Did you know the Baker Hughes rig count is falling? Of course you did, it’s the equivalent to talking about house prices in oil circles. Yet US production growth hasn’t so much as stuttered since the Saudi’s decided US shale should just settle down, why? We think readily available storage, both fixed and floating, is supporting spot oil prices beyond the fundamentals as traders profit from the ‘contango’ in the oil futures market, buying spot, adding to storage and selling forward ~ VLCC tanker rates have reached levels not seen since 2008 as traders build a flotilla of floating crude storage.
Time though, could be running out for this trade as global oil stocks progress towards capacity limits both in Europe and the US. We suggest a growing lack of available storage capacity could call time on the recent financial life support in the oil markets, leaving spot prices to reflect weak underlying demand and a burgeoning overhang in storage. As a result we would caution buying the recent equity rally in oils, fuelled by pricing recovering to over $60/bbl, we would also recommend exposure to oil storage capacity and crude tanker rates, either through derivatives or direct equity in VLCC tanker operators.
Available storage supporting spot prices for oil
We see storage as acting as life support for near-term oil prices since the precipitous collapse in late 2014. Despite spot prices having traded below $50/bbl the futures strip has remained in steep contango….with forward prices two years out being sustained in the $70-$80/bbl range….supported by the oil industry acting in unison to announce capex cuts in response to low pricing. As a commodity trader, If I’m buying spot and selling forward on the same day, effectively taking no risk and booking the spread, I’m hugely dependent on available storage to execute this trade. Hence when storage capacity is full…no more traders buying spot…..spot falls to the level of fundamental demand, not to mention prices reflecting the physical overhang of stocks being full at that point….ouch.
Rising VLLC tanker rates likely to indicate storage is filling in Europe
On the basis of the chart extrapolating the build in US stocks shown below, the hard limit of US storage may be approaching, note WTI now trades at a $10 discount to Brent at c$50/bbl reflecting a relative oversupply in the US market. In Europe, stock levels are more opaque, added to this availability of floating storage ….i.e. the number of tankers available to sit idle on the water holding crude…hence timing the crunch point is even harder to call than in the US. Whilst forecasting the point at which stocks in Europe reach capacity may be harder than in the US, signs that stocks are filling should be clear to see, falling spot prices for Brent will be an indication the process adding to storage is becoming more difficult, though an earlier indication is likely to come in the form of rising VLCC tanker rates, as tankers are removed from the fleet to sit idle holding crude, squeezing rates at the margin. According to Teekay shipping, VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) rates are now at their highest since 2008, with 30 vessels moving onto time charter with storage in January, this looks set to continue.
Hard limits on storage to withdraw financial demand for crude
Storage levels continue to build on both sides of the Atlantic whilst VLCC tanker rates have reached levels not seen since 2008. We suggest the lack of available storage capacity could be about to call time on the recent financial life support at play in the oil markets. As a result we would caution buying the recent equity rally on the back of recovering oil prices, we’d also recommend gaining exposure to available oil storage capacity or even better, VLCC tanker rates, either through derivatives on tanker rates, or direct equity in VLCC tanker operators, as storage is likely to trade at an increasing premium the closer to capacity we get.
What happens with worldwide crude stocks at capacity?
Another storage mechanism in the US marked by its absence from current debate is the US strategic petroleum reserve (SPR). My outside bet is if conventional and floating storage fills to capacity, and spot prices crater as a result, the US government could justify stepping in to add to its reserve.…again supporting the market and its own shale industry.