Streetwise Professor

January 25, 2021

LNG Skyrockets: Is Excessive Reliance on Spot Markets to Blame, and Will This Cause Contracting Practices to Change?

Filed under: China,CoronaCrisis,Derivatives,Economics,Exchanges,LNG — cpirrong @ 8:26 pm

After languishing in the doldrums in the Covid era, and at times touching historic lows, the price of LNG delivered to Asia skyrocketed in recent weeks before plunging almost as precipitously:

As always happens with such big price moves, there has been an effort to round up suspects. Here, since the visible price increase occurred in the spot market, the leading culprit is the spot market–something that has been growing rapidly in recent years, after being largely non-existent prior to 2014 or so.

For example, Reuters’ Clyde Russell writes:

What is more likely is that some buyers misjudged the availability of spot cargoes, and when hit with a surge in demand found themselves unable to secure further supply, thus bidding up the prices massively for the few cargoes still available.

Frank Harris of Wood Mackenzie opines:

“Buyers are going to become aware that you may not always be physically able to source a cargo in the spot market regardless of price,” Mr Harris says. “The most likely outcome is it shatters some of the complacency that’s crept into the market over the last 12-18 months.”

It is incorrect to say that a shortage of spot cargoes per se is responsible for the price spike registered in the spot market. It is the supply of LNG in toto, relative to massive increase in demand due to frigid weather, that caused the price increase. How that supply was divided between spot and non-spot trades is a secondary issue, if that.

The total supply of LNG, and the spatial distribution of that supply, was largely fixed when the cold snap unexpectedly hit. So in the very short run relevant here (days or weeks), supply in Asia was extremely inelastic, and a demand increase would inevitably cause the value of the marginal molecule to rise dramatically. Price is determined at the margin, and the price of the marginal molecule would be determined in the spot market regardless of the fraction of supply traded in that market. Furthermore, the price of that marginal molecule would likely be the same regardless of whether 5 percent or 95 percent of volume traded spot.

If anything, the growing prevalence of spot contracting in recent years mitigated the magnitude of the price spike. Traditional long term contracts, especially those with destination clauses, limited the ability to reallocate supplies efficiently to meet regional demand shocks. The more LNG effectively unavailable to be reallocated to the buyers that experienced the biggest demand shocks, the less elastic supply in the spot market, and the bigger the price increase that occurs in response to a given demand shock. That is, having less gas contractually committed, especially under contracts that limited the ability of the buyers to sell on to those who value it more highly, mitigates price spikes.

That said, the fundamental factors that limit the total availability of physical gas, and constrain the ability to move it from low demand locations to high demand locations in the short time frames necessary to meet weather-driven demand changes (ships can’t magically and instantaneously move from the Atlantic Basin to the Far East), mean that regardless of the mix of spot vs. contract gas prices would have spiked.

Some have suggested that the price spike will lead to less spot contracting. Clyde Russell again:

The question is whether utilities, such as Japan’s JERA, continue with their long-term vision of moving more toward a spot and short-term market, or whether the old security blanket of oil-linked, but guaranteed, supplies regains some popularity.

It’s likely LNG buyers don’t want a repeat of the recent extreme volatility, but perhaps they also don’t want to return to the restrictive crude-linked contracts that largely favoured producers by guaranteeing volumes at relatively high prices.

The compromise may be the increasing popularity of short-term, flexible contracts, which can vary from a few months to a few years and be priced against different benchmarks.

Well, maybe, but color me skeptical. For one thing, contracts require a buyer and a seller. Yes, buyers who didn’t have long term contracts probably regretted paying high spot prices–but the sellers with uncommitted volumes really liked it. The spike may increase the appetite for buyers to enter long term contracts, but decrease the appetite of sellers to enter them. It’s not obvious how this will play out.

I note that the situation was reversed in 2020–buyers regretted long term contracts, but sellers were glad to have them. Ex post regret is likely to be experienced with equal frequency by buyers and sellers, so it’s hard to see how that tips contracting one way or the other.

This conjecture about the price spike leading to more long term contracting also presupposes that the only way of managing price risks is through fixed price contracts (or oil-indexed) contracts for physical supply. But that’s not true. Derivatives allow the separation of who bears price risk from the physical contracting decision. A firm buying spot (and who is hence short LNG) can hedge price risk by purchasing JKM swaps. This has the additional advantage of allowing the adjustment of the size of the hedge in response to more timely information regarding likely quantity requirements, price projections, and risk appetite than is possible with a long term contract. That is, derivatives permit unbundling of price risk from obtaining physical supplies, whereas long term contracts bundle those to a considerable degree. Moreover, derivatives plus short term/spot acquisition of physical supplies allows more flexible management of supply, and management of supply based on shorter term forecasts of need: these shorter term forecasts are inherently more accurate than forecasts over contracting horizons of years or even decades.

