Monday, January 9, 2012
Butler believes the short squeeze that took silver to $49.73 in April has taught the commercials how tight the physical silver market actually is, and that the commercials "appear to have no interest in massively shorting silver again". As a result, Butler looks for silver to make massive gains in the near futures, as the commercials turn and go net long, resulting in $50 silver appearing "cheap" in the near future.
The big commercial silver shorts had a near death experience when the price approached $50 in April. They were at the end of their rope and needed to do something in a hurry. That’s why they rigged prices lower; so that they could buy and save themselves. These well-connected commercials knew, perhaps for the very first time, just how tight the silver market had become and how close we were to a profound physical shortage. The key is that the silver shortage wasn’t caused by excessive speculative buying or a bubble or a mania. The extreme tightness and near shortage in silver was as a result of the gradual and cumulative impact of normal investment buying over the past five years. There is nothing to suggest that the long term and steady silver investment buying has ended.
Because there was no bubble or mania in silver, there was no bubble to burst. The orchestrated take-downs of the price by the big commercial interests were simply so that these commercials could buy and rid themselves of silver short positions. That’s done now. That means that the silver market is now in the best possible shape.
What lies ahead for silver is exciting. While we have not witnessed a bubble in silver yet, we will some day. The silver story and the dynamics of the market are too compelling for an investment mania not to emerge at some point. If anything, speculative sentiment has been completely wrung out from silver, clearing the way for speculators and investors to enter the market with a vengeance. At some point, enough of the world’s industrial silver users will panic as prices climb and attempt to build physical silver inventories. This user buying, something that never kicked in during the run to $50 will create a silver shortage, the likes of which never witnessed before. It seems that the big commercial interests have come to learn the real silver story and they appear to want no part of the short side again. The major pressure of selling has passed...and the way seems clear for higher prices. By the time the next chapter in the silver story plays out, $50 could look cheap.
Hysteria of the horrid possibility of a European meltdown and the dire implications for the world economy a collapse will end, as the event finally turn into unequivocal reality by April 1, with accusations of ‘fear mongering’ by a significant portion of the mob quickly dropped in favor of the next predictable reaction to the crisis: outrage against those who allowed the collapse.
“I would say, since I’ve been doing this work, over 30 years ago, I’ve never been more concerned than I am right now,” Celente told ABC, Australia.
In Celente’s latest forecast, titled, The First Great War of the 21st Century—Prepare, Survive, Prevail, he paints a bleak picture for 2012, predicting a worsening of class warfare that already wages within more than a dozen countries, from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Qatar to the UK, Greece and Italy, which will eventually spread to eastern Europe/central Asia and more intensely in the United States.
But, what the world has seen so far is only a economic and social symptom of central bankers’ stop-gap remedies, haphazardly applied to the global financial crisis since its beginning in the U.S. and the fall of Bear Stearns in 2008.
After dozens of trillions of dollars thrown at a global solvency crisis with nothing but further deterioration to show for the money spent, some wonder if the world is about to slide still further into depression.
According to Celente, when the European Union falters from too much supply of debt coming due ($7.3 trillion from G-7 nations, see zerohedge.com) against the backdrop of sliding demand for more debt, the European domino will topple other dominoes, widening the global depression to include the world’s larger economies.
“If you live in Greece, you’re in a depression; if you live in Spain, you’re in a depression; if you live in Portugal or Ireland, you’re in a depression,” Celente said. “If you live in Lithuania, you’re running to the bank to get your money out of the bank as the bank runs go on. It’s a depression. Hungary, there’s a depression, and much of Eastern Europe, Romania, Bulgaria. And there are a lot of depressions going on [already].”
And as far as a Chinese riding in on a white horse to save the day, Celente said, it’s “highly unlikely. China has 1.3 billion people with a million problems . . . If the Europeans and Americans don’t buy a lot of crap, then the Chinese can make it and sell it to them.”
He continued to explain that China will then likely slow its imports of materials from countries which have been supplying mined product during the commodities boom, leading to a vicious spiral of increased unemployment and declining economic activity—a scenario strongly intimated by Dow Theory Letters author Richard Russell in his latest letter to investors (excerpts posted on King World News). Russell, too, expects a steepening U.S. depression, with 25 percent unemployment in the America as his target at the bottom of the depression.
“This whole thing is connected,” Celente explained. “China isn’t going to have the money to throw around to losers anymore than loan shark would give a gambler who can’t pay his old debts back and has a bad gambling habit another loan to gamble . . . They [Chinese] have their own problems to deal with.”
How bad will the next leg down in the world economy likely to be? Could Russell be right? Celente believes a comparison with the 1930s is a good one. He continued, “ . . . you can even listen to Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, or I like to fondly call it, the International Mafia Federation—the loan sharks of last resort—even she’s saying what we’ve been saying now for three years about the parallels between the Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, currency wars, trade wars, world war.
