OPEC+ prepares for weekend meeting after Saudi warns speculators to ‘watch out’

Led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, OPEC+ agreed in early October to reduce production by 2 million barrels per day from November.
Vladimir Simicek | Afp | Getty Images
The OPEC+ alliance of oil producers will decide further production policy steps over the weekend, as crude prices reflect an ongoing struggle between supply-demand fundamentals and broader macro-economic concerns.

After convening remotely throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, OPEC+ has returned to in-person meetings and will gather in Vienna on June 4. The OPEC ministers gather for a separate meeting unlikely to address output on June 3.

Ministers face an oil market rattled by supply volatility, demand uncertainty, and a prospective recession, which could throttle transport fuel consumption. Since October, OPEC+ — a 23-member alliance including heavyweights Russia and Saudi Arabia — has lowered output by 2 million barrels per day in an effort to combat lower demand. Some members have also announced additional voluntary cuts totaling 1.6 million barrels per day in April.

Group members are expected to coagulate their individual positions and proposals in the 24-48 hours before the meeting, some OPEC+ delegates told CNBC, speaking on condition of anonymity — while public comments so far have been conflicting.

On May 23, Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman warned oil market speculators they could face further pain ahead, in comments some have read as hinting further supply cuts could be in the cards.

“I keep advising [speculators] that they will be ouching. They did ouch in April. I don’t have to show my cards, I’m not [a] poker player … but I would just tell them, watch out,” he said at the time.

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak later indicated that he expected no further steps from the OPEC+ meeting, but then said his comments were misinterpreted as downplaying an output cut, according to Russian state news agency Tass.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have been united in their public OPEC+ stance since a March 2020 dispute that led to the one-month dissolution of their oil partnership and an ensuing price war.

Moscow and Riyadh later mended ties through a new OPEC+ agreement to respond to a demand plunge driven by the Covid-19 pandemic — and have remained like-minded on OPEC+ matters since. Voiding the perception of a public rift, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Thursday met on the sidelines of a BRICS summit in Cape Town.

The two reviewed the cooperation between their countries and “ways to strengthen & develop them in all fields, in addition to discussing the consolidation of bilateral & multilateral action,” according to the Saudi foreign ministry.

Two OPEC+ delegates, who did not want to be named due to the market sensitivity of the meeting, told CNBC that further output cuts were unlikely this weekend. One noted that this will remain the case unless demand stays low in China — where recovery has fallen short of expectations, in the wake of shedding strict Covid-19 restrictions.

A third source said that OPEC+, which prioritizes the state of global inventories over outright prices, would be comfortable with futures above $75 per barrel, while a fourth estimated near $70-80 per barrel.

Brent futures with August expiry were trading at $75.70 per barrel at 10:24 a.m. in London, up $1.42 per barrel from the Thursday settlement.

The OPEC+ group isn’t “after spikes” and seeks a “balanced market,” the fourth delegate told CNBC, stressing that the alliance must continue to strike a “precautionary” production strategy. Deep cuts also risk re-attracting U.S. ire, as Washington has historically criticized supply reductions that pile strain on consuming households.

‘Wait and see’?

Goldman Sachs’ analysts expect OPEC+ to keep production unchanged this weekend. However, they said in a note Wednesday that they see a “sizeable 35% subjective probability” of further OPEC cuts, as oil prices are “clearly below our $80-85/bbl estimate of the OPEC put. Very low positioning, the Saudi determination not to give speculators free rein, and the decision to meet in person also suggest that deeper cuts will likely be discussed.”

OPEC+ has waded stormy waters for the better part of the year. Oil markets have historically been steered by physical supply and demand fundamentals — which have been increasingly overshadowed by broader macro-economic concerns over the fuel consumption impact of high inflation, bolstering interest rates and the spring collapse of several U.S. and European banks.

OPEC+ delegates also said the group had been following U.S. debt ceiling negotiations, as the proposal of President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy transited several debate and vote stages in a bid for the world’s largest economy to avoid defaulting on its bills.

“The impact of higher oil prices on the global economy will weigh heavily on the ministers’ minds,” Jorge Leon, senior vice president of oil market research at Rystad Energy, said in a Thursday note, adding that OPEC+ could maintain production as a precaution. “The ministers might therefore take a ‘wait and see’ approach and hold off taking any action. Demand forecasts remain lukewarm at best, so maintaining current output could be the most prudent course. ”

Supply is also under question, given involuntary declines.

Roughly 450,000 barrels per day of northern Iraqi exports were frozen by a legal dispute between Baghdad, Ankara, and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Nigeria, typically West Africa’s largest oil producer, self-reported its April crude production at just 999,000 barrels per day following disruptions, according to OPEC’s Monthly Oil Market Report for May.

Meanwhile, the true extent of Russian output losses remains unclear, as vessels carrying Moscow’s crude turn off their satellite tracking and Russia looks to further shift its clientele east.