IEA cuts demand outlook

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LONDON–Global markets may have staged a dizzying rally since news broke of an effective coronavirus vaccine, but oil markets are unlikely to feel any significant economic benefits until well into next year, the International Energy Agency said Thursday.

In its monthly oil market report, the IEA darkened its outlook for crude consumption in the months ahead, deepening its forecasted drop in oil demand for 2020 by 400,000 barrels a day to 8.8 million barrels a day, citing resurgent Covid-19 infection rates in the U.S. and Europe. The move was even more severe than OPEC’s forecast cut Wednesday.

The agency also slashed its demand forecasts for the third and fourth quarters of 2020 as well as the first quarter of 2021, all while estimating a supply increase of more than a million barrels per day in November. Libyan supply is rebounding from its monthslong export blockade and U.S. production is recovering after hurricane-induced shut-ins in October. U.S. production was down 7% from its average 2019 level last month.

After a mild start to the winter season in the northern hemisphere, when people begin to turn on their heating, the recent announcement of lockdowns and coronavirus containment measures across Europe and rising infection rates in the U.S. have prompted the Paris-based organization to cut its fourth-quarter demand estimate by 1.2 million barrels a day. A Covid-19 vaccination won’t significantly impact global demand in the first half of 2021, the IEA said.

Oil prices ticked up Thursday, with Brent crude–the global benchmark–up 0.5% at $44.00 a barrel and U.S. crude futures up 0.4% at $41.63 a barrel. Both benchmarks are up more than 11% so far this week, although they pared sharp intraday gains before Wednesday’s close. The release of OPEC’s downbeat monthly report was a factor in putting the brakes on crude’s rally, according to Warren Patterson, head of commodities strategy at ING.

The IEA’s report highlighted the stark disparity between the impact of the coronavirus in richer countries and in their poorer counterparts.

“Nearly all of these massive reductions are found in OECD countries,” the IEA said, pointing out that in the economic powerhouses of the developing world like China and India, demand expectations have improved.

Even so, with a tentative summer recovery in demand having faltered and production rising despite the best efforts of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies to balance the oil market with production cuts, the world has failed to winnow away much of the glut of crude that prompted vertiginous price drops during the spring.

OECD stocks in September were only 4% below their May highs, according to the IEA.

And while stocks of refined products finally fell in September after six consecutive months of increases, the pandemic has hammered refiners. The pandemic has permanently removed 1.7 million barrels a day of refining capacity from the market, while a further 20 million barrels a day of capacity has been idled, the report said.

In a signal of a well-supplied oil market, the price of physical barrels of crude remains below that of oil futures. The IEA sees any vaccinations “unlikely to ride to the rescue of the global oil market for some time.” Therefore, current supply and demand may give OPEC pause for thought when it meets later this month and with its non-cartel allies in early December.

The alliance has signaled its willingness to delay or reverse plans to further ease production cuts. Without such a move, the IEA’s forecasts imply that there will be almost zero change to oil stocks in the first three months of 2021.

“Unless the fundamentals change, the task of rebalancing the market will make slow progress,” the IEA said.

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