Fundamentals trump geopolitical tensions

Throughout this week, the Brent Crude price has experienced a decline of USD 3 per barrel, despite ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. Price fluctuations have ranged from highs of USD 91 per barrel at the beginning of the week to lows of USD 87 per barrel as of yesterday evening.

Ole R. Hvalbye,
Analyst Commodities, SEB

Following the release of yesterday’s US inventory report, Brent Crude once again demonstrated resilience against broader macroeconomic concerns, instead focusing on underlying market fundamentals.

Nevertheless, the recent drop in prices may come as somewhat surprising given the array of conflicting signals observed. Despite an increase in US inventories—a typically bearish indicator—we’ve also witnessed escalating tensions in the Middle East, coupled with the reinstatement of US sanctions on Venezuela. Furthermore, there are indications of impending sanctions on Iran in response to the recent attack on Israel.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has indicated that new sanctions targeting Iran, particularly aimed at restricting its oil exports, could be announced as early as this week. As previously highlighted, we maintain the view that Iran’s oil exports remain vulnerable even without further escalation of the conflict. It appears that Israel is exerting pressure on its ally, the US, to impose stricter sanctions on Iran, an action that is unfolding before our eyes.

Iran’s current oil production stands at close to 3.2 million barrels per day. Considering additional condensate production of about 0.8 million barrels per day and subtracting domestic demand of roughly 1.8 million barrels per day, the net export of Iranian crude and condensate is approximately 2.2 million barrels per day.

However, the uncertainty surrounding the enforcement of such sanctions casts doubt on the likelihood of a complete ending of Iranian exports. Approximately 80% of Iran’s exports are directed to independent refineries in China, suggesting that US sanctions may have limited efficacy unless China complies. The prospect of China resisting US pressure on its oil imports from Iran poses a significant challenge to US sanctions enforcement efforts.

Furthermore, any shortfall resulting from sanctions could potentially be offset by other OPEC nations with spare capacity. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for instance, can collectively produce an additional almost 3 million barrels of oil per day, although this remains a contingency measure.

In addition to developments related to Iran, the Biden administration has re-imposed restrictions on Venezuelan oil, marking the end of a six-month reprieve. This move is expected to impact flows from the South American nation.

Meanwhile, US crude inventories (excluding SPR holdings) surged by 2.7 million barrels last week (page 11 attached), reaching their highest level since June of last year. This increase coincided with a decline in measures of fuel demand (page 14 attached), underscoring a slightly weaker US market.

In summary, while geopolitical tensions persist and new rounds of sanctions are imposed, our market outlook remains intact. We maintain our forecast of an average Brent Crude price of USD 85 per barrel for the year 2024. In the short term, however, prices are expected to hover around the USD 90 per barrel mark as they navigate through geopolitical uncertainties and fundamental factors.

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