Streetwise Professor

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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2 Comments »

  1. I’m amazed that this should ever have been considered controversial…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — December 2, 2019 @ 9:20 am

  2. Excellent! …but only for those of us who understand (or are willing to try to understand) markets. Its just jibberish to those that don’t. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself but it sure does rhyme. These Luddites that you write about are descended from the same family tree that “way back when” said futures were “ruining” the oil markets or their “cousins” that said the same thing when NG futures came about.

    Comment by Bill Coorsh — December 2, 2019 @ 3:44 pm

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