Singapore — Spot Asian LNG prices have eased from the seasonal high of over $7/MMBtu in end-October and despite occasional supply outages and sporadic buying interest, there's market uncertainty over whether prices will see another surge this winter.
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Much of the uncertainty stems from the resumption of US supply with November loadings likely to hit a record monthly high, and an uncertain start to cold weather in North Asia that remains the primary driver of peak winter prices in the region.
"Platts Analytics forecasts JKM to fall from peak levels earlier this year signifying that the highest JKM will be this winter is already behind us," Jeff Moore, Manager, Asian LNG Analytics at S&P Global Platts said.
He, however, added that "the biggest risk here is that we see colder than normal temperatures in Northeast Asia or Northwest Europe which could easily cause LNG spot prices to spike again."
For the past few weeks, weather in Japan, northern China and South Korea has been warmer than usual, compared to previous years, which some market participants interpreted as a sign of a milder winter and contributed to bearish sentiment.
Traders said they were monitoring the situation, as the weather outlook has only now started to signal lower temperatures due to the La Nina weather phenomenon although the impact on LNG demand is still unclear.
Some Japanese end-users said they would procure additional cargoes and a few utilities indicated they were preparing to keep inventory levels high for December, because of the updated outlook for colder weather, but others remained undecided.
"The outlook of La Nina encouraged us Japanese end-users to build up inventories, but we may face a disappointing winter instead," a major Japanese LNG importer said.
Additionally, both South Korea and Japan have seen a resurgence of coronavirus cases with Seoul closing bars and nightclubs, and imposing other restrictions to contain a third wave of infections and Japan setting its highest alert level during the week ended Nov. 21 as infections hit record highs. Movement restrictions could also see higher household energy demand offsetting lower economic activity.
"The impact of another round of COVID-19 related restrictions could actually support natural gas demand especially in Europe, as home heating demand from people working from home coupled with commercial heating demand will support overall gas consumption. However, with a relatively mild start to winter in Northeast Asia so far, the upside for JKM appears to be increasingly limited," Moore said.
US, AUSTRALIA SUPPLY OFFSET OUTAGES
US LNG loadings dropped for the last seven months, mostly due to cargo cancellations, but November loadings could hit a record monthly high of 89 LNG cargoes -- the highest since it began LNG exports, according to shiptracking data from Kpler. Its last high was 81 LNG cargoes exported in January 2020.
Australia could also hit a monthly high of 106 LNG loadings for November, up from 103 LNG cargoes loaded in October -- its highest exports till date, or at least near record levels, the data showed.
These loadings will offset delays in the startup of Shell's Prelude FLNG, outages at Chevron's Gorgon LNG and the planned maintenance at Train 1 of Santos' Gladstone LNG in early January 2020. Earlier in the week, reports of QatarGas facing compressor-related issues at Train 4 supported prices, although the impact of the supply disruption remained unclear.
In Southeast Asia, Indonesia's November loadings are roughly 10%-15% lower than year ago levels, while Malaysia's Petronas had requested a reduction of up to 10% in deliveries to some term buyers after production issues at its Bintulu export facility, traders said, which supported spot LNG prices in mid-November.
DEMAND GOING FORWARD
Meanwhile, buying interest has been emerging.
South Korea's Kogas issued a limited participation tender seeking three cargoes over December-February earlier in the week, which could increase to 10 cargoes, traders said.
"It's not too clear how many cargoes they are seeking, but some traders are turning bullish because of [the tender]," a Japanese trading house said, while a South Korean end-user said Kogas' purchases could reverse lackluster trade in North Asia.
In China, market sources said state-owned Sinopec, via its trading arm Unipec, offered at least four cargoes for January-February, likely due to expectations of a warmer winter and high inventories after an extended outage at the Beihai LNG terminal that caught fire in early November.
Some traders speculated that the terminal might remain offline for nearly three months until after Lunar New Year, causing multiple diversions of cargoes to other southern terminals in China. Incremental spot LNG demand from China will be muted due to the New Year holidays through mid-February, when industrial activity takes a pause.
Meanwhile, oil prices have been buoyed by the US elections and positive market sentiment, which could result in higher term contract prices in Asia if they continue to rise. Both Biden's victory and oil price movement will impact China's buying patterns on the spot market, especially for US LNG.