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Traders Search for Places to Stash Oil as Price War Augurs Glut

Serene Cheong, Sharon Cho, Alex Longley and Sheela Tobben

(Bloomberg) -- Oil’s plunge has revived memories of the 2008-09 recession, when traders snapped up dozens of tankers to park unwanted barrels at sea.

Brent futures for May collapsed as much as 31% on Monday after Saudi Arabia began offering its crude at deep discounts, stoking immediate concerns of an oil-price war. On Friday, the kingdom and its allies in OPEC failed to secure Russia’s participation in a pact to limit global supply.

The rout has raised the prospect of traders keeping oil at sea for later sale at a profit. In the height of the 2008-09 recession, oil companies, traders and financial institutions kept more than 100 million barrels on tankers, some betting on a rebound, others simply locking in a contango, where month-on-month price oil-price gaps far exceeded the cost of hiring vessels.

At least three Very Large Crude Carriers are being sought for floating storage use for 12 months, according to a person familiar with the matter. Bids were around $35,000 a day, while shipowners are asking about $55,000 a day, the person said. Most other inquiries are for similar supertankers but for use over three to six months, person said.

“The oil curve has moved in to contango or carry, prompting oil traders and majors to request offers for storage,” said Robert Hvide Macleod, the chief executive officer of Frontline Management, which runs the fleet of one of the world’s largest tanker companies. “How much actually gets done, the next few days will show.”

Brent futures for settled for May delivery down 24% at $34.36 a barrel in New York. Contracts for August were more than $2 a barrel higher, equating to a difference of nearly $4 million for a 2 million-barrel supertanker cargo between the two months. Current day rates for a three-month charter -- about $30,000 for an older supertanker -- would work out at about $2.7 million, even if there are significant additional costs involved in booking a vessel.

Share prices of some of the companies exposed to storing crude rallied. Frontline rose 15% in Oslo, while fellow tanker owners Euronav NV climbed 10% and DHT Holdings Inc were gained 3.7%. Dutch Royal Vopak NV, which owns on-land storage terminals jumped 3.2%.

Traders and shipbrokers said that owners were reticent about accepting multimonth storage charters and that the number of suitable vessels available was limited. Ships can lose trader approvals if they’re stationary for long periods, and their hulls can need cleaning after long-periods without moving.

DHT Holdings, another owner, has seen “several inquiries” about the use of tankers for floating storage, co-CEO Svein Moxnes Harfjeld said by email.

“A number of oil companies are already looking to time charter or purchase older VLCCs to use as floating storage units,” said Henry Curra, head of research at Braemar ACM Shipbroking, referring to very large crude carriers that typically haul 2 million-barrel cargoes.

Onshore Storage

Interest has also begun to kick in for onshore storage in the Caribbean and the U.S., where crude inventory levels are below the five-year average at 444 million barrels.

“We had a significant number of inquiries from people looking for storage in the U.S.,” Ernie Barsamian, CEO of The Tank Tiger, a terminal storage clearinghouse, said by telephone. “We’ve been receiving inquiries for Caribbean storage which, prior to this weekend, were fairly sparse.”

The contango is starting to make sense for onshore storage opportunities, given the cheap price for oil and overall lower carrying costs, he said. Before the coronavirus outbreak and the breakdown of OPEC+ talks, storage rates for a 6-month period for some terminals in the Cushing, Oklahoma, storage hub were about 20 cents a barrel, according to Barsamian. Export tanks in the U.S. Gulf Coast were going for around 65 cents a barrel.

In the Caribbean, storage rates are near 35 cents, Barsamian said, noting that those terminals have not been full for a while.

Ursa Space Systems, an industry data provider, has Caribbean crude inventories at almost 35 million barrels, or just 35% of available capacity, according to Geoffrey Craig, an energy analyst for the company.

On Friday, Saudi Arabia-led OPEC failed to agree with allied producers including Russia on supply curbs to avoid a glut. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries had proposed a 1.5 million barrel a day reduction, but failed to get Russia’s participation. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia began offering its barrels at deep discounts to benchmarks, triggering speculation a price war has begun.

“Traders are asking a lot of questions this morning” about booking tankers to keep crude at sea, said Halvor Ellefsen, a London-based shipbroker at Fearnleys A/S, echoing comments from several traders and brokers. “At the moment, it’s opportunistic: they know they may well need the capacity to store barrels.”

--With assistance from Jack Wittels and Fred Pals.

To contact the reporters on this story: Serene Cheong in Singapore at scheong20@bloomberg.net;Sharon Cho in Singapore at ccho28@bloomberg.net;Alex Longley in London at alongley@bloomberg.net;Sheela Tobben in New York at vtobben@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaric Nightingale at anightingal1@bloomberg.net, ;Serene Cheong at scheong20@bloomberg.net, Mike Jeffers, Catherine Traywick

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