April – Trade Outlook

What does trade tell us about the oil price? In the first Trade Outlook of 2017, we pointed to a somewhat negative outlook for oil prices. Although analysts at the time saw prices increasing as demand recovered and production stayed at similar levels, based on our trade forecast for oil, we felt that the picture was at best neutral and maybe slightly negative. This was in line with OECD thinking but the World Bank and the EIU at the time were both suggesting that prices would rise.

The reason for the more negative outlook that we had at the time was because of the very high correlation between world trade values and the oil price (Figure 1). This correlation, of 90%, does not tell us how the oil price will move. It simply tells us that it is highly correlated with trade values, which is reasonable since oil is the world’s third largest traded sector with a value of $1.9 trillion in 2015. However, it does tell us that if trade is projected to remain static, then there is a greater likelihood that oil prices will also remain static.


Figure 1:  Monthly value of world trade in oil (USDm) vs oil spot price (last price monthly), Jan 2010-Jan 2017
Source:  Equant Analytics, 2017

The trajectory for oil prices since January has been downwards reflecting the flatter pattern in world trade.  Last month highlighted the difficulties of predicting oil prices. In the middle of the month, oil prices had fallen 10% in one week to their lowest level since OPEC cut production in November 2016. In the last week of the month, prices had rallied with the best week so far in 2017. A Reuters poll at the end of March suggested that analysts were not expecting oil prices to rise to $60 a barrel until 2018 at the earliest. But with the trade outlook flat for 2016 and 2017 and growing only slightly into 2017-18, the prediction of $60 a barrel in the near term would appear to be only possible were there an unexpected dose of market hubris! (Figure 2)

Figure 2            Projected growth in total world trade vs world trade in oil year on year (2016-17 and 2017-18)
Source: Equant Analytics 2017

There are two key issues. The first is whether demand is increasing relative to production. As the US increases its output of shale, there is little doubt that the US itself will be able to meet its domestic demand, taking market share from OPEC and non-OPEC aligned producers. This will keep prices flat during the course of the year if this pattern continues and, potentially at least, push prices downwards if the OPEC producers decide to go for an all-out price war when they meet in May. Falling projected global trade in oil suggests that demand will be at best weak relative to prices.

The second is the shift in the patterns of production in the market. This is evident in how trade has grown over the past five years and how it is projected to grow over the next five years (Figure 3).

Figure 3           Selected mineral fuel trade vs electrical energy growth 2010-15 and 2016-21 (CAGR %)
Source             Equant Analytics, 2017

The prospects for growth in each mineral fuel sector is more positive from the second period with 2016 as its base compared to the post-crisis period. However, only trade in petroleum wax, coke and bitumen and bitumen and shale show positive annualized growth and the most substantial projected growth is in the bitumen and shale sector. Although electrical energy’s decline in trade growth is projected to slow, it is still a very small sector compared to other mineral fuel sectors and its improvement does little to suggest that a major change is on its way.

What this suggests is that the oil sector as a whole is likely to dominate for some time to come despite environmental pressures. Demand is growing, but it appears that it will be met by current energy sources rather than new ones. The greatest improvement in trade growth over the two time periods is in bitumen and shale and this corroborates the view that US shale production, increasingly cost effective as it is, is likely to compete favourably in oil markets with crude and refined oil to meet the growth in demand, particularly in the US itself.