US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM
US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM

With just one tweet, US President Donald Trump conjured up the prospect of a global oil alliance to rescue the industry from the worst shock in history. The question is whether it evaporates just as quickly.

After the president’s social-media intervention on Thursday, oil traders are frantically assessing whether Saudi Arabia, Russia and possibly even the US — the world’s three biggest producers — are poised to strike a once-unthinkable grand bargain to cut daily supplies in unison by 10-million to 15-million barrels.

It is unclear whether it is feasible — or even legal — for such a coalition to come together. Or indeed whether it would be enough to tame the tsunami of unwanted crude now bearing down on world markets, which could be two to three times bigger than the cut touted by Trump.

“It’s too little, too late,” said Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup Inc. “Cuts are required immediately, and unless they happen, the price is going to go down significantly and force them to happen.”

There’s no doubt that the industry could benefit from some intervention. With global oil demand slashed about a third by the coronavirus pandemic, a gusher of surplus crude threatens to overwhelm the world’s storage tanks in a matter of months. The meltdown is worsened by the dispute between Moscow and Riyadh, prompting the Gulf kingdom to push unprecedented volumes of crude at customers in a tussle for market share.

Global benchmark

Trump’s claim that the two belligerents are ready to end their price war pushed the Brent crude price up by 21% on Thursday. The global benchmark gave up some of those gains Friday, falling 3.2% at 11.32am in Singapore. The Saudis partially backed up their US ally with a call for all producers to meet and stabilise the market.

Yet the kingdom stopped well short of promising production cuts and maintained its insistence that any deal would require co-operation not just from fellow members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and their former ally in the Kremlin, but from all major producers including the US itself. Russia was quick to deny any agreement had been reached

Texas, home to the nation’s shale-oil revolution, has shown some willingness to join in, with the head of the state’s regulator and some companies saying they should participate in production curbs.

Trump’s tweet contained no such pledge. Still, a meeting between the president and several CEOs from oil majors scheduled for Friday is further fanning speculation that the White House is receptive to an even wider form of collaboration.

Difficult deal

The deal between Riyadh and Moscow that created the Opec+ group was a long time coming. It was only after two years of rock-bottom oil prices and several false starts that the alliance came together in late 2016. Even then, they were slow to boost crude prices and the group was dogged by accusations that some countries — including Russia — were reneging on their promises.

Rebuilding the same alliance and adding even more producers into the pact would be a major challenge.

“The more people are at the table, the more difficult it is to get a deal,” said Pierre Andurand, whose Andurand Commodities Fund soared more than 140% in March through bearish bets on crude. “I find it difficult to believe that a deal like that could be agreed quickly.”

Even if political and industry leaders in the US backed collaboration with Opec in principle, operators in the US shale patch would somehow need to parcel out their share of any collective cutback. US antitrust laws, unless they were changed, would make any such effort fraught with legal risks.

Nor is it certain that the Saudis and Russia are ready to heal their split. The two fell out in March when Riyadh failed to convince Moscow to cut production in response to the demand slump caused by the virus. Angered by the splintering of the coalition they had led for three years, the kingdom responded with an aggressive supply surge to a record 12-million barrels a day and deep price cuts aimed at Russia’s traditional markets.

The Saudis still appear to be adamant that all producers must play their part in eliminating the supply surplus. Russia, meanwhile, is holding to the view — in public at least — that production curbs are futile compared with the scale of demand destruction inflicted by widespread lockdowns to slow the virus.

“It’s very clear that Saudi Arabia is maintaining its position,” Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at consultants Energy Aspects said in a Bloomberg TV interview. “It will cut only if everyone else cuts.”

Bloomberg