.S. summer gasoline demand,” said Vitol’s Kho. “OPEC has said it will try and extend its output cuts beyond June. So if that happens, and the discipline is good, and if the U.S. lack of growth in demand changes into summer, then we may see oil go back to the low $50s, but the prevailing mood today is not.”
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