So rather than lead to more long term contracts, I predict that this recent price spike is more likely provide a fillip to the LNG derivatives market. Derivatives are a more flexible and cheaper way to manage price risk than long term contracts.

This is what happened in the pipe gas market in the US post-deregulation. Spot/short term volumes grew dramatically even though price spikes were a regular feature of the market: market participants used gas futures and swaps and options to manage these price risks, and benefited from the greater flexibility and precision of obtaining supplies on a shorter term basis. This shifted a lot of the price risk to the financial sector–which is the great benefit of the much bewailed “financialization” of commodity markets.

The same is likely to occur in LNG.

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November 29, 2019

Escaping the Thrall of a Barbarous Relic in LNG Contracting

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,LNG — cpirrong @ 4:56 pm

For 5+ years I have been calling oil-linked LNG contracts a “barbarous relic” (echoing Keynes and the gold standard). This opinion was widely castigated when I first voiced it, but I had a strong basis for it: oil and LNG prices are driven by totally different fundamentals, and as a result oil prices are almost always disconnected with gas market fundamentals.

My presentations include a graphic and some statistics to make the point: correlations between oil and gas prices (measured by the Japan-Korea Marker, or JKM) are about zero, and so are the correlations between gold and gas prices. So it makes about as much sense to index LNG contracts to gold as it does to index them to oil.

Platts has released a report making the same point:

Asian utilities buying liquefied natural gas under rigid long-term contracts linked to oil prices risk paying an average of $20bn more each year up to 2022 than if they bought the superchilled fuel directly in the market.

S&P Global Platts, which sets the benchmark LNG price for the region, said there was a “huge disconnect” between the of cost oil-linked contracts and prices in the so-called “spot market” for LNG.

Nice of you to catch up, Platts. This “huge disconnect”–the exact phrase I’ve used in public presentations for years–has been evident in the data . . . for years. Indeed, since the beginning of the JKM index.

Platts spins this as utilities paying too much. It wouldn’t be any better if they paid too little. The point is that divergences between contract prices and product values cause misallocations of resources, including transactions costs associated with trying to circumvent contracts with prices that are misaligned with fundamentals.

There are still some who are in the thrall to the barbarous relic:

Jera, the world’s biggest buyer of LNG, said that oil-linked contracts still often made sense. The spot market was still small and vulnerable to volatile spikes as seen in early 2014, it said, while long-term contracts offered “stable procurement for buyers”, as well as providing a guarantee of demand needed by developers to launch new LNG projects.

This is a jumble of sloppy thinking.

Volatile spikes? If the spikes are driven by gas market supply and demand conditions, tying contract prices to gas prices rather than oil is a feature not a bug. You want prices that reflect fundamentals, and if fundamentals are jiggy, so be it. And, er, last time I checked, the oil market was subject to “volatile spikes” despite its greater size. And this is a bug, not a feature, when it comes to LNG because these oil price spikes are almost always unrelated to gas supply and demand conditions.

That is, it is better to tie LNG contract prices to markets with jumps that reflect gas fundamentals, than it is to tie prices to markets with jumps that don’t.

There can be a role for long term contracts, though the transactions cost (“opportunism”) related reasons for such contracts become less important as the short-term market becomes more liquid. Furthermore, even to the extent that long term contracts facilitate investment, it is a non sequitur to conclude that these long term contracts should be indexed to oil, rather than a gas price (be it JKM, or Henry Hub, or TTF, or whatever). The contracts will perform better–transactions costs will be lower–the lower the likelihood that pricing terms become misaligned with fundamentals. Gas indexing results in lower probability of misalignment than oil indexing.

For years, the mantras in the LNG market have been “security of supply” and “security of demand”, and that long term contracts are the only way to secure it:

David Thomas, an independent adviser with experience at Vitol and BP, said that Japanese utilities “value security of supply and there’s a strong relationship between buyers and sellers” but that was changing as the LNG market became more liquid and Japan’s gas and power markets liberalize.

The oil and refined product markets rely on markets for security of supply and demand. A big refinery or a major oil development are as, or more, capital intensive than an LNG product. But these things get created without long term contracts because liquid markets allow transactions at prices that reflect supply-demand fundamentals.

Long term contracts play a role when spot markets aren’t “thick” enough: under these conditions, opportunism (“holdup”) is a problem, and long term contracts can mitigate that problem. The evolution of spot markets in LNG will progressively mitigate the potential for holdup problems. And as I’ve noted, this is a virtuous cycle: as spot markets become more liquid, the need for long term contracts will decline, which will contribute to greater spot market liquidity, which will vitiate further the need for long term contracts.

As the producer of the JKM index, Platts is obviously talking its book here. But that’s not to say that it’s wrong. It isn’t. And economic reality will inevitably push contracting practices in the LNG market away from the barbarous past. Or perhaps I have the tense wrong there: is pushing would be a better way of putting it.

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