Tag Archives: oil trade

August – Trade Outlook

What does a US trade war with Russia mean?

Just as the world thought it was safe to go on holiday, at the beginning of August President Trump signed legislation to place severe sanctions on Russia because of their alleged interference in the US Presidential elections. At the same time, he declared the legislation to be “seriously flawed” and “unconstitutional.” Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev responded on Facebook, that the action was, “the declaration of a fully-fledged trade war” against Russia and would damage US-Russian relations for years to come. More than this, he also stated, “The US establishment fully outwitted Trump… the Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power in the ‘most humiliating way.’ ”[i] President Trump’s response? To tweet “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!”[ii]

Escalation of tension

The politics of the escalation of tensions between the US and Russia clearly matter, but do the economics? From a US perspective it may appear not. Russia is not a top-ten import or export partner of the country. Its US$ 32bn of trade is less than 1% of the total value of US trade of US$ 3.9tn and has been falling since sanctions against Russia were first imposed in 2014 (Figure 1). Some of this may also be due to the collapse in oil prices between 2014 and 2015. A momentum-based projection into 2017 suggests that the increase in both imports and exports between 2015 and 2016 is unlikely to continue.


The trade between US and Russia between 1996 and 2017

Figure 1: US trade with Russia, 1996-2017, US$ bn (2017 projection)
Source: Equant Analytics 2017

What does the US Export to Russia?

US exports to Russia are predominantly in aircraft and aerospace (Figure 2). It accounted for US$ 3.2bn in 2016 and this was nearly double the second largest export sector, machinery and components, which includes computers and data storage. In every year since 2011, and in spite of sanctions against Russia, US exports in aircraft have grown by just over one third. This is admittedly from a relatively small base but it does demonstrate the fact that there is activity in what is both a highly politically sensitive and strategic sector for the US. On the basis of a momentum projection into 2017, it might be expected that exports would grow by a further 8%. This represents a lost value of around US$ 256m, which is small in the grand scheme of US exports. Although it represents a sector-specific loss, Russia is a relatively small export destination and does not feature in the US’s top ten biggest market in this sector.


the change in US exports to russia in different sectors

Figure 2: US top five largest exports to Russia, Compound Annualised Growth Rate, 2011-2016 and year-on-year projected growth 2016-17 (%)
Source: Equant Analytics, 2017

What does the US Import from Russia?

Just over 52% of the US’s imports from Russia are in oil and gas. It is the US’s fifth largest import partner in this sector but the value of US$ 10.6bn is dwarfed by Canada at over US$ 72bn. Russian oil and gas imports represent just over 4% of US total oil and gas imports and have been falling over the past five years (Figure 3). In fact, the only area to show any substantial increase is fertiliser imports which are projected to grow by 7.9% between 2016 and 2017 but from a low base and a period of five years during which they have declined annually by around 1% each year.


change in us imports from russia

Figure 3: US imports from Russia, Compound Annualised Growth Rate, 2011-2016 and year-on-year projected growth 2016-17 (%)
Source: Equant Analytics, 2017

Figure 3 illustrates two things: the US has imposed sanctions on Russian imports progressively over the past five years and the downward trend is likely to continue. But second, and perhaps more importantly, the substantial drop in oil and gas trade with Russia reflects the US growing independence in this sector as its own exports increase and as shale gas production becomes increasingly efficient.

What are the consequences?

So what does this tell us about the importance of a trade war between the two countries? From a US perspective, Russia is another country with whom it has a trade deficit, albeit proportionately small at US$ 6bn in 2016. It has been reducing its imports from Russia and the country is not a major trading partner. In terms of the economics of its own trade, it loses relatively little and is making a strong political point. But equally, the US is not a top ten importer into Russia and is only its sixth largest export destination. Even though this has been driven in the last few years by sanctions and dropping oil prices, it seems that the relationship is economically less important than it is politically.

It is the politics that are the key point here. When leaders of two major countries start declaring a “trade war,” they are raising the stakes. Trade becomes political rather than economic and this is dangerous.

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.