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Oil Fundamentals: Upstream, Midstream, Downstream & Geopolitics

Crude oil is a scarce resource which means that at some point the existing oil wells will be exhausted. The current estimations, given the actual extraction and consumption rates, sustain that the black gold will be available for another 40 years but any increase in the demand would reduce the aforementioned projections. The USA has a Strategic Petroleum Reserve which has been specifically created in order to face shortages in the supply, however, rising oil prices and new technologies are pushing towards alternative source of energy.  Companies and businesses are considering potential substitute for crude oil and the alternative energy sources, that are increasingly becoming popular, are biofuels (like ethanol), hydrogen fuels, fuel cells, solar energy, nuclear power (even though nuclear power is not an environmentally friendly solution) and wind power.

Nevertheless, the demand for refined products is still very high and each oil derivative has its own market and its own price driver. A perfect example of divergence in price drivers for refined products comes for Europe. In the 90s many European governments guaranteed tax incentives to all the drivers who would have bought diesel–powered cars because diesel fuel emits less greenhouse gases than gasoline. Needless to say that such policy provoked a sharp augment in diesel prices but not in other oil derivatives.

Let’s now have a look at the oil industry as a whole.

First of all, it is worth mentioning that the oil industry is subdivided into 3 subsectors: upstream, midstream and downstream. The upstream involves the exploration and the extraction of crude oil, the midstream sector consists of transportation and storage while the downstream segment refers to the refining industry, marketing and distribution of refined products.

Upstream – The supply chain falls within the upstream segment. Here, the most important thing to determine is the capacity of the on–shore or off–shore site because this measurement identifies how big the oil well is and, consequently, the extraction rate. It is worth noting that major companies tend to retain a certain amount of unused capacity in order to face unexpected or sudden explosion in demand (usually caused by geopolitical issues).

Midstream – Once the extraction process is over, the oil “enters” the second segment: the midstream. This sector has to do, predominantly, with the transportation of the extracted petroleum liquids towards the refining centers. The transition can be processed using pipelines, trucks, barges or rail.

Downstream – Downstream operations are strongly connected with the refining industry because it is in this segment of the production chain that diesel, kerosene, jet fuel oil and all the other petroleum liquids get synthesized. Now, refining capacity is often closely related to demand for obvious reasons but not all refineries can deal with a broad range of crude oils so there are certain production boundaries. Nevertheless, the business is straightforward: refineries buy crude oil, they refine it and then sell the synthesized outputs. The income generated by refineries is measured with the so–called “crack spread” (there will be another study entirely focused on this product).

The cost of crude oil is not solely influenced by upstream, midstream and downstream operations. In fact, exogenous variables or unexpected events such as natural disasters, political turbulences and quality reduction of a specific oil well can push market players to increase their inventories. Consequentially, an augment in the short term demand and forward delivery would increase the cost of storage and, in turn, the cost of carry.

Amongst all of the exogenous factors that can alter oil prices, the geopolitical ones are certainly the most dangerous.

Conflicts and political instability in the Middle East have always had a remarkable impact on oil prices. Besides, African or Latin American countries, such as Nigeria and Venezuela, have often “hosted” violent riots that have increased the buying pressure on the oil market. Geopolitical issues create nervousness among market players and increase prices because internal riots, civil wars, unstable or corrupted governments could jeopardize the supply and limit the amount of oil available. Also, extreme forms of governments (fascism, communism, military controlled countries, etc) are not well seen by oil importing countries because dictators and/or non–democratically elected governments could threaten to limit the extraction or the export of oil.

The next chart provides a better clue on the relationship between geopolitical factors and oil prices:

Geopolitics - WTI Crude Oil Futures

The chart shows the fluctuations of WTI Crude Oil futures prices since July 1986 so far. The graph does not really need any comment because the arrows are self explanatory. Wars, civil wars, political turmoil, crises and cuts in the extraction rate have always added a significant pressure on crude prices which have been inevitably pushed higher. The only 3 big events, worth mentioning, that have depressed oil prices have been the Asian Economic Crisis in the mid 90s, the terroristic attack to the Twin Towers in September 2001and the Credit Crunch in 2008–2009.

Clearly, the Middle East is a vital geographical area for oil so any turbulence in this zone is strongly felt by market participants. Likewise, the other OPEC members do not always enjoy a great deal of political and civil stability (the OPEC members are  Algeria, Indonesia, Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela). The following chart shows the weight of each OPEC member in terms of number of daily extracted barrels:

Weights of OPEC members - June 2013

As previously mentioned, the chart displays the weight of each country expressed as a percentage of the total OPEC daily barrel production (the data are recent and they refer to the period January–June 2013). Saudi Arabia (29.68%), Iran (11.6%), Iraq (9.43%), Kuwait (9.17%) United Arab Emirates (8.78%) and Venezuela (8.63%) are the top 6 largest OPEC members. The fact that 5 out of 6 among the largest OPEC members are all located in the Middle East explains very clearly why this world region is so closely monitored by oil importing countries like United States, China, Japan, India and Germany.

If you are interested in trading oil or oil derivatives markets you might want to read the following HyperVolatility researches:

1) Oil Fundamentals: Reserves and Import/Export Dynamics

2) Oil Fundamentals: Crude Oil Grades and Refining Process

3) The Oil Arbitrage: Brent vs WTI

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Send us an email at info@hypervolatility.com with the list of the 3 asset classes you would like to receive the projections for and we will guarantee you a 14 day trial.

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