Iran forgetful of past as oil prices strengthen

Production outages in some OPEC countries are adding to the upward pressure on oil prices. (Reuters)
Updated 16 September 2018
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Iran forgetful of past as oil prices strengthen

The upward momentum of oil prices has returned. In the week ending Sept. 14, the Brent crude price rose to $78.09 per barrel and WTI hit $68.99. The Brent/WTI spread continues to widen significantly. From $5.50 at the end of July and $7.60 at the end of August, it closed at $9 per barrel on Friday. This is mainly attributed to the very low inventories at Cushing, Oklahoma, which are 33.2 million barrels lower than last year’s levels. This has resulted in heavy discounting of the price of WTI at Midland compared to WTI at the US Gulf Coast. The wider Brent/WTI spread is also attributed to concerns about the upcoming sanctions on Iran that will take effect on Nov. 4.

Iranian oil exports have tumbled to nearly 1.7 million barrels per day, the lowest output in more than two years. There is resulting unease that refiners’ demand is exceeding supply. Tightness in the oil market became evident after the price structure for Brent shifted into backwardation after flirting with contango for most of the previous four months, signaling a tightening of the spot market. Backwardation is when the current price of oil is higher than a distant futures contract. It is seen as a sign of higher immediate demand and a lower oil supply.

This week, backwardation strengthened further, with prompt-month prices higher than forward prices. This does not incentivize the stockpiling of crude. Backwardation market structure is a bullish factor that increases prompt trading activities and draws down inventories. That is a real concern when global oil inventories have already declined.

One country is trying to take advantage of the tight oil market. Iran believes that US sanctions will be unable to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. Its position is that the global oil market is already tight and rival producers cannot make up the shortfall. However, Iran has neglected to consider Saudi Arabia’s spare capacity of 2 million barrels per day. It has also conveniently forgotten that Saudi Arabia substituted most of Iran’s shortfall in oil output during the 2012-2015 sanctions. Iran is behind much of the rumor-mongering in regard to the imminent rise in oil prices. In truth, the market is tight but oil prices are stable in the range of $72 to $78 per barrel. This is a result of Saudi Arabia’s influence in working with OPEC+ for the good of the global economy.

Outages in some OPEC countries are adding to the upward pressure on prices. Though the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that Libyan crude production jumped in August by 290,000 barrels per day, to 950,000 barrels per day, Libya’s oil production has been volatile and unstable. Major outages at several Libyan ports in June created anxiety that helped push up prices. Output fell from around 1 million barrels per day earlier this year to as low as 660,000 in July.

The EIA also reported that Venezuelan production sank to just 1.26 million barrels per day, continuing its freefall as a result of the country’s economic collapse. Such low exports are tragic for a country with some 300 billion barrels of proven reserves. Unfortunately, due to years of underinvestment, there is currently no hope of Venezuela raising production.

In Iraq, the situation is difficult as well. The protests in Basra, where most Iraqi production and export facilities are located, have created tension in such a tight market. As yet, the violence has not affected oil production, which reached 4.55 million barrels per day in July, and exports recently hit a record of 3.59 million barrels per day. It takes nerves of steel to safely navigate such market conditions. 

• Faisal Mrza is an energy and oil marketing adviser. He was formerly with OPEC and Saudi Aramco. Twitter:@faisalmrza.


China’s Xiaomi swings to net profit in Q3 on robust sales in India, Europe

Updated 19 November 2018
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China’s Xiaomi swings to net profit in Q3 on robust sales in India, Europe

  • Profit for the three months through September reached $357.23 million
  • The firm has been adding new brands to its smartphone portfolio to target niche consumers

HONG KONG: Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc. said on Monday it swung to a net profit in the third quarter, beating analyst estimates, driven by robust sales in India and Europe.
Profit for the three months through September reached 2.48 billion yuan ($357.23 million), versus an 11 billion yuan loss in the same period a year earlier. That compared with a 1.92 billion yuan average of five analyst estimates compiled by Refinitiv Eikon.
Xiaomi also said operating profit sank 38.4 percent to 3.59 billion yuan in the third quarter. Revenue rose 49.1 percent to 50.85 billion yuan.
The mixed results come amid a slowdown in smartphone purchases both in China, where Xiaomi once was the top-selling handset brand, and overseas.
Nevertheless Xiaomi, along with fellow low-cost handset makers Oppo and Vivo, accounted for around a quarter of the global smartphone market in the first half of 2018, showed data from researcher IDC.
Xiaomi’s fastest-growing markets are India, where it has had success with its budget Redmi phone series, and Europe, where it entered in 2017 with launches in Russia and Spain. Earlier this month it released its flagship Mi 8 Pro device in Britain.
But to weather the global market slowdown, analysts said Xiaomi needs to expand to new markets and also sell more higher-priced devices with wider profit margins.
The firm has been adding new brands to its smartphone portfolio to target niche consumers. Concurrent with today’s earnings, it announced a partnership with Meitu Inc, a maker of a photo app popular with young women, to sell phones under its brand. Earlier this year it launched Black Shark, a phone targeted at gamers, and Poco, a value-for-money device aimed at India.
Mo Jia, who tracks China’s smartphone makers at research firm Canalys, said attempts to sell more expensive devices requires changing its brand perception.
“It’s still very hard for Xiaomi to change its perception of being a low-end device manufacturer as the majority of its smartphone shipments are the Redmi series.”
Xiaomi also aims to transform itself from a smartphone firm into a software company. As the firm prepared for its IPO, founder Lei Jun touted Internet services — namely advertisements placed on the firm’s in-house apps — as its future and key differentiator from other handset brands.
In the third quarter, Xiaomi’s smartphone division grew revenue by 36.1 percent while its Internet service division grew 85.5 percent. But phones made up 64.6 percent of total sales, while Internet services made up 9.3 percent.
The results are the second set released by Xiaomi since the smartphone maker raised $4.72 billion in an initial public offering (IPO) in June, valuing the firm at about $54 billion — around half of some earlier industry estimates of $100 billion.
Its shares have fallen roughly 20 percent since they started trading in July amid a broader Chinese stock market sell-off and concern about a slowdown in China’s tech industry.