Brent oil rises to 4-year high ahead of Iran sanctions, traders eye more hikes

Approximately 1.5 million barrels per day of Iranian oil will effectively be out of the market on November 4 once the US sanctions kick in. (AFP)
Updated 01 October 2018
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Brent oil rises to 4-year high ahead of Iran sanctions, traders eye more hikes

  • Brent was pushed up by looming sanctions against Iran, which will start targeting its oil sector from November 4
  • With oil prices soaring, there are concerns over their inflationary effect on demand growth

SINGAPORE: Brent crude oil prices rose to their highest since November 2014 on Monday ahead of US sanctions against Iran, the third-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), that kick in next month.
Benchmark Brent crude oil futures rose to as much as $83.27 a barrel and were at $83.21 at 0339 GMT, up 48 cents, or 0.6 percent from their last close.
US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were up 32 cents, or 0.4 percent, at $73.57 a barrel.
WTI prices were supported by a report on Friday of a stagnant rig count in the United States, which points to a slowdown in US crude production, which now rivals top producers Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Brent was pushed up by looming sanctions against Iran, which will start targeting its oil sector from November 4.
ANZ bank said on Monday that “the market is eyeing oil prices at $100 per barrel.”
In a sign that the financial market is positioning itself for further price rises, hedge funds increased their bullish wagers on US crude in the week to Sept. 25, data from the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) showed on Friday, increasing futures and options positions in New York and London by 3,728 contracts to 346,566 during the period.
In a further sign of the impact that the US sanctions on Iran will have on the market, China’s Sinopec said it is halving loadings of Iranian crude oil this month. China is the biggest buyer of Iranian oil.
“If Chinese refiners do comply with US sanctions more fully than expected, then the market balance is likely to tighten even more aggressively,” Edward Bell, commodity analyst at Emirates NBD bank wrote in a note published on Sunday.
“We’re going to find out very soon as approximately 1.5 million barrels (per day) of Iranian oil is effectively going offline on Nov. 4. If the market senses that Saudi Arabia capacity is tapped out at 10.5 million bpd ... oil prices will rocket higher with the flashy $100 per barrel price tag indeed a reasonable sounding target,” said Stephen Innes, head of trading for Asia-Pacific at futures brokerage Oanda in Singapore..
With oil prices soaring, there are concerns over their inflationary effect on demand growth, especially in Asia’s emerging markets where weakening currencies are further adding to high fuel import costs.
Add the trade disputes between the US and other major powers, especially China, and economic growth into 2019 could be eroded.
Growth in China’s manufacturing sector already sputtered in September as both external and domestic demand weakened, two surveys showed on Sunday.
In Japan, business confidence among big manufacturers declined in the last quarter its lowest in nearly a year, as firms felt the pinch from rising raw material costs and as global trade conditions worsened.


Bitcoin craze hits Iran as US sanctions squeeze weak economy

Updated 18 July 2019
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Bitcoin craze hits Iran as US sanctions squeeze weak economy

  • Some Iranian officials worry that “mining” is abusing the subsidized electricity
  • Iranian Bitcoin miners are purchasing more affordable Chinese ready-made computers

TEHRAN: Iranians feeling the squeeze from US sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic’s ailing economy are increasingly turning to such digital currencies as Bitcoin to make money, prompting alarm in and out of the country.
In Iran, some government officials worry that the energy-hungry process of “mining” Bitcoin is abusing Iran’s system of subsidized electricity; in the United States, some observers have warned that cryptocurrencies could be used to bypass the Trump administration’s sanctions targeting Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The Bitcoin craze has made the front pages of Iranian newspapers and been discussed by some of the country’s top ayatollahs, and there have been televised police raids on hidden computer farms set up to bring in money by “mining” the currency.
Like other digital currencies, Bitcoin is an alternative to money printed by sovereign governments around the world. Unlike those bills, however, cryptocurrencies are not controlled by a central bank. Bitcoin and other digital currencies like it trade globally in highly speculative markets without any backing from a physical entity.
As a result, computers around the world “mine” the data, meaning they use highly complex algorithms to verify transactions. The verified transactions, called blocks, are then added to a public record, known as the blockchain. Any time “miners” add a new block to the blockchain, they are rewarded with a payment in bitcoins.
To work, the expensive specialized computers require a lot of electricity to power their processors and to keep them cool. In Iran, “miners” have an edge because electricity is cheap thanks to longtime government subsidies. “Miners” also buy cheaper Chinese ready-made computers to do the work.
But the constant raids and authorities’ conflicting statements on the issue have Bitcoin “miners” in Iran incredibly leery of being identified. Those contacted by The Associated Press refused to speak about their work or to say how much they earn from their “mining.”
But they acknowledge they do this to make some money at a time when Iran’s currency, the rial, tumbled from 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of the 2015 nuclear deal, to around 120,000 rials to $1 now.
“It is clear that here has turned into a heaven for ‘miners,’” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, recently told AP in an interview. “The business of ‘mining’ is not forbidden in law but the government and the Central Bank have ordered the Customs Bureau to ban the import of (mining machines) until new regulations are introduced.”
Ali Bakhshi, the head of the Iran Electrical Industry Syndicate, said earlier this month that the country’s Energy Ministry likely would boost costs for Bitcoin “miners” to 7 cents for each kilowatt of electricity they consume, a massive increase from the current half-cent but still almost half the cost of electricity in the United States, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
Still, there are concerns, especially among Iran’s religious leaders, that people might try to circumvent paying extra for the electricity as well as using digital currency to hide or move money illicitly.
Tabnak, a hard-line news website associated with a former commander of the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, quoted three ayatollahs describing Bitcoin as either problematic or “haram,” meaning forbidden. Islam prescribes strict rules about finance.
But Jahromi said clerics became more receptive to the idea after his staff briefed them that Bitcoin had a value in the real world, which is required under Islamic finance. Islamic finance also prohibits gambling, the payment of interest and misleading others.
“Some of our top clerics have issued fatwas that say Bitcoin is money without a reserve, that it is rejected by Islamic and cybercurrencies are haram,” Jahromi said. “When we explain to them this is not a currency but an asset, they change their mind.”
Iran has tried to keep its economic situation in check by controlling foreign currency rates and cutting down on those moving their money from the rial to other currencies, including Bitcoin. Last year, the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Mohammad Reza Pour-Ebrahimi, the head of the Iranian parliament’s economic commission, as suggesting that about $2.5 billion left Iran through digital currency purchases. He did not elaborate and authorities have not discussed it since.
The US, meanwhile, has been keeping a close watch on Iranians holding bitcoins. In November, a federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, accused two Iranian men of hacking and holding hostage computer systems of over 200 American entities to extort them for Bitcoin, including the cities of Newark and Atlanta.
“As Iran becomes increasingly isolated and desperate for access to US dollars, it is vital that virtual currency exchanges, peer-to-peer exchangers and other providers of digital currency services harden their networks against these illicit schemes,” said Sigal Mandelker, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Not so, said Jahromi.
“Cybercurrencies are effective in bypassing sanctions when it comes to small transactions, but we do not see any special impact in them as far as mega-transactions are concerned,” he said. “We cannot use them to go around international monetary mechanisms.”