* January output stats will not come out until February
* Deal covers Jan-June averages; monthly variations seen
* Exports, JODI data don't provide full, timely supply picture
The five-country committee to monitor the OPEC-led global oil production cut meets in early January to hash out the politically sensitive particulars of how to adjudicate and enforce compliance.
But the reality that the committee -- and the oil market at large -- faces is that any cheating on quotas is unlikely to become fully apparent until several months into the six-month deal, which begins January 1.
OPEC has agreed to use the six independent sources its analysts have adopted to track production in the organization's monthly oil market reports.
Those secondary sources -- which include S&P Global Platts -- compile monthly estimates of each country's output for the preceding month. So, production in January will be reported by the secondary sources in early February.
The market will clearly be watching those February reports for the first signs of noncompliance, but it could take a few months before more definitive trends emerge, since the quotas are meant to be an average of production over the six months of the deal.
Despite this and OPEC's historical "tendency to cheat," as former Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi recently put it, the market has responded bullishly to the deal, sending prices up some 18% since November 29, the day before OPEC met in Vienna and finalized its 1.2 million b/d in cuts.
Eleven non-OPEC countries, led by Russia, followed up with 558,000 b/d in committed cuts on December 10.
"The market is probably expecting some kind of cheating but for now the cartel has once again bought themselves some time, which funds have bought aggressively into," said Ole Hansen, an analyst with Saxo Bank.
The non-OPEC commitments will be even harder to verify.
The International Energy Agency and the US Energy Information Agency track the production of various countries in their monthly oil market reports. But in the case of Russia, which has committed to cutting 300,000 b/d, its production will be tracked by official government statistics, according to the terms of the deal.
Experts say country self-reported figures can be prone to manipulation for political reasons.
"The market has to take a lot on faith until data emerges to confirm or infirm compliance with pledged cuts," said Harry Tchilinguirian, an analyst with BNP Paribas.
What the monitoring committee, comprising OPEC members Algeria, Kuwait and Venezuela, along with non-OPEC Russia and Oman, can and will do in the case of noncompliance remains an open question.
Beyond the monthly secondary source estimates of country production, market watchers have a few other tools at their disposal to attempt to check for compliance, though none provides a full picture of supply.
Tanker tracking software, such as Platts c-Flow, can be used to tally each country's oil exports in near-real time, as well as news reports of loading programs.
Indeed, some countries are signaling their commitment to the deal through their export programs, with OPEC members UAE and Qatar, along with non-OPEC Oman, this month informing customers of reduced deliveries starting January 1.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia's state-owned Saudi Aramco has informed term lifters that the operational tolerance -- a flexibility clause in a contract that typically allows sellers to vary the cargoes by plus or minus 5% and in some cases up to 10% -- would be suspended from January as the company seeks to tighten the spigot on exports.
But this does not factor in domestic consumption, which can vary month to month and could mask any declines in crude exports, especially in countries with spare refining capacity or power plants that can run on crude.
"The market wants to see lower crude exports, and countries could legitimately put less crude on the water by increasing refining runs and increasing refined product exports, while at the same time not have to move production an inch," analysts with Barclays said in a note.
The Joint Organizations Data Initiative, a data transparency clearing house linked to the Riyadh-based International Energy Forum, compiles figures on country oil production, exports, refinery runs, stocks and direct burn for power generation, though the reports have a two-month lag and rely on countries to self-report their statistics.
SHORTS ON THE SIDELINES
The many moving parts to the deal have left many skeptical that OPEC and the 11 non-OPEC countries in the deal will be able to fully deliver on their commitments -- to say nothing of the impact that US shale supplies and global demand response may have on market balances.
For now, the deal has sent many market shorts to the sidelines, though if signs of noncompliance emerge, prices could be set up for a greater fall.
"If confidence around the compliance with cuts wavers, the market will necessarily correct lower, considering that it also faces the twin headwinds of resilient US production and a stronger dollar environment as the Fed begins to hike rates," Tchilinguirian said.
OPEC, for its part, is asking the market to be patient and judge the outcome of the deal on its full six months, not just the early months.
The monitoring committee, to be chaired by Kuwait, has yet to announce its full purview, OPEC Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo has noted.
"Give us some credit," he said at a conference in India shortly after the deal was finalized. "This is the first agreement that I know of between ourselves OPEC and non-OPEC countries that has in it a provision [for] a joint monitoring committee. This has guaranteed the integrity of this agreement."
--Herman Wang, firstname.lastname@example.org
--Edited by Jonathan Fox, email@example.com