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The World’s Oil Glut Is Much Worse Than It Looks

Julian Lee
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The World’s Oil Glut Is Much Worse Than It Looks

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A meeting of ministers from OPEC states and their oil-producing allies will take place in Abu Dhabi this week. It will probably be a subdued affair. Oil prices remain stubbornly low despite big output cuts by the so-called OPEC+ group and geopolitical factors such as the U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The meeting of the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee, a body set up by OPEC+ to oversee its production-cutting strategy, won’t reset the group’s approach but it might provide some clearer guidance on its goals. The ministers insist that they don’t have a target for how far they want the price of crude to rise, and say instead that their aim is to reduce excess stockpiles.

But for market-watchers it’s tough to even get a sense of how big that stockpile is, and hence when the output-cutting exercise may be seen to have done its job.

The original target of the output cuts back in November 2016 was to get stockpiles back to their five-year average level. That was never going to be enough, though. The problem is that this average has been inflated by the very excess stockpile that OPEC+ is trying to drain (as the chart below shows).

As such, it’s been relatively easy to cut the inventory to close to this inflated figure but that has still left a huge amount of unwanted crude sloshing around. Not a very useful outcome when you’re trying to boost prices.

Khalid Al-Falih, the departing Saudi oil minister, has acknowledged that the group needs a new target. The OPEC+ ministerial group concluded at its last meeting in July that the moving five-year average wasn’t working and it has been considering using a new benchmark from the more “normal” period (in global oil inventory terms) of 2010-2014.

That leaves the producers with a lot more excess crude to drain. OPEC assessed that commercial oil stockpiles in the industrialized countries of the OECD totaled 2.955 billion barrels at the end of June. That’s 258 million barrels more than the 2010-2014 average for the same month.

Using this figure would certainly be a step in the right direction in terms of truly managing the market’s excess inventory. Better still would be having a target that takes into account the growth in oil demand every year, by measuring stockpiles in terms of the number of days’ worth of demand they represent rather than in simple volumes.

Measuring the number of barrels held in storage is all well and good, but with demand rising year after year (even if the rate of increase is slowing) the world now needs a bigger stockpile to provide the same amount of forward cover.

Still, whether you measure them as simple volumes or in terms of cover for future demand, OECD stockpiles are rising. Admittedly, much of the recent increase comes from natural gas liquids (light oils produced in large quantities from U.S. shale) which are used widely as petrochemical feedstocks. When you strip these out of the numbers, OECD inventories of crude oil plus the major fuel products – gasoline, middle distillates (diesel, heating oil and jet fuel) and fuel oil – are below their five-year average level.

Yet the stockpiles calculated on this basis are well above their 2010-2014 average and that’s the real problem for OPEC+ ministers when they meet in Abu Dhabi.

Saudi Arabia can’t rescue oil prices on its own. With demand growth weakening and non-OPEC supply rising, the producing nations may to have to consider both longer and deeper cuts.

To contact the author of this story: Julian Lee at jlee1627@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Julian Lee is an oil strategist for Bloomberg. Previously he worked as a senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies.

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