Has Saudi Arabia’s Balancing Act Gotten Any Easier?
The recent movements in the oil price complex indicate some deep dislocations between the physical and futures markets and in market expectations about current and future oil market fundamentals. Despite the various supply shocks hitting the oil market, the general deterioration in the geopolitical backdrop and the rise in US-Iran tensions, the Brent price has continued to trade within a very narrow price range since early April 2019. In contrast, time spreads are pointing towards very tight market conditions. In fact, the oil market finds itself in an almost opposite position to the same time last year when futures prices rose sharply in the expectation that market fundamentals would tighten, while the time spreads and physical differentials were pointing towards a well-supplied market. The divergence was eventually resolved in 2018 H2 by flat prices falling sharply.
Looking ahead into 2019 H2, the oil market faces the key issue of how this divergence in expectations and the mixed signals from the physical and futures markets will eventually be resolved and, as ever, Saudi Arabia’s output decision will play a key role in shaping market outcomes. In this respect, Saudi Arabia finds itself in a very similar position to last year where it has to make some hard choices and play a balancing act to try to achieve multiple objectives: Not risk pushing the market out of balance causing oil prices to fall, while at the same time preventing prices from getting too high and harming consuming countries and oil demand. Pressures from Russia to ease the supply curb and from the US to keep prices lower are not very different from last year’s, perhaps with one major difference, President Trump may be willing to live with slightly higher oil prices, recognizing that in a low oil price environment, US shale production growth would stall and that his key allies in the Middle East need a higher oil price to maintain government spending. Saudi Arabia would also be sensitive to the dynamics within OPEC+, aiming towards maintaining the deal that it has engineered and reinforcing the message that Saudi Arabia’s oil policy is driven purely by market fundamentals. Saudi Arabia’s deep cuts since December 2018, with current output at levels below its agreed quota, gives the Kingdom some flexibility to increase output without exiting the deal. But, as in 2018, this balancing act is hard to maintain given the wide uncertainties engulfing the market.