London — The volume of crude oil and condensate in tankers worldwide has fallen to a one-year low as the market's recovery gathers pace, and with a strongly backwardated structure in the Brent crude market discouraging storage.
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Floating storage had risen around the turn of the year due to port congestion off China and southeast Asia, but that situation has eased considerably in the past few weeks, boosted by the oil market's recent strength, industry analysts said.
According to commodity data company Kpler, the volume of crude and condensate in floating storage -- on tankers idled offshore for at least seven days -- totaled 80.2 million barrels in the week beginning Feb. 22, the lowest since late February 2020. The volume peaked at more than 210 million barrels last June.
Around 30% of current storage is offshore China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which accounted for almost 65% of total storage three weeks ago.
Fabio Kuhn, CEO of data analytics company Vortexa, said the oil market had seen a significant turnaround since the second quarter of 2020, largely because supply had been carefully managed. "A lot of this supply [... can] come back at relatively short notice," Kuhn said on a recent webinar hosted by Bloomberg.
"We have seen levels of floating storage come down substantially from last year ... It is much lower today but there is a still a lot of oversupply across the barrel from crude to products," Kuhn said.
The oil market's strength came with it entering a stage of "positive evolution" given the approach of the US driving season and refinery maintenance in Europe, according to Kuhn.
Despite an uneven demand recovery, onshore and offshore inventories of oil have both been declining, aided by unilateral supply cuts and robust Asian demand.
Oil prices have risen almost 30% this year as the market has tightened, and that could improve further as COVID-19 vaccinations are rolled out globally.
The strength on the oil market is reflected in the Brent forward curve, which has moved to steep backwardation -- meaning the prompt price is higher than the price for future dates.
This week, the two front-month Brent contracts have shown a backwardation of almost 80 cents/b, the 'strongest' market structure since Jan. 31, according to S&P Global Platts data.
In 2020, the two front-month Brent contracts averaged a contango of 54 cents/b, around $1.30/b below than the current backwardated level.
Pressure on tanker owners
Contracts for floating storage coming to an end has translated into more tonnage on the tanker spot market, putting pressure on freight rates.
That has particularly been the case on larger ship sizes such as Suezmaxes and VLCCs, which have been the typical candidates for floating storage.
"It is really the inventories that OPEC+ is trying to run down that is putting a halt to the recovery in the tanker market," said Mikkel Seidelin, Director of Chartering and Freight Trading at Teekay Tankers, on a webinar hosted by Reuters.
While floating storage has unwound, "we will have to wait for [OPEC+] to get around the situation onshore before the demand for tankers comes back," Seidelin said.
The VLCC rate for a voyage from West Africa to the East was assessed at $10.58/mt on Feb. 23. On April 1, 2020, the route was assessed at $77.84/mt amid the rush to floating storage and VLCC owners reported obtaining $85,000/d for one-year bookings at the time. Those one-year bookings were now averaging $28,000/d.
Given that much cheaper freight market, charterers were reluctant to book ships for long periods, sources said.
"The charterers that took ships for periods longer than six months found themselves with ships operating at a loss in a very soft market starting from July 2020," a broker said.