Monday, 18 April 2016

Iran-Saudi competition poses a risk to oil market recovery

An escalation of the Iranian-Saudi competition could decelerate the ongoing rebalancing in the oil market.

Oil markets are rebalancing. US production is falling and demand is proving resilient. The misalignment between demand and supply is being reduced as a result. The hope was that the meeting between some of the world’s largest oil producers in Doha on April 17 would help accelerate the rebalancing process. Despite scepticism about the actual impact on demand/supply balances, the optimists felt encouraged by the willingness of the producers to sit together and address the problem. Indeed, the early signs of a deal were positive and oil prices rallied ahead of the meeting.

But while expectations about the impact of the Doha summit ranged between neutral and positive before the meeting, the assessment of its no-deal outcome was decidedly negative. The meeting showed that the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is spilling over to the oil market. If this translates into an escalation of the market share war between the two countries, then the ongoing rebalancing in the oil market could be derailed.

What are the signs of increased Iranian-Saudi competition in the oil market?

First, there were reports of a price war between the two countries. Following the lifting of its sanctions in January, Iran has been offering aggressive discounts on its oil in order to gain market share in Asia.

Second, the non-participation of Iran’s oil minister in the Doha meeting, after weeks of speculations, showed that Iran was not willing to join other producers in freezing its output. Perhaps convincingly after years of sanctions.

Third, the comments from the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, one day before the meeting, emphasising his refusal to participate in any production freeze unless Iran joins in. He also threatened to increase production by one million barrels per day immediately. “I don’t suggest that we should produce more, but we can produce more,” the prince was reported to say. 

If this threat is implemented, it can flood the oil market with yet more supply. But it is not expected to, because it is in nobody’s interest to do that. Nonetheless, it would be worth watching production data closely in the coming months.

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