“The Panic of ’08; you have the Great Recessions—Great Depressions going on. Oh, by the way, real estate prices in the United States, they’re at a steeper decline than they were during the Great Depression. Foreclosures continue to mount. It’s taking people over 40 weeks, who lose jobs to find another job, and then finding one at a fraction of what they lost the old one at.”
And as history demonstrates, when horrible economics overwhelm a society, political leaders search for a means of generating national jingoism to redirect the angry mob. That search for political safety usually turns to war.
“So then you look at the trade wars that they’re now talking about,” Celente said. “And, as I said, when you add them up, you have the beginnings of a great war going on already. Oh, and now, and now, they’re talking about, hey, we did such a great job in Iraq and Afghanistan, why don’t we bomb Iran? Have you heard the presidential candidates of the United States, with the exception of Ron Paul, that all want to go to war against Iran? So you can see where it’s going.
“You have psychopaths that have caused a lot of these problems that are giving the answers to how to solve them by adding more violence and criminality on top of old violence and criminality.”
Celente said the kickoff to a global meltdown and a call to war could “spiral out of control” some time “by the first quarter of 2012” as the European crisis worsens to the point of a crack up. “There’s no way to bail out the European nations,” Celente said forcefully.
And the build up to social unrest, calamity and possible civil war can be seen a mile away, said Celente, who segued into another one of the trends he sees for 2012: Safe Havens (escaping the United States).
“They just passed a law in the United states, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA),” he said. “It now gives the president the right to identify a person like me and call me a terrorist and that I’m against the government. And the military can come and break down my doors—the military—and arrest me, charge me with nothing, give me no trial, no rights of habeas corpus, no jury, no judge, and they can kill me if they so choose, torture me; they can send me to any country around the world.”Celente advises preparing now for a quick route out of the United States if a bank holiday (a prediction of his) is called. The ramifications of a dollar devaluation aren’t clear, but an enacted NDAA, FEMA camp readiness and scheduled TSA checkpoint expansion plans suggest the U.S. may enter a crisis on par with the lead up to the U.S. Civil War of 1861-5.
The new year started off with a bang with precious metals out-shining the competition. Is this a harbinger of things to come? We think so and we are not alone. Forecasts for gold for 2012 include a price per ounce of $2,200 by Morgan Stanley, $2,050 by UBS, and $2,000 by Barclays.
The year 2011, for other than gold investors, has been a disappointment, more like a train wreck. Growth has been paltry, unemployment remained high, sovereign debt in the stratosphere. The U.S. political system has been dysfunctional unable to make easy decisions, never mind the hard ones. There was no housing rebound and the eurozone looked like it was a house of cards. But look on the bright side. Despite a prophecy by Harold Camping, the world did not end on May 21.
There was also some other good news. There was no double dip in 2011. Osama bin Laden was “laid to rest in a solemn ceremony concluding upon impact with the Indian Ocean at a terminal velocity of 125 miles per hour,” (at least that’s the official version) in the words of Dave Barry, humor columnist for The Miami Herald. Moammar Gadhafi and other dictators also suffered major setbacks (to put it mildly.)
There are some issues hanging over the economy in 2012 that will determine if the upcoming year will also be a disappointment.
In 2011, American politics was silly undermining confidence in ways that damaged economic prospects. There was the April battle over spending that nearly shut down the government and would have had a devastating effect on the ability of Congress to continue spending insanely more money than it actually has. The December standoff was over whether to continue a cut in the payroll tax that both parties agreed to in principle. But most damaging was the summer brinkmanship when many House Republicans threatened to block an increase in the debt ceiling — which would have meant a default on U.S. debt — unless they got their way on major spending cuts. The sides hammered out an agreement under which the government will continue to spend tons more money than it has while a super committee will devise a plan to solve this problem once and for all. This committee fell short of its goals. Perhaps in 2012 we will see “a Super Duper Committee.” Even after a deal was struck, Standard & Poor’s cut the U.S. government’s credit rating, blaming the downgrade on the reduced “effectiveness, stability and predictability” of American policymaking.
Stay tuned. This year’s election is going to be a cliffhanger. Obama has going for him the lackluster Republican lineup. He may actually win. But with a razor thin mandate and a Republican-controlled Congress, Obama in his second term will not have much room to maneuver. With the economy in such a fragile condition, it would be best, whatever the outcome of the November election, that the result be decisive and unifying. Meanwhile, a move toward a libertarian approach sill appears unlikely.
To see what is likely to happen in the precious metals market in the nearest future, let's begin the technical part with the analysis of silver (charts courtesy by http://stockcharts.com.)
