A little over a year ago, specialized satellite imaging company Orbital Insight which uses its proprietary imaging and algorithms to track above-ground oil storage, confirmed something we had alleged earlier in the year: that China was vastly under-representing the amount of oil it had stored in its Strategic Petroleum Reserve (with significant implications for prices). As we said last September "according to Orbital Insight, China had not only misrepresented how much oil it has stored, it has done so at a massive scale, with the real number dwarfing even JPM own estimate: the real amount of Chinese oil in storage, according to Orbital, was a whopping 600 million barrels as of May" an amount nearly 3 times greater than the official, at the time, number of 234 million barrels.
The resultant doubt about China's true purchasing capacity was one of the several factors that led to the subsequent swoon in oil prices which OPEC was unable to overcome until nearly a year later, when the market became increasingly confident that the OPEC strategy of eliminating excess inventory, was working and pushed the price of WTI and Brent to two year highs, above $57 and $63 respectively.
That confidence may not last, however, and the reason may be the same one as last year: Orbital Insights.
As the FT's David Sheppard writes, "while the oil market’s attention has been gripped this week by the corruption purge in Saudi Arabia and its tensions with Iran, from miles above the earth’s crust one company is highlighting a different kind of intrigue." He is, of course, referring to Orbital Insight, whose analysis of Saudi crude inventories in recent months has thrown up an "interesting anomaly.'
One can call it an "anomaly", but a better explanation of what the company has done is to catch the Saudi kingdom in lying about its inventories. Here is the official narrative:
The kingdom, which has led Opec and Russia in co-ordinated output cuts since January, has for months been reporting to official agencies that its oil held in storage has been falling, which alongside lower production has been one factor that has helped propel Brent crude oil back above $60 a barrel.
There is just one problem: it's a lie: "Orbital’s analysis of satellite imagery suggests that Saudi Arabia’s above-ground tanks — whose floating roofs allow them to see when oil inventories are rising or falling by measuring shadows cast across the top of the tanks — have seen no real change in the past 18 months."
This, Orbital says, is interesting because before early 2016, movements in above-ground storage closely tracked the trend in Saudi’s official numbers submitted to the Joint Organisations Data Initiative that are crucial for traders and analysts trying to get a grip of the near 100m barrel-a-day oil market.
In other words, the Saudis did not always lie about their inventory - it's only recently that the nation decided to "pull a China" and misrepresent its true crude inventories... in fact, it only started as OPEC began aggressively jawboning the market to send the price of oil higher in the buildup to the Nov 2016 Vienna production cut agreement. In the process, OPEC's most important member would do anything to give the fake impression there is more demand, and thus less oil in storage, than there really was.
How much? Here's the FT's punchline: "While Saudi Arabia has reported to Jodi that its oil stocks have declined by about 70m barrels since early 2016, the Orbital analysis suggests the above-ground tanks have actually seen inventories rise marginally over the same period."
If confirmed, Orbital's startling allegation would imply that for much of the past two years, OPEC has been actively engaged in doing what it does best: cheating, not only the market, but also other cartel members, because if Saudi peers found out that Saudi Arabia was quietly warehousing tens of millions of barrels in excess oil to give the false impression of high demand, then everyone else would start doing it. Come to think of it, maybe they are...
Still, as the FT and Orbital point out, there are a few caveats. For one, Saudi Arabia’s official storage numbers include oil held overseas, in key regional hubs. It also covers line-fill for pipelines and underground tanks that cannot be monitored by eyes in the sky. These factors may account for why the numbers no longer seem to match up — though they do raise other questions. Orbital says that changes in inventory levels in above-ground domestic storage tanks are normally noticeable normally first as they are easiest to access. Saudi’s Jodi numbers and what Orbital can see through its algorithmic analysis of the satellite imagery had previously tracked each other closely.
“The floating tank data is the part that we think is most indicative of short-term changes in storage,” said James Crawford, chief executive of Orbital Insight. “The big question is why that no longer jives with the government data that shows a pretty big drop."
There may be another explanation and it has to do with keeping higher oil storage levels at home than abroad. As the FT explains, "the most intriguing suggestion for the shift is more strategic: Riyadh’s own concerns about rising tensions with its neighbours."
“[The] reason for no real deep stock draw in [the] kingdom will be mainly security related,” said Cyril Widdershoven, who runs the Verocy consultancy.
That suggests, he said, that Saudi Arabia is concerned enough about its deteriorating relationship with Iran, and to a lesser degree Qatar, to keep higher oil stocks at home in case of any disruption.
To be sure, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saying this week that Iran’s support for Houthi fighters in Yemen, and the provision to them of missiles capable of striking deep into the kingdom, constitutes an act of war, "it is certainly an intriguing theory", one which Shepperd writes that "at times of heightened tension between two of Opec’s biggest producers it is one the market may start tracking closely."
And while there is no definitive explanation for the inventory discrepnacy observed by Orbital, what makes this mystery especially intriguing is how polar opposite the two most likely explanation are in terms of oil prices: either Saudi Arabia is covering up the lack of demand and warehousing excess oil, which will eventually send oil prices sliding, or if the "security-related" explanation is accurate, then Saudi Arabia is indeed preparing for war with Iran, which once the shooting begins will send the price of oil into the stratosphere.