Sanctions on Iran may send oil prices above $90 soon

By Tsvetana Paraskova 

According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, oil prices will hit $90 a barrel by the second quarter of 2019, as Iranian oil barrels are removed from the market and other supply disruption risks threaten the tightening oil market.

The United States signaled this week that it would look to take as much Iranian oil as possible out of the market with the renewed sanctions on Tehran.

Although Saudi Arabia and Russia had OPEC and allies pledge last week to ease compliance rates, in other words to boost production by an unspecified number, production increases will make the global spare capacity thinner at a time of low inventories, setting the stage for higher oil prices in case of additional supply disruptions, analysts believe.

“We are in a very attractive oil price environment and our house view is that oil will hit $90 by the end of the second quarter of next year,” Hootan Yazhari, head of frontier markets equity research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, told CNBC.

“We are moving into an environment where supply disruptions are visible all over the world… and of course President Trump has been pretty active in trying to isolate Iran and getting U.S. allies not to purchase oil from Iran,” Yazhari noted.

“With inventories still declining and spare capacity uncomfortably low, there is very little cushion for any supply disruption caused by rising geopolitical risks,” ANZ bank told Reuters.

Even before OPEC’s much-talked-about meeting last week, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expected—like many analysts—that there would be some sort of production increase. But even if the Iran and Venezuela supply gap is to be plugged, “the market will be finely balanced next year, and vulnerable to prices rising higher in the event of further disruption,” the Paris-based agency said in its Oil Market Report in mid-June.

The U.S. EIA defines spare capacity as the volume of production that can be brought on within 30 days and sustained for at least 90 days.
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OPEC has lost around 900,000 bpd in production since September, with Venezuela accounting for about two-thirds of that, Michael Haigh, Managing Director and Global Head of Commodities Research at Societe Generale, told Bloomberg this week.

The meaningful spare capacity in the world is in just four countries—OPEC’s Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, and non-OPEC’s Russia, according to Haigh. While Saudi Arabia claims that it has 2 million bpd of spare capacity, SocGen thinks that it’s more like 1.4 million bpd-1.5 million bpd. Kuwait and the UAE combined probably have another 400,000 bpd, and Russia around 300,000 bpd.

Inventories are now low and spare capacity is declining, Haigh says.

Future Iranian oil supply may have been the leading theme in oil markets this week, but Venezuela’s production continues to crumble, with SocGen estimating that it would drop by another 300,000 bpd between now and OPEC’s next regular meeting in early December 2018.

Moreover, renewed tension in Libya is threatening to turn into yet another meaningful oil supply disruption. Amid low inventories and sparse spare capacity as Saudis and Russians boost production, another supply shock would not be well received, analysts say.

The decline of spare capacity leaves “pricing risk more exposed to the upside,” Brian Singer, managing director at Goldman Sachs, told Bloomberg this week.

“Earlier this week, Trump Administration officials confirmed that they basically want to take all Iranian exports off the market. This raises the prospect of an even higher Q4 2018 loss than 700,000. With Saudi pledging a million, there will be little spare capacity to deal with any additional outages,” according to Helima Croft, managing director and global head of commodity strategy, global research at RBC Capital Markets and an Atlantic Council board director.

Croft told CNBC this week that the U.S. sanctions on Iran are “incredibly coercive” and that more than 1 million bpd of Iranian oil would be taken out of the market.

“For any corporate that wants to do business in the United States, they will drop their ties with Iran,” she said.

Saudis and Russians may be boosting production, but the risk is that “we cannot afford another supply disruption if we have such thin spare capacity shock absorbers,” Croft noted.

The key question for the oil market going forward will not be how much Russia and the Saudis—and the close Saudi allies such as the UAE and Kuwait—will pump to plug supply losses, but how much spare capacity this would leave to absorb additional supply disruptions.