In the very long term chart for silver, we see that silver has bottomed once again. If the nearest resistance level is broken, a significant rally is possible. RSI levels support the significant rally theory beginning now.
This is in tune with our previous comments on gold, published in our essay on the possible bottom in precious metals:
The fact is that “breakdowns” similar to the one we’re seeing just now have been (…) followed by the final bottom of the consolidation (…), which was in turn was followed by a strong rally. In these cases, lower prices were never seen thereafter. Consequently, from both fundamental and technical perspectives, gold remains in a bull market, and what we're seeing right now may be the best buying opportunity that we'll see in the coming years.
On top of that, there is more to read from the very-long term silver charts.
In this second very long-term chart for silver, we see that the cyclical turning point worked perfectly as prices reversed sharply right at that point and then began to rise. These moves further increase the odds that we have seen a major bottom and it could very well be years before silver’s price is as low as it has been recently (or we may never see silver price as low as we just did).
This is by no means a sure bet, but twice previously, when silver bottomed at cyclical turning points in 2004 and 2010, we have seen an ultimate low – lower prices never followed. The long-term charts suggest that at least a medium-term rally is underway at this time.
Looking at silver’s short-term chart, the situation is a bit less clear. A cyclical turning point is close at hand and it is not yet clear whether we will see a bottom or a top. Neither appears to invalidate the points made previously since long-term implications are more important and carry more weight than those obtained from short-term charts. For example, we could see a small pause (a local top and then a local bottom) within a rally close to the end of the month.
When silver finally breaks above the declining resistance line (gray) and the 50-day moving average, much clearer signals will emerge. The outlook based on this chart appears bullish at this time but another week or two seems to be needed to tell the whole story.
Summing up, the situation in silver appears to be very bullish at this time based on the long-term indicators. Overall, the situation appears to be quite bullish since long-term indicators carry more weight than short-term signals.
One of the most useful tools employed by many technical commodity traders is a momentum oscillator which measures the velocity of directional price movement.
When prices move up very rapidly, at some point the commodity is considered overbought; when they move down very rapidly, the commodity is considered oversold at some point. In either case, a reaction or reversal is imminent. The slope of the momentum oscillator is directly proportional to the velocity of the move, and the distance traveled up or down by this oscillator is proportional to the magnitude of the move.
The momentum oscillator is usually characterized by a line on a chart drawn in two dimensions. The vertical axis represents magnitude or distance the indicator moves; the horizontal axis represents time. Such a momentum oscillator moves very rapidly at market turning points and then tends to slow down as the market continues the directional move. Suppose we are using closing prices to calculate the oscillator and the price is moving up daily by exactly the same increment from close to close. At some point, the oscillator begins to flatten out and eventually becomes a horizontal line. If the price begins to level out, the oscillator will begin to descend.
Plotting the oscillator
Let's look at this concept using a simple oscillator expressed in terms of the price today minus the price "x" number of days ago - let's say 10 days ago, for example.
The easiest way to illustrate the interaction between price movement and oscillator movement is to take a straight line price relationship and plot the oscillator points used on this relationship, as shown in this chart:
In our illustration, we begin on Day 10 when the closing price is 48.50. The price 10 days ago on Day 1 is 50.75. So with a 10-day oscillator, today's price of 48.50 subtracted from the price 10 days ago of 50.75 results in an oscillator value of - 2.25, which is plotted below the zero line. By following this procedure each day, we develop an oscillator curve.
The oscillator curve developed by using this hypothetical situation is very interesting. As the price moves down by the same increment each day between Days 10 and 14, the oscillator curve is a horizontal line. On Day 15, the price turns up by 25 points, yet the oscillator turns up by 50 points. The oscillator is going up twice as fast as the price. The oscillator continues this rate of movement until Day 23 when its value becomes constant, although the price continues to move up at the same rate.
On Day 29, another very interesting thing happens. The price levels out at 51.00, yet the oscillator begins to go down. If the price continues to move horizontally, the oscillator will continue to descend until the 10th day, at which time both the oscillator and the price will be moving horizontally
Note the interaction of the oscillator curve and the price curve. The oscillator appears to be one step ahead of the price. That's because the oscillator, in effect, is measuring the rate of change of price movement. Between Days 14 and 23, the oscillator shows the rate of price change is very fast because the direction of the price is changing from down to up. Once the price has bottomed out and started up, then the rate of change slows down because the increments of change are measured in one direction only.
The oscillator can be an excellent technical tool for the trader who understands its inherent characteristics. However, there are three problems encountered in developing a meaningful oscillator:
1. Erratic movement within the general oscillator configuration. Suppose that 10 days ago the price moved limit down from the previous day.Now, suppose that today the price closed the same as yesterday. When you subtract the price 10 days ago from today's price, you get an erroneously high value for the oscillator today. To overcome this, there must be some way to dampen or smooth out the extreme points used to calculate the oscillator.
