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LNG: the glut that was and may never be

There was a certain air of triumphalism surrounding Anglo-Dutch major Shell's statement in February that the world's growing supply of LNG would be "comfortably" absorbed by rising demand in 2018, and that the much anticipated glut would never materialize.

This glut has been much predicted, predicated on the apparent surplus of new LNG capacity coming on stream versus predictions of demand rising, but at a slower rate than supply.

If Shell's position holds, it is an important development because it could launch a new round of multi-billion dollar investments in LNG capacity, targeting an increasingly tight market between 2022-25.

This would have profound effects on the fortunes of many countries, not least those on LNG standby such as Mozambique and Tanzania, not to mention Qatar's expansion plans for the giant North Field, Russia's Arctic LNG 2, and the raft of developers waiting to export the growing volumes of "free" associated gas emanating from the latest shale boom in Texas's Permian basin.

Of equal importance is that Shell's statement justifies past spending because higher LNG prices mean that overspent LNG projects in Australia may be back in the money, while US LNG gets a wide open arbitrage to Asia.

As US LNG production ramps up, producers there will be heavily dependent on this opportunity, which they hope will exist not as a function of below cost-recovery, must-run LNG production in the US -- the glut scenario -- but high prices in Asia as a result of strong demand growth.

It is arguable that the glut hasn't arrived because most promised US LNG capacity is not yet up and running, and because there is perhaps more flexibility, or less reliability, on the supply-side of an increasingly diverse set of LNG producers around the world.

Certainly, the boom in Northeast Asian LNG demand this winter supports the more buoyant market view.

There is also the fact that demand can move faster than supply because of the relatively short time it takes to get floating LNG regas terminals in place. These are rapidly opening up new LNG markets in the populous countries of South Asia.

But it is worth asking what a glut actually looks like. So far it has lacked definition, leaving a latent impression that it would consist of dozens of loaded LNG tankers floating around the world's oceans willing to accept rock-bottom prices just to unload.

In reality, a glut should be defined by price -- in essence the closure of the US-Asian arbitrage -- and the case is not so much that it hasn't arrived but that it has already happened.

Spot LNG prices, represented by the Platts JKM, fell to $4.00/MMBtu in April 2016 and were skimming along below $5.50/MMBtu just six months ago.

Moreover, the current surge in demand, which saw the JKM hit $11.70/MMBtu on January 15, reflects both structural and seasonal factors.

Both are important, particularly China's northern coal-to-gas switching, which represents a permanent upward step-change in Chinese gas demand, but also one which will itself exacerbate the increasingly seasonal nature of LNG consumption.

Some 61% of global LNG demand was accounted for in 2017 by China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, and a hugely disproportionate amount in the winter months.

So it is safe to say that whether an LNG glut appears or not depends heavily on how cold the winter is in Northeast Asia.

At the same time, the rate of new LNG capacity additions is still strong. This is likely to result in glut conditions -- a closed US-Asian arbitrage -- during the northern hemisphere's summer (which coincides with South Asia's monsoon season) and boom time again next winter.

But with more LNG capacity coming online in the second half of 2018, woe betide LNG producers if the next Northeast Asian winter is a warm one.