Oil Glut Expected to Last a While
Even if Saudi Arabia wins its struggle with U.S. shale producers over market share, it will face a new billion-barrel adversary.
It won’t be regional nemesis Iran, a resurgent Iraq or long-standing competitor Russia. The answer will be more prosaic: Even when overproduction ends, a stockpile surplus of more than 1 billion barrels built up since 2014 will remain, weighing on prices. Inventories will keep accumulating until the end of 2017, the International Energy Agency forecasts, and clearing the glut could take years.
“We may get to the end of the year, and even though supply and demand are in balance, the market shrugs and says ‘So what?’ because it’s waiting for proof of inventory draw-downs,” said Mike Wittner, head of oil markets at Societe Generale in New York. “Moving from stock-builds to balance might not be enough.”
Since it was unveiled in late 2014, Saudi Arabia’s strategy to bring the world’s oversupplied oil markets back into balance by squeezing competitors with lower prices has proved grueling, dragging crude down to less than $30 a barrel last month. While a gradual decline in U.S. production signals supply will stop growing, the second act of the process may prove the longest as stockpiles slowly contract.
For a historical precedent, Goldman Sachs points to the oil glut that developed in 1998 to 1999 as demand plunged in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Crude prices kept falling even as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries made output cuts in March and then June of 1998, slipping below $10 a barrel in London in December of that year.
Between late 2014, when developed-world stockpiles were at about average levels, and the end of this year, global inventories will have swelled by about 1.1 billion barrels, IEA data shows. Another 37 million will be added in 2017.
Taking the agency’s projections for how quickly inventories will then fall, and estimates from Energy Aspects that 290 million barrels will flow into China’s strategic reserves, it will take until 2021 to clear what’s accumulated.
The latest data from the American Petroleum Institute show the build-up in the United States is only getting bigger, with the nation’s crude stockpiles ballooning by 9.9 million barrels last week.
“For the previous eight quarters to this one, we have had global implied stock-builds, so we have accumulated a lot of oil,” said Harry Tchilinguirian, head of commodity markets strategy at BNP Paribas SA in London. “It’s going to take a lot of time to work out that excess oil from the system.”