2. The second problem with oscillators is the scale to use on the horizontal axis. How high is high, and how low is low? The scale will change with each commodity. To overcome this problem, there must be some common denominator to apply to all commodities so the amplitude of the oscillator is relative and meaningful.
3. Calculating enormous amounts of data. This is the least of the three problems.
A solution to these three problems is incorporated in the indicator which we call the Relative Strength Index (RSI):
RSI = 100 - [100 / (1 + RS)]
RS = Average of 14 days' closes UP / Average of 14 days' closes DOWN
For the first calculation of the Relative Strength Index (RSI), we need closing prices for the previous 14 days. From then on, we need only the previous day's data. The initial RSI is calculated as follows:
- Obain the sum of the UP closes for the previous 14 days and divide this sum by 14. This is the average UP close.
- Obtain the sum of the DOWN closes for the previous 14 days and divide this sum by 14. This is the average DOWN close.
- Divide the average UP close by the average DOWN close. This is the Relative Strength (RS).
- Add 1.00 to the RS.
- Divide the result obtained in Step 4 into 100.
- Subtract the result obtained in Step 5 from 100. This is the first RSI.
From this point on, it is necessary to use only the previous average UP close and the previous average DOWN close in calculating the next RSI.
This procedure incorporates the dampening or smoothing factor into the equation:
- To obtain the next average UP close, multiply the previous average UP close by 13, add to this amount today's UP close (if any) and divide the total by 14.
Steps 3 to 6 are the same as for the initial RSI.
The RSI approach surmounts the three basic problems of oscillators:
- Erroneous erratic movement is eliminated by the averaging technique. However, the RSI is amply responsive to price movement because an increase of the average UP close is automatically coordinated with a decrease in the average DOWN close and vice versa.
- The question, "How high is high and how low is low?" is answered because the RSI value must always fall between 0 and 100. Therefore, the daily momentum of any number of commodities can be measured on the same scale for comparison to each other and to previous highs and lows within the same commodity.
- The problem of having to keep up with mountains of previous data is also solved. After calculating the initial RSI, only the previous day's data is required for the next calculation.
Just one tool
The Relative Strength Index, used in conjunction with a bar chart, can provide a new dimension of interpretation for the chart reader. No single tool, method, or system is going to produce the right answers 100 of the time. However, the RSI can be a valuable input into this decision-making process.
Commodity Price Charts plots the 14-day RSI, updating the chart through Thursday of each week. Contrary to popular opinion, the choice of the number of market days used in calculating the RSI doesn't really matter because the smoothing nature of the exponential averages reduces the effect of the early days as more data is included.
To help you update the RSI values until the next issue of the charts arrives, we list the "up average" and "down average" as of Thursday on each RSI chart.
The procedure outlined earlier for beginning and updating RSIs is from J. Welles Wilder's book and his 1978 Futures Magazine story, which made the RSI a popular technical tool. The following is a simpler and faster method of computing the RSI. The results are the same as Wilder's more complicated method.
To begin a new RSI, just list the changes for 14 consecutive trading days and total the changes. Divide these totals by 14, and you will have the new up and down average. Then proceed with this formula:
RSI = 100 x U / (U + D)
U = up average; D = down average.
The example below is for T-bills.
1.03 / 14 = .074 = Up ave.
1.24 / 14 = .089 = Down ave.
RSI= 100 x (.074 /.163) = 45.39
To calculate the next day's RSI, multiply the up average (.074) by 13. Add the change for the day, if it is up. Divide the total by 14. Do the same for the new down average. Multiply the new down average (.089) by 13. Add the change for the day, if it is down. Divide total by 14.
Then, proceed with the formula:
RSI = 100 x U / (U + D)
For example, if T-Bills closed up 25 points the next day, calculate the new RSI as follows:
New Up ave. = .074(13) + .25/14 = .087
New Down ave. = .089(13) + 0/14 = .083
New RSI = 100 x .087 / (.087 + .083)
RSI = 51.2
Learning to use this index is a lot like learning to read a chart. The more you study the interaction between chart movement and the Relative Strength Index, the more revealing the RSI will become. If used properly, the RSI can be a very valuable tool in interpreting chart movement.
RSI points are plotted daily on a bar chart and, when connected, form the RSI line. Here are some things the index indicates as shown by examples from the following silver chart:
Tops and bottoms - These are often indicated when the index goes above 70 or below 30. The index will usually top out or bottom out before the actual market top or bottom, giving an indication a reversal or at least a significant reaction is imminent.
The major bottom of Aug. 15 was accompanied by an RSI value below 30. The major top of Nov. 9 was preceded by an RSI value above 70. The top made on Jan. 24 was preceded by an RSI value of less than 70. This would indicate this top is less significant than the previous one and either a higher top is in the making or the long-term uptrend is running out of steam.
