IMO 2020 and the Brent-Dubai Spread

In October 2017, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) decided to limit sulphur content in all marine fuels from the current 3.5 per cent to 0.5 per cent, commencing in January 2020. Meeting these requirements will involve huge effort by the refining and shipping industries. Investments in the energy industry are notoriously large, risky, price sensitive and come with long lead times and gestation periods. Given these features, and as the implementation deadline approaches, most of the adjustments will need to be reflected in terms of movement in relative product prices. So far, most of the literature has focused on the IMO 2020 impacts on the refining and shipping sectors. Relatively little has been done to assess the impact on the prices of global oil benchmarks. This Comment attempts to fill this gap. Specifically, it analyses the impact of IMO 2020 on the Brent– Dubai (BD) spread, the key price differential which regulates oil flows between the two biggest oil markets: the Atlantic basin and Asia. It begins by discussing the relationship between the Brent and Dubai benchmarks, and factors that drive this relationship. We then construct a simple crude yield comparison between the Brent and Dubai baskets using existing forward curves for products and freight. We find that the forward prices for oil products and shipping costs are consistent with the forward swap spread for BD. However, under certain circumstances, high sulphur fuel oil (HSFO) may have to find a home in the power sector. If HSFO is forced to compete with coal, the BD spread may have to widen to almost $10 per barrel. Nevertheless, the BD spread will eventually adjust back to historical levels (and relatively quickly), driven by storage economics, investments in shipping and upgrading refinery units.

By: Ben Pryor