A tanker loaded with 1 million barrels of Venezuelan heavy crude has been stranded for over a month off the coast of Louisiana, not because it can't sail but as a result of Venezuela's imploding economy, and its inability to obtain a bank letter of credit to deliver its expensive cargo. It's the latest sign of the financial troubles plaguing state-run oil company PDVSA in the aftermath of the latest US sanctions against the Maduro regime, and evidence that banks are slashing exposure to Venezuela across the board as the Latin American nation spirals into chaos.
As Reuters reports, following the recently imposed US sanctions, a large number of banks have closed accounts linked to officials of the OPEC member and have refused to provide correspondent bank services or trade in government bonds. The stranded tanker is one direct casualty of this escalation.
The tanker Karvounis, a Suezmax carrying Venezuelan diluted crude oil, has been anchored at South West Pass off the coast of Louisiana for about a month, according to Marinetraffic data.
For the past 30 days, PBF Energy, the intended recipient of the cargo, has been trying unsuccessfully to find a bank willing to provide a letter of credit to discharge the oil, according to two trading and shipping sources.
The tanker was loaded with oil in late June at the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius where PDVSA rents storage tanks, and has been waiting for authorization to discharge since early July, according to Reuters. It is here that the delivery process was halted as crude sellers request letters of credit from customers that guarantee payment within 30 days after a cargo is delivered.
While the documents must be issued by a bank and received before the parties agree to discharge, this time this is impossible as the correspondent bank has decided to avoid interacting with PDVSA and running afoul of the latest US sanctions. It was not immediately clear which banks have denied letters of credit and if other U.S. refiners are affected.
In an ironic coincidence, these days the state energy company of Venezuela, PDVSA, is almost as much Venezuelan as it is Russian and Chinese. Chinese and Russian entities currently take about 40% of all PDVSA's exports as repayment for over $60 billion in loans to Venezuela and the company in the last decade, as we reported last year and as Reuters recently updated. This has left U.S. refiners among the few remaining cash buyers. Meanwhile, as a result of these ongoing historical barter deals exchanging oil for refined products and loans, PDVSA's cash flow has collapsed even as the company's creditors resort to increasingly more aggressive measures to collect: just this April, a Russian state company took a Venezuelan oil tanker hostage in hopes of recouping $30 million in unpaid debt.
The first indication that the financial noose is tightening on the Caracas regime came earlier this month when Credit Suisse barred operations involving certain Venezuelan bonds and is now requiring that business with President Nicolas Maduro's government and related entities undergo a reputation risk review. In a while publicized move, this past May Goldman Sachs purchased $2.8 billion of Venezuelan debt bonds at steep discount, a move criticized by the Venezuelan opposition and other banks.
While PDVSA owns the cargo, the actual tanker was chartered by Trafigura:
Since last year, the trading firm has been marketing an increasing volume of Venezuelan oil received from companies such as Russia's Rosneft, which lift and then resell PDVSA's barrels to monetize credits extended to Venezuela, according to traders and PDVSA's internal documents.
Some barrels are offered on the open market, others are supplied to typical PDVSA's customers including U.S refiners.
Meanwhile, even before this latest sanctions-induced L/C crisis, Venezuela's oil exports to the US were already in freefall: PDVSA and its JVs exported only 638,325bpd to the US in July, more than a fifth, or 22% less, than the same month of 2016, according to Reuters Trade Flows data.
As for the recipient, PBF received just three cargoes for a total of 1.58 million barrels last month, the lowest figure since February. Other U.S. refineries such as Phillips 66 did not receive any cargo. The US refiner and PDVSA have a long-term supply agreement for Venezuelan oil signed in 2015 when PBF bought the 189,000-bpd Chalmette refinery from PDVSA and ExxonMobil Corp.
Earlier in the month, PBF's Chalmette refinery received half a million barrels of Venezuelan crude on the tanker Ridgebury Sally B. This second delivery got stuck on tanker Karvounis.
It is likely that soon virtually all Venezuelan cargos bound for the US will share a similar "stranded" fate as one bank after another cease providing L/C backstops to the Venezuelan company, ultimately suffocating Maduro's regime which is in dire need of dollars to keep the army on its side and prevent a revolution. As for how high the price of oil rises as Venezuela's oil production is slowly taken offline, it remains to be seen. Three weeks ago, Barclays calculated that a "sharper and longer disruption" to Venezuela oil production could raise oil prices by at least $5-7/barrell. Such a disruption appears to now be forming.