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Investment Ideas We need to talk about Donald: The elephant in crude oil’s uncertain world

“Uncertainty” was the buzzword at the crude oil industry’s annual gathering in Asia, but virtually everybody was reluctant to talk about the root cause behind the sector’s discomfort – U.S. President Donald Trump.

Speaker after speaker at this week’s Asia Pacific Petroleum Conference (APPEC) highlighted the challenges to the crude oil industry, from supply issues around Iran and Venezuela to the mounting risk of global economic slowdown amid ongoing and escalating trade disputes.

But even in private conversations at the myriad of networking events, hardly anybody was keen to talk about what all the risks to the oil sector have in common, namely the mercurial U.S. president.

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The drop in supplies from Iran and Venezuela are the result of Mr. Trump imposing sanctions on both countries in thus-far failed attempts to get their leaders to bend to U.S. demands.

Meanwhile the threat to global growth from the trade dispute between the United States and China was triggered by Mr. Trump’s policies.

In some ways it doesn’t actually matter whether you think Mr. Trump’s actions are justified or flawed, so long as you recognize that they are having real impacts on global oil markets.

Hence the overuse of the word “uncertainty”: Oil-industry insiders are reluctant to firstly acknowledge the role of U.S. policy in the current market dynamics, and even if they do recognize the issue in private, they won’t talk about it in public.

In some ways, Mr. Trump is to the oil industry what Lord Voldemort is to Harry Potter – “he who must not be named.”

Oil-industry executives, analysts and traders generally have a view as to where they think crude prices are headed and why this is the case.

But currently they are struggling because they have learned that Mr. Trump is an unpredictable actor on the global oil stage.

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At the APPEC event last year, the general consensus was that crude prices were heading higher, with this view based on the output cuts instituted by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and allied producers such as Russia, as well as price-supportive geopolitics.

The industry anticipated that Mr. Trump would reimpose sanctions on Iran’s oil industry and expected the loss of Iranian cargoes to be boost prices.

But they also incorrectly assumed that the trade dispute would be resolved, since it was in the interests of both the United States and China to do so.

This meant that while there was uncertainty at last year’s APPEC, it was bullish uncertainty, and people were more open to expressing the view that prices would rise.

UNCERTAINTY IS BEARISH

However, when industry leaders talk about uncertainty today, what they really mean is that they think crude prices are heading lower. But they don’t want to say that openly.

This is understandable, as oil producers or traders seldom want to talk down the market, just as they don’t want to be seen as talking about politics, even though politics is currently driving the market.

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In effect, the industry has correctly identified that prices are currently in a tug-of-war between supply disruptions such as Iran and Venezuela, and the darkening outlook for global growth.

The conclusion is that the economic clouds are winning that battle so far and therefore crude prices are more likely to fall than rally.

This is despite most bottom-up analysis of the crude market based on supply and demand fundamentals pointing to higher prices, at least for the rest of 2019.

But oil industry insiders are also aware that the entire market can turn on a few tweets from Mr. Trump, and the possibility of U.S. rapprochements with Iran and China cannot be ruled out.

The dismissal of hawkish U.S. national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday is a case in point, as this may make it more likely that some sort of accommodation can be reached with Iran.

The dilemma for the oil market is that if Mr. Trump were to somehow settle all the disputes he has initiated, the outcome for crude is still uncertain.

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Allowing Iranian and Venezuelan barrels back on the market is bearish for prices; reaching a trade deal with China is bullish.

It’s possible that all the disputes could be resolved, or just one, or none at all. But the one key factor linking all of them is Mr. Trump – and he’s the one thing nobody wants to talk about.

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