Chart formations - The index will display graphic chart formations which may not be obvious on a corresponding bar chart. For instance, head-and-shoulders, tops or bottoms, pennants or triangles often show up on the index to indicate breakouts and buy and sell points.
A descending triangle was formed on the RSI chart during October and early November that is not evident on the bar chart. A breakout of this triangle indicates and intermediate move in the direction of the breakout. Note also the long-term coil on the RSI chart with the large number of support points.
Failure swings - Failure swings above 70 or below 30 are very strong indications of a market reversal.
After the RSI exceeded 70 during October, the immediate downswing carried to 65. When this low point of 65 was penetrated the following week, the failure swing was completed.
After the low of Aug. 15, the RSI shot up to 41. After two downswings, this point was penetrated on the upside on Aug. 26, completing the failure swing.
Support and resistance - Areas of support and resistance often show up clearly on the index before becoming apparent on the bar chart. Trendlines on the bar chart often show up as support lines on the RSI. The mid-November break penetrated the uptrend line on the bar chart at the same time as the support level on the RSI chart.
Divergence - Divergence between price action and the RSI is a very strong indicator of a market turning point and is the single most indicative characteristic of the Relative Strength Index. Divergence occurs when the RSI is increasing and price movement is either flat or decreasing. Conversely, divergence occurs when the RSI is decreasing and price movement is either flat or increasing. Divergence does not occur at every turning point.
On the silver chart, there was divergence between the bar chart and RSI at every major turning point. The top made in November was "warned" by the RSI exceeding 70, a failure swing and divergence with the RSI turning sideways while prices continued to climb higher.
Alright, it's that time again...
Previously we heard Pimco's thoughts on the matter of an Iranian escalation with "Pimco's 4 "Iran Invasion" Oil Price Scenarios: From $140 To "Doomsday"", now it is the turn of SocGen's Michael Wittner to take a more nuanced approach adapting to the times, with an analysis of what happens under two scenarios - 1) a full blown EU embargo (which contrary to what some may think is coming far sooner than generally expected), and the logical aftermath: 2) a complete closure of the Straits. The forecast is as follows: 1) "Scenario 1: EU enacts a full ban on 0.6 Mb/d of imports of Iranian crude. In this scenario, we would expect Brent crude prices to surge into the $125-150 range." 2) "Scenario 2: Iran shuts down the Straits of Hormuz, disrupting 15 Mb/d of crude flows. In this scenario, we would expect Brent prices to spike into the $150-200 range for a limited time period." The consequences of even just scenario 1 is rather dramatic: while the adverse impact on the US economy will be substantial, it would be the debt-funded wealth transfer out of Europe into Saudi Arabia that would be the most notable aftermath. And if there is one thing an already austere Europe will be crippled by, is the price of a gallon of gas entering the double digits. And then there are the considerations of who benefits from an Iranian supply deterioration: because Europe's loss is someone else's gain. And with 1.5 million of the 2.4 Mb/d in output already going to Asia (China, India, Japan and South Korea) it is pretty clear that China will be more than glad to take away all the production that Europe decides it does not need (which would amount to just 0.8 Mb/d anyway).
SocGen's situation summary:
- Scenario 1: EU enacts a full ban on 0.6 Mb/d of imports of Iranian crude.
- In this scenario, we would expect Brent crude prices to surge into the $125-150 range.
- The extent of the bullish impact will depend on the terms of the actual EU embargo, including how quickly it will be phased in. Another important variable will be how much Iranian crude is cut by non-EU countries, such as Japan and S. Korea, as a result of US pressure. This will determine how much Iranian crude has to be replaced by Saudi Arabia, and how much spare capacity Saudi Arabia has remaining after it increases output. Lower Saudi spare capacity equals higher prices. An EU embargo would possibly prompt an IEA strategic release. The price surge would dampen economic and oil demand growth.
- An EU embargo is considered likely, especially after the EU reached an agreement in principle on an embargo on 4 January. When it is announced, depending on the timing and details, we may revise our base case oil price forecast upward. Our current Brent crude price forecast for 2012 is $110.
- Scenario 2: Iran shuts down the Straits of Hormuz, disrupting 15 Mb/d of crude flows.
- In this scenario, we would expect Brent prices to spike into the $150-200 range for a limited time period.
- We believe it would be relatively easy for Iran to shut down the Straits of Hormuz. A credible threat from missiles, mines, or fast attack boats is all it would take for tanker insurers to stop coverage, which would halt tanker traffic. However, we believe that Iran would not be able to keep the Straits shut for longer than two weeks, due to a US-led military response. The disruption would definitely result in an IEA strategic release. The severe price spike would sharply hurt economic and oil demand growth, and from that standpoint, be self-correcting.
