Crude has slumped about 20 per cent in six months to around $59 a barrel in London. Image Credit: Bloomberg

London: As the clamour grows for Opec to slash even more oil production, and the group vows to consider any necessary action, its next meeting could result in an unusual step: a pre-emptive supply cut.

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its partners — known as Opec+ — have reduced output this year to contain a glut created by faltering oil demand and surging US shale supply. Amid forecasts of a new surplus next year, there’s a chorus of calls from Morgan Stanley to Commerzbank AG for the alliance to deepen the curbs when it meets in Vienna in December.

But in recent months global markets have grown tighter, removing any immediate need to act. If extra cutbacks are announced, it would mark a break with tradition for the group, which typically waits for a glut to emerge before responding.

“It would break the mold,” said Derek Brower, a director at consultant RS Energy Group. “Opec makes policy reactively, not proactively.”

Depressed oil prices may compel the group to change its habits. Crude has slumped about 20 per cent in six months to around $59 a barrel in London — below the levels most Opec nations need to cover government spending — and on Friday posted a weekly loss of 1.8 per cent. A renewed sell-off in 2020 would squeeze revenues even further.

‘Daunting’ stockpiles

Opec+, a collective of 24 producers that pumps half the world’s oil, confronts a “daunting” surplus in the first six months of 2020 of about 1.2 million barrels a day, according to the International Energy Agency. Demand is being eroded by the weakest global growth in a decade and the US-China trade war, while supplies are swelling in the US and elsewhere. As a result, the group is facing a “serious challenge” to defend prices, said Neil Atkinson, the agency’s head of oil markets.

The coalition agreed to cut output by 1.2 million barrels a day this year, a reduction that has been compounded by a range of crises, from sanctions on Iran to a missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil-processing facilities. Nonetheless, traders and consultants from Gunvor Group Ltd to Rystad Energy AS recommend a further cutback when Opec+ meets on December 5-6.

“If by December there are clear signs of economic weakness, then a further deepening by a minimum of 500,000 barrels a day would be highly likely,” said Ed Morse, head of commodity research at Citigroup Inc in New York.

Opec’s top officials have signalled they’re prepared to consider this. Secretary-General Mohammad Barkindo said the group will do “whatever it takes” to prevent a market slump and that members are willing to “put all options on the table.” Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, who represents Opec’s biggest member, said his job is to check a surplus.

Even Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who leads Opec’s most important, yet often reluctant ally, has said he recognises the need for further cooperation.

Yet announcing a supply cut while the market is in deficit would be a departure for the organisation.

When Opec+ was established in late 2016, surplus inventories had ballooned to a record of more than 300 million barrels and were still accumulating at a rate of 1.4 million a day, according to the Paris-based IEA. Its current round of cuts was agreed in late 2018, when supply was exceeding demand by 2.7 million barrels a day.

Tardy approach

In the past, Opec has more typically been criticised for acting too slowly. When a surplus brews, members are reluctant to gamble that sacrificing sales volumes will be compensated by higher prices. There’s also the inevitable discussion over how much each nation should cut.

“It’s far easier for Opec to sit on its hands, ignore gloomy forecasts for as long as possible and try to deal with any problems after they’ve emerged, rather than start the painful and tedious negotiations that are always needed before a new deal,” RS Energy’s Brower said.

When Opec assembles at its Austrian headquarters in December, global markets probably won’t be telegraphing any immediate surplus to be dealt with.

World oil inventories contracted in the third quarter by the most in a decade, falling by 228 million barrels, according to Opec, as summer demand proved surprisingly robust and the group’s deliberate cutbacks were amplified by disruptions in Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Stockpiles are poised to shrink further in the fourth quarter, even if the kingdom has fully restored output from the September 14 missile and drone strikes, the IEA estimates. Inventories may decline by about 55 million barrels.

Yet the outlook for the first six months of 2020 may nonetheless spur the producers into acting. The alliance needs to cut supply by 1 million barrels a day, and the only question now is the timing, said Bob McNally, president of Rapidan Energy Group and a former oil official at the White House under President George W. Bush.

“Normally it’s Opec’s habit to wait until they can see the oversupply in the whites of the eyes,” McNally said. “But the heavily swollen balances for the first half of next year may push them to cut production earlier than planned.”