Comment

What next for the oil market as the US reimposes sanctions on Iran?

The oil market faces a precarious few months. The imposition of US secondary sanctions on Iranian exports today is the critical factor behind Brent’s rally to over US$80 a barrel in October.

There is enough supply to meet demand this winter, but the margin for error is narrow.

Homayoun Falakshahi, a senior research analyst with Wood Mackenzie’s Middle East upstream team, said: “After the implementation of the nuclear deal in January 2016, Iranian production and exports recovered to pre-sanctions levels inside six months. 

“Exports reached a peak of 2.8 million barrels per day in April 2018, including 300,000 barrels per day of condensate. Buyers have come from numerous countries, with the bulk sold into Asia, the Mediterranean and Northwest Europe.” 

He added: “Since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018, Iranian crude and condensate exports fell to around 1.8 million barrels per day in September on our estimates. South Korea, a big customer, has cut all imports since August. European buyers are winding down – France stopped in July, Italy, Spain and Greece followed suit.

“Beyond November 5, we expect crude exports to fall to 1 million barrels per day, though it could vary month to month; and condensate to 100,000 barrels per day.

"Crude sales will be concentrated around a core of supportive state buyers: China, India and Turkey.” 

Mr Falakshahi added: “It will be difficult for Iran to maximise exports when virtually all trade in oil is cleared in US dollars, putting international oil companies, many national oil companies, traders and banks off limits.

"Crude exports contribute one-third of government revenues, so there’s a huge incentive for Iran to use every conceivable lever.

“We’ve seen Iranian crudes discounted by US$1 per barrel compared with similar Middle East grades, the biggest for a decade.  

"Iran is hoping the EU’s barter proposal – goods as indirect payment for oil – opens doors, though we doubt any big oil traders will leap at the opportunity.

“Access to shipping insurance is also a problem, though Iran has its own fleet of 60 tankers and has offered cargoes CIF (cost, insurance and freight) to buyers. Specialised tanker trackers suggest Iranian tankers are operating ghost with disabled ID systems to avoid detection.  

“Condensate is very important to the story.  Iran’s production is around 750,000 barrels per day, big in global terms, with about half exported.  

"The condensate is produced in association with gas needed for the domestic market so can’t be shut-in like oil. During the 2012-2015 sanctions, Iran increased condensate sales to cushion the impact of lost oil exports.

"It’s not clear they’ll have the same flexibility under the new sanctions. South Korea, the biggest buyer, and UAE, have now stopped condensate imports.”

Ann-Louise Hittle, vice president macro oils, said: “There are implications for the oil market too.

“The biggest risk is this winter. Losing another 1 million barrels per day or more from Iran comes on top of a similar loss in supply from Venezuela over the last couple of years. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait have stepped up production since July to minimise the increase in price as the market tightens.

“We think there’s just enough growth in supply from elsewhere to muddle through the next few months, meet winter demand and avert a price spike.

"Brent should hold around US$78 a barrel, but it’s a very fine line. OPEC spare capacity was an ample 4 million to 5 million barrels per day two years ago. There’s only 700,000 barrels per day of additional available production within 30 days right now.

“That means the market is vulnerable to strong demand in a cold winter or any new supply outage. 

“The situation may look better once the northern winter is over, but only up to a point. We forecast that Brent will ease, averaging US$74 a barrel in 2019.

"We expect supply to grow 1.6 million barrels per day in 2019, with US tight oil driving this.

"That’s well ahead of 1.2 million barrels per day of demand growth and should lead to a healthy inventory build during the year.

"But with Iran in the full grip of sanctions and Venezuela continuing to decline, that limited OPEC spare capacity will cast a shadow over the market for some time.”