- A Straits of Hormuz shutdown is not likely. We estimate the probability of this very high impact event at 5%. Although Iran may like the idea of retaliation in order to hurt its enemies, by halting its oil export revenues, it would hurt itself even more. Moreover, Iran would do this at the cost of provoking a military response that could destroy much of its military and perhaps even its nuclear program.
A quick summary of who are the main export partners of Iran crude:
Since early November, geopolitical risk related to Iran has re-emerged as one of the factors supporting prices in the oil complex. More to the point, the markets have become concerned about the possibility of a partial disruption to Iran’s 2.4 Mb/d of medium and heavy sour crude exports (as detailed in the table below). In addition, the markets are also thinking about the small probability but very high impact scenario where Iran shuts down the Straits of Hormuz, which would halt flows of 15 Mb/d of crude and a significant amount of NGLs, refined products and LNG.
The key developments since November have been an important IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program, moves by the US and EU to impose sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran and on the oil sector, and Iranian military exercises in the Persian Gulf.
- The escalation of the issue for the oil markets began ahead of the widely anticipated November 8 International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran. This report contained much more evidence than previously published which strongly indicated the military nature of Iran’s nuclear program (although the report stopped short of formally reaching that conclusion - a step with diplomatic repercussions). Before and after the IAEA report, there was much discussion about an Israeli and/or American military response to Iran’s nuclear program.
- In early December, the EU began to consider a ban on imports of Iranian crude (more on this below).
- In late December, Iran conducted ten days of naval and military exercises in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Iran repeated its oft-stated threats to close the Straits of Hormuz. Both Iranian and Western naval forces have conducted exercises in the PG many times before: Iran practices closing down the Straits of Hormuz and the Western allies practice reopening it. However, it seems more serious this time because of the context: Iran’s steady progress towards a nuclear weapon capability and – in response – moves to increasingly tough sanctions by the US and EU, which are clearly targeting oil.
- On December 31, President Obama signed new US sanctions into law. The sanctions say that any financial institution that does business with the Central Bank of Iran cannot do business with the US financial system. Because the Central Bank receives payments for almost all of Iran’s crude export sales, this directly targets Iran’s oil sector and revenues, which accounts for 60% of its economy. In effect, the oil companies and refineries that purchase Iranian crude would be forced to stop buying, because they would have no way to pay for the oil. Despite these harsh restrictions, the law does not take effect for 6 months (although Iran’s currency has already plummeted, losing 40% of its value vs. the dollar in the last month). Even more importantly, the White House has almost total flexibility and discretion in how to enforce the law. The US wants to hurt Iran, but with a fragile economy, it does not want to cause a shortage of crude and an oil price spike. The US has said that it will grant waivers to countries that show progress in reducing their purchases of Iranian crude oil. The bottom line is that the US now has a very powerful tool to exert pressure on Iran’s crude customers, but it will use this tool with finesse and an eye on the oil markets.
- On January 4, the EU reached an agreement in principle to ban its 0.6 Mb/d of imports of Iranian crude – 25% of Iran’s total exports. Italy, Spain, and Greece are the European countries most dependent on Iranian crude, and apparently, the objections of these countries have been overcome. It is not at all clear what the EU embargo will look like. As Italy has made very clear, it has not even been decided whether the embargo will be full or partial, and how quickly it will be implemented or phased in. The key is that EU countries need to be able to arrange alternative supplies, primarily from Saudi Arabia, the main holder of spare production capacity. Talks on making these arrangements are assumed to have been taking place since December, if not earlier. The EU is reportedly hoping and planning to announce its embargo, including the details, on January 30, at the next EU foreign ministers meeting. Europe has the same concerns about a fragile economy and an oil price spike as the US, probably even more so. Because of this, we expect a slow and gradual implementation of what will eventually become a full embargo. One possible option that has been reported is for the EU embargo to take effect at the end of June, at the same time as the new US sanctions. This would be a tidy solution and makes a lot of sense. Whenever the EU embargo is officially announced, we expect the IEA to quickly follow up and make it very clear, probably through a press release and/or a press conference, that it would coordinate a release of strategic reserves, if needed, to ensure crude supplies to its European member countries. We also expect Saudi Arabia to make it known, perhaps quietly, that it will be providing additional supplies to European refiners.
While so far Iran talk has not manifested in big price swings in Brent, Urals have been notably impacted:
Despite all of the talk about Iran, there has been no discernible impact on Brent prices, in absolute terms. Front-month ICE Brent prices remain rangebound. At $112-114 in recent days, Brent has risen to the top of the trading range seen since November; however, there has been no upside breakout. Moreover, recent crude price gains have been not only due to Iran, but also to positive macro data flow from the US and China, and to strong risk appetite. That said, we believe that the US sanctions and the EU embargo are clearly supportive. Iran represents a bullish tail risk that will make traders think twice about going short.
