Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Martijn Rats, Morgan Stanley's Global Commodity Strategist. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, Today I'll discuss the recent changes in oil markets and why recently we turned bullish on energy equities once again. It's Thursday, September 14th at 2 p.m. in London.
Prices of both crude oil and refined product have risen substantially over the last two months. Brent crude oil is trading once again a little over $90 a barrel, up 20% since the middle of the year. Diesel prices have rallied even more, up 50% since the mid year point and recently surpassing the $1,000 per tonne mark again.
After a fairly lackluster first half, this begs the question what has brought about this sudden change in fortune.
For starters, oil demand is simply robust. In June, global oil demand reached 103 million barrels a day, a new all time high. But on top of that, the recent crude price rally has been supported by strong production cuts from OPEC, particularly Saudi Arabia. In April, Saudi Arabia still exported 7.4 million barrels per day of crude oil. By August, this had fallen to just 5.4 million barrels a day, that is an unusually sharp drop in a very short space time. On a 100 million barrel per day market, that may not look like much, but this is enough to drive the market into deficits, cause inventories to decline and prices to rise.
What has given refined product prices, like diesel, a further boost has been tightness in the global refining system. Capacity closures during COVID, logistical difficulties in replacing Russian crude in European refineries and an unexpectedly large number of unplanned outages, partly because of a hot summer, have effectively curtailed refining capacity. Like last year, it has been all hands on deck in global refining this summer.
Whether oil prices and refining margins will still rally a lot further is hard to know, but prices seem well underpinned at current levels. As long as Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC continue their current oil policy, the oil market is simply tight and the current cuts have all the hallmarks of lasting well into next year.
On top, we think it will take some time before the current constraints in refining are resolved. Margins may decline somewhat from their current very elevated levels, but we would expect them to remain high by historical standards for some time to come.
Then we would also argue that risks to natural gas prices in Europe are once again skewed higher. Prices have fallen substantially this year, and of course, they could fall somewhat further. However, if some tightness returns, they can rally a lot more, skewing that price outlook higher too.
Putting this all together creates a favorable outlook for energy equities and that is where our true conviction lies. At the start of the year, we argued that earnings expectations for the energy sector were high and that market sentiment was already bullish and that valuations were stretched. After two years of rating the sector attractive, we downgraded our sector view back in January.
However, pretty much all these factors have changed once again. Consensus earnings forecasts have fallen, but given our commodity outlook, we would now expect upgrades to consensus estimates to start coming through once again, making energy possibly the only sector for which this argument can be made. With strong free cash flow ahead, we expect robust dividend growth, strong share buybacks and declining net debt. Combining that with market sentiment that is no longer so buoyant for energy and valuations that have corrected quite a lot, we think energy is once again an attractive sector. Especially for those seeking high income and protection against inflation, against an uncertain geopolitical backdrop.
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