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London — Global oil market balances are largely supportive of firmer oil prices over the coming 18 months, with demand exceeding supply despite growing concerns over the potential for a second wave of COVID-19 infections to derail the economic recovery.

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The International Energy Agency and OPEC both trimmed their global oil supply outlooks earlier in August, due to a slower-than-expected recovery in mobility and continued weakness in demand for aviation.

The move has narrowed the gap between demand and supply projections for the coming months but ongoing output curbs by OPEC+ producers are still seen keeping the market undersupplied through 2021.

S&P Global Platts Analytics is forecasting an implied drawdown of global oil stocks by more than 5 million b/d during the fourth quarter, a level that will drop to 2-1.5 million b/d through late 2021.

After surging back from near four-decade lows of $18/b in April to over $40/b, Platts Analytics sees the tighter market pushing Brent crude towards $50/b by the end of 2021.

But a number of key uncertainties are hanging over the fragile rebalancing of the oil market as it struggles to recover from the historic plunge of about a fifth of global demand in the wake of the pandemic lockdowns.

Return of supply glut?

The biggest concern is that global infection rates will continue to rebound, forcing a further wave of measures to contain the spread of the virus. New global cases of coronavirus continue at near peak levels. Some of the world's biggest oil consumers, the US, Brazil, and India, are experiencing the highest individual rates of increase and account for 60% of the recent outbreak resurgence.

In the US, the world's biggest oil consumer, the gasoline demand recovery has flattened, despite an uptick in demand during the summer driving season. Southern Europe has seen driving activity drop off sharply in the last two weeks as local lockdowns trigger new curbs on activity.

Hastened by some 2 million b/d of OPEC+ supply returning to the market in August, Rystad Energy is now forecasting a moderate oil market oversupply in the next three months to factor in a depressed demand scenario.

"Despite having managed to pull off the greatest balancing act ever seen by the oil markets, prices are stuck at the mid-$40 range and they will continue to be so for a while," the Norwegian consultants said in a note.

It added that the demand recovery is expected to slow down now, with oil demand hitting a ceiling at about 91 million b/d and not recovering further until the winter.

Oil stock overhang

On the supply side, OPEC+ output cuts of 7.7 million b/d are due to run from August to the end of 2020, and then taper to 5.8 million b/d from January 2021 through April 2022. Saudi efforts are expected to keep cut compliance levels high among the group's serial under-achievers Nigeria and Iraq. At the same time, the prospect of a peace deal in Libya could quickly see the return of more than 1 million b/d to the market, while a Joe Biden win in the US' November election could start the ball rolling for an end to Iran's oil sanctions.

In the US, the recent price bounce to over $40/b has already seen the return of some shale production sidelined during the April oil price collapse. But with drilling rates and well completions still way below pre-crisis levels, US oil production is forecast to head back into decline by year-end.

By the end of 2021, Platts Analytics see US oil output down by more than 3 million b/d from pre-crisis estimates.

Meanwhile, a large global oil stock overhang remains a key bearish influence on prices.

Stocks remain high after building by nearly 1 billion barrels earlier in the year. While global oil stocks are now past their peak reached in May and crude in floating storage is falling, the huge inventory backlog will take time to work off.

Even with OPEC+ efforts to keep the market undersupplied, OECD oil stocks likely remain above the five-year average well into 2021.