The one place where EU embargo concerns may have had a market impact – though it is debatable – is on Urals prices, where differentials to Brent have been quite strong. Urals, which directly competes with Iranian grades and is a substitute, has priced at an unusual premium to Brent in recent weeks. However, the Urals strength preceded the proposed embargo, and Iran is only one of several factors. Urals has been supported by strong Russian domestic demand and restrained exports to Europe, as well as ongoing supply disruptions in Syria (-160 kb/d) and Yemen (-80 kb/d).
How much oil is at stake.
What’s at stake? Iran produces 3.5 Mb/d of crude. It processes 1.1 Mb/d of crude in domestic refineries, and exports the remaining 2.4 Mb/d. The oil markets are concerned with the 2.4 Mb/d of exports. The breakdown is shown in the table above. Of the 2.4 Mb/d of crude exports, 0.8 Mb/d goes to OECD Europe, including 0.6 Mb/d to EU countries and 0.2 Mb/d to Turkey. Iran’s main market, however, is Asia, which takes 1.5 Mb/d of crude exports, including 0.5 Mb/d to China, 0.4 Mb/d to India, and 0.5 Mb/d to Japan and S. Korea.
As discussed above, our view is that the EU will put a full embargo in place, which would stop the 0.6 Mb/d to the EU; however, after the announcement, the implementation will be phased in gradually. We do not believe that Japan and S. Korea will participate in any embargo; however, the US, through its own sanctions, will put pressure on its close allies to reduce imports from Iran, and the combined 0.5 Mb/d could be lowered. We expect flows to China and India to continue; they may even increase, particularly if refiners can negotiate discounts from Iran. However, as discussed below, we do not think that Iran will be able to simply sell its entire EU 0.6 Mb/d in Asia instead.
A breakdown of how SocGen gets to its Scenario targets: "Scenario 1: EU bans imports of Iranian crude. Brent prices in the $125 - $150 range."
When the EU embargo is announced and is implemented, obviously there will be a bullish knee-jerk reaction across the crude complex, paper and physical, in response to the announcement. Beyond this, what will happen?
As noted above, we believe that Iranian flows to Europe will be replaced, primarily by Saudi Arabia, but with some help from Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar. Discussions to arrange those replacement supplies are reportedly already taking place. As shown in the chart below, OPEC crude production spare capacity in November was 2.25 - 2.75 Mb/d; indications are that it did not change materially in December. With Saudi output at 9.75 Mb/d according to the IEA, and capacity at 11.5 – 12.0 Mb/d, Saudi spare capacity was 1.75 Mb/d – 2.25 Mb/d. Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar combined for another 0.5 Mb/d of spare capacity, mainly in Kuwait and the UAE. The Saudis alone can easily replace the EU’s 0.6 Mb/d, and there is more than enough spare capacity to make up for volumes that other countries, such as Japan and S. Korea, might need if they reduce imports from Iran.
However, even though the Saudis and OPEC can make up the supplies, an embargo would be bullish. The reason is that there would be less spare capacity remaining after replacing Iranian volumes. Libya is also a wildcard. If Libyan production continues to ramp up from the current 0.9 – 1.0 Mb/d, we expect the Saudis to start to decrease their Libyan replacement volumes, which would give them back some spare capacity.
There are other variables. In order to make up for lost sales to Europe, we would expect Iran to try to sell additional volumes to Asia, specifically to China and India. This is easier said than done. Focusing on the Saudis, refiners in both countries have term contracts with Saudi Aramco, and could not simply tell the Saudis to reduce their exports. They would have to ask, and the Saudis have no reason to say yes. Why should they lower revenues in their key regional market, in order to help out their biggest geopolitical rival? It would not make any sense.
The question, therefore, is: how much incremental Iranian crude could China and India take? It depends on their overall crude demand level, how much they are committed to taking from other producers, and importantly, what the price of Iranian crude is. Chinese and Indian refiners would have good negotiating leverage with Iran, who would have to cut their prices for Asian customers. Indeed, China has already taken significantly less Iranian crude in January, they may do it again in February, and we believe this to be posturing and setting up a negotiating position. Our “guesstimate” is that Iran would only be able to sell a maximum of 200-300 kb/d of the available EU 600 kb/d to China, India, and maybe other countries. So Iran would get hurt from lower revenues, due to both lower volumes and also due to forced price discounting.
Logically, an embargo on Iran should mainly impact the sour crude markets, in the form of stronger backwardation on the forward curve for Dubai, stronger differentials vs. sweet crudes, and stronger differentials for Asian vs. Atlantic Basin crudes. However, we believe that paper markets would also be affected and that there would be a bullish impact on ICE Brent and NYMEX WTI, even though they are sweet crudes.
