The major participants at ADIPEC 2020’s ADNOC Trading Forum expressed a wide range of sentiment, but the general message was one of caution or even outright pessimism when it came to oil price movements. The Virtual Conference, which was held in Abu Dhabi, was dominated by three main topics, the impact of COVID-19, global oil and gas demand destruction, and the U.S. election results. With a wide range of speakers including representatives from Abu Dhabi’s national oil company ADNOC, the major storage company VITOL, Japanese company ENEOS, Abu Dhabi Global Markets (ADGM), and OMV amongst others, the forecasts for 2021 were plentiful and varied. The main takeaways for observers were that markets may be growing increasingly optimistic about a COVID recovery, but oil prices are unlikely to see a real recovery before the end of 2021. Oil market fundamentals are very weak at the moment and even if a COVID-19 vaccine is produced, the impact on fundamentals will be slow. Furthermore, any oil market recovery could easily be halted by a change in the strategy of OPEC+ or any other supply increase before demand picks back up. According to Energy Intelligence, Platts and Argus, the overall expectation for oil prices in 2021 is in the high $30s to mid $40s per barrel. In a panel with Martin Fraenkel, Euan Craik, and Alex Schindelar, all three industry leaders agreed that they expected a more optimistic situation in 2022. The three oil analysts emphasized that much will depend on the success of tackling COVID globally and the resilience of the market in the face of a possible supply boost.

Russel Hardy, the CEO of Vitol, argued that 2020 has shown how resilient the hydrocarbon sector still is. Despite the major breakdown of demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hardy claimed that Vitol has been able to ride out the storm and is fully prepared for 2021. While a combination of negative prices, demand destruction, and a storage glut means that a return to normal is still a long way away, an industry recovery is well and truly underway. Kajo Fujiwara, the Executive Officer of Crude Trading and Shipping for Japanese company ENEOS emphasized that “work continued even in COVID time”. He said that was particularly difficult as a state of emergency had been put in place in Japan as its refineries were forced to cut, exports decreased and margins were very low. The company’s investment plans were also altered as several projects were delayed. In H2, however, ENEOS saw refinery runs increase and signs of demand recovering.  

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When asked about ADNOC Trading, Khaled Salmeen, the Executive Director, stated that the company “has  not stopped doing what we wanted to do….we wanted to go strong on trading and we are as ADNOC Global Trading is going to go live in the coming weeks”. When asked about the impact of COVID on trading, Salmeen stated that for his company it had been an opportunity, as working on risk management and pricing has allowed the company to become more resilient. ADNOC Trading is developing well, with the crude book having gone live in September and the products book via Global Trading set to go live in the coming weeks. ADNOC is now starting to train and support the next generation of traders in the UAE. An ADNOC Trading official added that ADNOC Trading plans to set up representation internationally, including in the U.S. As well as trading, Salmeen confirmed that ADNOC Trading is also looking at entering the shipping space. ADNOC has always been an FOB seller. Shipping is now going to be a major part of the company. The cost of both second hand and new vessels in the current climate is extremely attractive for those with capital.

Overall it was a mixed takeaway from the event. COVID is once again hovering over markets with a second round of lockdowns in the EU, and price volatility has increased. For some, such as Hardy, real optimism could return to markets in H1 2021. There doesn’t seem to be any significant demand increase set to take place in winter and even if a COVID vaccine is produced, the real impact won’t be felt in the market before end H2 2021. At the same time, all participants agreed that the OPEC+ strategy is one of the major factors to watch. Vitol expects normal stock levels by Summer 2021, but even that will depend on OPEC+ strategies. New additional production, such as from Libya or Iran, could set markets back. A return to normal stock levels would see prices rising at the end of 2021. Hardy is cautiously optimistic but admits that it all depends on a continuous flow of “good news”.  The Vitol official expects oil prices to recover to the high 40s or even the 50s in H1 2021, although any demand reduction would hurt that prediction.

When asked about Biden, Hardy said that any U.S. supply response would be price related. He stated that if Biden rejoins JCPOA and Iranian oil flows again, prices will be hit hard. He doesn’t expect the Biden Administration to have much of an impact on U.S. shale production though. While new regulations would impact production by increasing overall costs, the sector itself is largely non-political.

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Even the oil and gas situation in Asia remains unclear. According to ENEOS’ Kajo, the COVID impact is still very much being felt. While the economies have suffered less than their western country parts, the impact on demand is still tangible. She said that China’s demand is healthy, but other countries such as Japan and India are still suffering. In Japan, refining margins are still suffering as JET demand is very low, and export markets are yet to recover. When asked about a possible Peak Oil demand scenario in Japan, the ENEOS official said that COVID has moved it forward dramatically.

By Cyril Widdershoven for Oilprice.com

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