Oil traders get closer look at what might prompt Saudi rethink

LONDON: Saudi Arabia has given oil traders the first glimmer of clarity on what it might take to prompt the world’s biggest crude exporter to change course on policy, suggesting that its laissez faire attitude may be wearing thin.

The Energy Intelligence newsletter reported on Thursday that Saudi Arabia is considering proposing that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cuts output next year by 1 million barrels per day (bpd) and has determined participants and volumes on which a deal would depend — a surprise move that would be the Kingdom’s first definitive proposal since prices collapsed.

A Saudi oil source described media reports of such a proposal as “baseless”, and a separate source said the matter was not raised at an informal meeting of producers on Thursday.

Iraq, Iran and Russia, meanwhile, would appear to have torched any remote hopes of a cut being agreed at Friday’s OPEC meeting by rejecting the idea that they would reduce or limit output, as the mooted Saudi plan would require.

The report, viewed by many as a kite-flying exercise to gauge the resolve of the main players, failed to convince traders that the Saudis will ditch their oil output policy soon.

Oil prices CLc1 rose modestly after the report but reversed those gains before a late rally traders attributed to the falling US dollar.

But for all the scepticism, the report still raises the prospect of a shift in the Saudi Arabian mindset and a willingness to get serious about potential cuts, going beyond a vaguely expressed readiness to act only in concert with other producers.

Oil minister Ali al-Naimi told a Riyadh conference in April that Saudi Arabia was ready to revive prices “but with the participation of the main producing and exporting countries and based on clear principles and high transparency” — a sentiment repeated by officials many times since then.

The Energy Intelligence report, attributed to an OPEC delegate, was the first to refer to a specific volume and particular conditions, including the participation of Russia, Mexico, Oman and Kazakhstan. The Saudi plan would also require Iraq – which has ambitious expansion plans – to freeze production at 4 million bpd and would also curb Iranian output just as it prepares to for a post-sanctions export boom.

However remote the chance of a major rethink at Friday’s meeting, the report serves as a timely reminder that Saudi Arabia’s policy of maintaining high output, regardless of the effect on prices, was only ever a short-term measure, said Standard Chartered commodities analyst and long-time OPEC watcher Paul Horsnell.

The Kingdom is “pushing back against the idea of ‘lower for longer’ prices,” he said, referring to the view from Goldman Sachs that oil prices will remain weak for a sustained period, possibly falling as low as $20 a barrel. In spite of the oil price bumping around its lowest in nearly seven years and the finances of OPEC members creaking under the strain, Saudi Arabia has shown no signs of backing down without support from other producers, and analysts said the new details did not suggest any weakening in its resolve. “(The Saudis have) been saying this for a long time,” Energy Aspects analyst Dominic Haywood said.

“They’ve been saying they will cut production if Iran, Iraq and Russia also cut production. There’s no way any of those three countries are cutting production.” Still, Haywood said that an agreement to cut production is possible by the second half of next year.

OPEC faces stiff competition from the world’s largest producer, Russia, which has so far resisted any urge to cut output, and from US shale producers, whose nimble extraction technology enables them respond quickly to any rise in price.

This week a jump in the price of options to buy Brent futures above the current price suggests that investors are preparing for a potential surprise from OPEC, no matter how well cemented expectations are for policy to remain unchanged.

PVM Oil Associates analyst Tamas Varga said the proposal was “only rhetoric”, adding: “Cooperation is the key word here — and that cooperation does not seem to be forthcoming.”


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