Washington DC — Iran's oil buyers have a month to halt their trades or risk getting banned from the US financial system for violating secondary sanctions that return November 5.
Oil prices continue to be supported by the deadline and the hard-line enforcement expected by the administration of President Donald Trump. Front-month ICE Brent futures settled above $86/b Wednesday, the highest in four years, before dropping back below $85/b Thursday.
"Iranian export losses have already accelerated faster than we expected," said Paul Sheldon, S&P Global Platts Analytics' chief geopolitical adviser.
More factors to watch as the deadline nears:
- 1.7 million b/d of Iranian crude and condensate exports will likely leave the market by November, compared with April levels, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.
- Iran's exports will fall to 1.1 million b/d in October, Platts Analytics projects. "The rate of reduction will slow thereafter, as sanctions-averse buyers will be out of the market by November 5," Sheldon said. Exports will fall to 800,000 b/d by the fourth quarter of 2019.
- Estimates of the sanctions impact have increased sharply since May, when many analysts still expected the US to grant widespread waivers to countries that make significant cuts, as the administration of Barack Obama did in 2012-15.
- Iranian crude oil and condensate exports slumped to just under 1.7 million b/d in September, a fall of almost 700,000 b/d from May, according to Platts estimates.
- China and India are expected to continue to import some Iranian oil after November, while South Korea and Japan will likely halt purchases.
- As Iran's key oil customers look for alternative supplies, they are opting for more medium sour crudes from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia and UAE.
- Top buyer China continues to buy a significant share of Iranian crude, with flows averaging 660,000 b/d in January-September, up from 602,000 b/d last year.
- Exports to India have averaged around 400,000 b/d in August and September, compared with 650,000 b/d in April-June.
- More European buyers are starting to cut their Iranian imports, with flows slumping to around 400,000 b/d in September, from 600,000-700,000 b/d in May or about one-third of Iran's exports.
US crude exports cannot increase rapidly enough to replace Iranian barrels, until the Permian pipeline bottleneck eases in mid-2019.
- Tight global oil supply in the fourth quarter as a result of Iran's rapidly falling exports and Venezuela's economic collapse have led some analysts to predict Brent futures will surge to $100/b.
- Rising US gasoline prices ahead of midterm elections have caused President Donald Trump to ratchet up pressure on Saudi Arabia to increase production. US retail gasoline prices topped $3/gal in 13 states as of Friday, with the national average of $2.91/gal sitting just below the peak summer price in May.
- Iran's key oil customers are opting for more medium sour crudes from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia and UAE, which is causing prices of these grades to soar and putting pressure on global refinery margins.
- Prices of alternative Middle Eastern sour crudes surged to four-year highs, with the Platts December Dubai crude benchmark rising to $82.95/b earlier this week.
- In mid-September, Russia's Urals was trading around multi-year highs relative to Dated Brent in both Northwest Europe and the Mediterranean.
Prices for Iranian crude, however, have not risen as sharply, as Tehran is luring less-risk-averse buyers with discounts. This is why Iranian grades are also showing their continued competitiveness in China, a market that could prove more resistant to sanctions pressure.
- Iran has started concealing the movement of its oil tankers by turning off and on transponders in a bid to furtively sell its crude, a practice expected to increase once the sanctions kick in. Five VLCCs have disappeared from global satellite tracking systems since late August, while six recently reappeared after previously vanishing.
- Other Iranian tankers laden with crude have stayed put offshore, likely being used as floating storage. Iran had around 8 million-10 million barrels of crude and condensate on floating storage as of October 3, mostly off its main crude oil terminals. This compares with 15 million-17 million barrels about three weeks ago before some takers turned off their transponders.
- Iran held some 50 million barrels of its crude and condensate in tankers when US and EU sanctions were in effect in 2012-15.
As exports have fallen, domestic refinery runs have increased sharply. A third-phase expansion at the Persian Gulf Star plant is expected to start up this month, as Iran hopes to be self-sufficient in gasoline by early 2019.
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