Macro Minute: The Russian Gambit

Last week, the European Union announced plans to ban Russian crude oil over the next six months and refined fuels by the end of the year as part of the sixth round of sanctions. Over the weekend, the proposed ban on its vessels transporting Russian oil to third-party countries was dropped, but the EU will retain a plan to prohibit insuring those shipments. Bloomberg reports that about 95% of the world’s tanker liability cover is arranged through a London-based organization that must heed European law. Without such insurance, Russia and its customers would have to find alternatives for risks, including oil spills and mishaps at sea, that can quickly run into multi-billion-dollar claims. (For more on the commodity trading business and how insurance impacts commodity flows, listen to “Javier Blas Explains How Commodity Trading Shops Really Work” on the Odd Lots Podcast).

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The pain to European consumers is clear. The region last year got 27% of its oil imports and approximately 40% of gas from Russia (paying $104 billion for supplies of fossil fuels). Economists estimate a full embargo on Russian oil and gas reduces the area activity from 4% (Barclays) to 2% (Bundesbank), while some analysts have argued that the impact would be lower than that. Germany’s vice-chancellor Robert Habeck said his nation has already cut its reliance enough to make at least a full oil embargo manageable with the share of Russian crude in German imports falling to about 12% since the invasion.

For Russia, an oil embargo would limit the inflow of foreign currency and make difficult spending cuts necessary. Russia’s Finance Ministry expects its GDP to shrink as much as 12% this year, on par with the turmoil seen in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union ultimately dissolved. On Monday, Russia said it expects its oil production to rise in May, and that it is seeing new buyers for its crude, including in Asia. But how much of this is true and how much of it is just posturing?

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Changing oil shipping routes from Europe to Asia is not as trivial as Russia would lead us to believe. Different vessels are required to efficiently transport oil on different sea routes. When done properly, transport of crude oil by tankers is second only to pipelines in terms of efficiency, with the average cost of transport at $0.02 to $0.03 per gallon. When transporting oil, there are three main types of vessels: Very Large Crude Carriers / Ultra Large Crude Carriers, Suezmax, and Aframax vessels. There are about 800 VLCCs/ULCCs in the world used for long-haul routes and they carry around 2 million barrels each. There are about 700 Suezmax vessels capable of passing through the Suez Canal in a laden condition, and they can carry around 1 million barrels on long-haul routes. Lastly, there are about 600 Aframax carriers in the world, known as “go-fast boats,” moving about 600,000 barrels on short-haul routes.

Zoltan Pozsar of Credit Suisse estimates that roughly 1.3 million barrels of oil get shipped from Primorsk and Ust Luga to Europe on Aframax carriers and these journeys take a week or two to complete. Russia does not have pipelines to Asia so the only way to sell its product to new buyers is by using sea routes. However, it is uneconomical to transport crude on long-haul voyages on Aframax carriers and they would need more VLCCs/ULCCs to make that happen. Because Russian ports are not deep enough to dock VLCCs/ULCCs, they would first need to use Aframax vessels to get to a port to then transfer the crude to larger vessels. This transfer itself can takes weeks. After the transfer, the larger vessel would then take about 70 days to get to Asia, unload, and take a similar amount of time to return. This compares with just a couple of weeks when shipping to Europe. This would cause a sharp slowdown in Russia’s economic activity. The world would also need an extra 80 VLCCs/ULCCs to accommodate that change which represents 10% of the current global capacity of those vessels. Additionally, this only accounts for the re-routing of one product, oil, but Russia exports every major commodity.

The increasing competition for selling oil in Asia would have an impact on one of the Middle East’s biggest consumers. It is then no surprise that Saudi Arabia cut oil prices for Asia buyers over the weekend. This will not make Russia’s situation any easier. China benefits when Russia becomes weaker and more isolated and hence more dependent on Chinese goodwill. Let’s not forget that during Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, China got Russia to agree to build (and possibly pay for) a dedicated pipeline at lower prices than it sells to Germany, even when the cost of gas from the new field is higher.

The cost of banning Russian oil might be large for Europe, but it can be even larger for Russia. This should increase the impact of sanctions and diminish the possibility of a unilateral cut in supply in the near future. 

Macro Minute: Commodities in 2022

After a strong year, we believe 2022 is shaping up to be another good year for commodities. The theme across most sectors in the asset class is consistent – a fundamental mismatch between supply and demand is driving prices higher. Prices are being further pressured by increasing costs of capital for some (e.g., energy producers), higher input costs for others (e.g., fertilizer for agricultural products), and/or after a decade of underinvestment, a lack of new projects ready to boost supply (e.g., base metals mines). Any weakness in a historically strong USD will further the dollar-denominated sector’s move higher.

Looking across the asset class, one finds inventories of many commodities well below their 5-year averages entering 2022.

Concurrently, JP Morgan projects global investment in commodity sectors to be the lowest across all sectors this year. This comes at a time where the forces of ESG have driven costs of capital higher, leading major producers of commodities to hold off on investing until higher prices are sustained for a longer period.

Fundamentally, physical assets are driven by volumetric levels rather than expectations, which fuel financial assets. When supply cannot meet demand, and inventories cannot bridge that gap, only the highest bidders get access to a specific commodity. This process is called “demand destruction” and can produce parabolic price movements.

This past year, we saw an example of “demand destruction” price action in European natural gas (TTF). Weather seasonality impacted a very inelastic demand while shifting energy priorities related to net-zero goals, and regional geopolitics caused a shift on the supply side.

We expect to see more demand destruction across the commodities complex in 2022.

Macro Minute: Commodity Inventories

A quick note on commodities… Historically tight inventories have led to all six base metals (Aluminum, Copper, Nickel, Lead, Tin, Zinc) listed on the London Metals Exchange to trade in backwardation for the first time since 2007.

Of those six, some of the tightest markets are in Aluminum, Copper and, especially, Nickel, which has the largest deficit in its history. Using the average daily production of each metal and aggregate inventories across Shanghai, London, and United States metal exchanges, we estimate global aluminum inventories to be approximately 5.8 days of production, copper at 2.2 days of production, and nickel at just under 13 days of production. Actual daily draws from exchange are variable, but this illustration speaks to the level of tightness in the market.

All but tin have upside to the levels reached in the last period of backwardation across the sector, after adjusting metal prices for inflation.

Bear in mind that while the price run-up in 2007 was also the result of a supply shock, albeit for different reasons, there was a sharp decline in demand caused by the bursting of the housing bubble and onset of the Great Financial Crisis, just as more supply began to come to market. The setup this time appears to be different. Persistent underinvestment in commodity extraction over the past decade, coupled with increased demand driven by government net-zero goals rather than private industry (e.g., homebuilders), suggest that this rally could be much tighter for much longer. With EV penetration increasing around the world, including in China, where nearly 20% of new car sales are electric, and the fact that those vehicles require between 5-6x more metal than internal combustion engines, we could see pressures drive prices past 2007 levels.