Depending on the EU embargo scenario and how much Iranian crude is cut by non-EU countries such as Japan and S. Korea, and depending on how much Saudi spare capacity remains after replacing Iran volumes, we expect Brent prices in the $125-150 range. An embargo would possibly prompt an IEA strategic release. Finally, the price spike would dampen economic and oil demand growth. An EU embargo is likely, and when it is announced, depending on the details, we may revise our base case oil price forecast upward. Our current Brent crude price forecast for 2012 is $110.
And " Scenario 2: Iran shuts down the Straits of Hormuz. Brent prices in the $150 - $200 range."
The most bullish scenario would be if Iran retaliates, or even pre-empts, an embargo by trying to follow through on its oft-stated threat to shut down all shipments through the Straits of Hormuz. Based on JODI crude exports data for Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, we estimate flows are currently running at around 15 Mb/d. This is based on total exports from those countries of roughly 16 Mb/d, minus around 1 Mb/d of flows that do not go through the Straits of Hormuz; the latter includes 450 kb/d of Iraqi exports through the Kirkuk – Ceyhan northern pipeline and 800-900 kb/d of Saudi exports through the East-West pipeline to Yanbu on the Red Sea.
We believe it would be relatively easy for Iran to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, but that they would not be able to keep it shut for long. Importantly, Iran would not actually need to succeed in sinking an oil tanker or a naval ship to shut down the Straits. A credible threat would be enough to shut down oil shipments, because tanker insurers would stop coverage and traffic would cease. Threats could include mining the Straits; launching a surface-to-ship missile or maybe even just arming launch radars on those installations; or swarming armed small fast patrol boats around tankers – all of which would be detected by routine naval and air patrols conducted by the Western allies.
That said, we do not believe the Western allies would allow the Straits to be shut for a prolonged period. A disruption to oil flows would be considered a national and economic security threat, and if necessary, military force would be used to re-open the shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. Our view is that Iran would not be able to keep the Straits closed for more than 2 weeks. In addition, after the re-opening, it would be possible to maintain security through the use of naval escorts for tankers, as happened during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
In the event of a shutdown of the Straits of Hormuz, disrupting 15 Mb/d of crude flows, we would expect Brent prices to spike into the $150-200 range for a limited time period. The disruption would definitely result in an IEA strategic release. Lastly, the severe price spike would sharply hurt economic and oil demand growth, and from that standpoint, be selfcorrecting. A Straits of Hormuz shutdown is not likely; we estimate the probability of this very high impact event at 5%. Although Iran may like the idea of retaliation and hurting its perceived enemies, it would hurt itself even more, by halting its oil export revenues. Moreover, Iran would do this at the cost of provoking a military response that would destroy much of its military and perhaps even target its nuclear program.
Next steps and key dates:
- December 31/January 1 – The US responsibility for securing Iraqi airspace formally ended, and Iraq’s responsibility for its own airspace formally began. Iraq has no effective air force. Therefore, the shortest route for Israeli aircraft to attack Iran’s nuclear sites - straight through
Iraq – is available.
- January 30 - EU foreign ministers meeting: possible announcement of EU embargo on imports of crude from Iran
- February – Iran’s next announced naval exercises in the Persian Gulf March – Iranian elections
- June 30 – new US sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran take effect.
- September – According to Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, after September, a successful military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites will no longer be possible, because Iran will widen the redundancy of its facilities and spread them out over more sites, including the impenetrable site at Fordow (near Qom), which is located inside a mountain.
- November – US elections
- December – According to Leon Panetta, US Secretary of Defense (and former Director of the CIA), Iran could have a nuclear weapon capability by the end of 2012.
|MONDAY, JAN. 9|
|3 pm||Consumer credit||Nov.||--||$7.6 bln|
|Tuesday, JAN. 10|
|10 am||Job openings||Nov.||--||3.3 mln|
|10 am||Wholesale inventories||Nov.||--||1.6%|
|Wednesday, JAN. 11|
|2 pm||Beige Book||--||--|
|Thursday, Jan. 12|
|7:30 am||NFIB small business index||Dec.||--||92.0|
|8:30 a.m.||Jobless claims||1-7||380,000||372,000|
|8:30 am||Retail sales||Dec.||0.3%||0.2%|
|8:30 am||Retail sales ex-autos||Dec.||0.3%||0.2%|
|2 pm||Federal budget||Dec.||--||-$78 bln|
|FRIDAY, JAN. 13|
|8:30 am||Trade deficit||Nov.||-$44.5 bln||-$43.5 bln|
|8:30 am||Import price index||Dec.||0.0%||0.7%|
|9:55 am||Consumer sentiment||Jan.||73.0||69.9|