Since mid-February, between 10 million and 20 million barrels have left the Caribbean, according to estimates from traders who asked not to be named because their data is proprietary. The draw, hardly noticed by most in the market, reflects the impact of the output cuts orchestrated by OPEC and Russia.
Low taxes and the Caribbean’s proximity to U.S. and Latin America oil centers have made it into one of the world’s largest oil storage centers, holding as much as 140 million barrels. While a lack of official data can make the area invisible to some, the information is key in framing a full picture of global supply and demand at a time of market uncertainty.
“Caribbean and other storage has drawn down rapidly over the past weeks,” said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects Ltd., in a note to clients. “The first indications that the rebalancing has begun are here.”
On Sunday, Mohammad Barkindo, OPEC’s Secretary-General, said he remained “cautiously optimistic” the gap between supply and demand was starting to tighten. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the 11 countries that agreed to trim production in the first half of the year are now weighing whether to extend the cutbacks to the end of 2017.
West Texas Intermediate oil fell 0.7 percent to $50.24 a barrel in New York on Monday. Oil prices have fallen about 10 percent this year as crude stockpiles in the U.S. have since December grown by almost 55 million barrels to 534 million barrels, the highest since 1929.
Grand Bahama, Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, St. Eustatius and St. Lucia, mostly known for the beaches that draw sun-chasing visitors from around the world, all have significant depots to store crude and refined products.
Chinese oil companies, which lease millions of barrels of storage in the southern Caribbean sea, are leading the stock-draw from those islands, the traders said. PetroChina Co. used the super-tanker Nectar last month to remove stored crude from Aruba and Curaçao, according to ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. It also loaded the Maxim, another very-large crude carrier (VLCC), with crude from storage in the Caribbean Sea.
Indian oil refiners are also taking crude out. In a rare shipment, Reliance Industries Ltd. received Ecuadorian crude stored in the island of Grand Bahama in the DHT Condor super-tanker. More recently, another giant tanker, the Amphitrite, took Venezuelan crude from a terminal in St. Eustatius, also for Reliance.
“Globally, crude stocks are coming down,” said Mike Loya, the Houston-based top executive at Vitol Group BV, the world’s largest independent oil trader.
The Caribbean outflows also reflect a change in the relationship between spot and forward oil prices. For much of 2015 and 2016, the shape of the oil curve showed spot prices below forward prices. In a contango market, traders can buy barrels, place them on storage and lock in a profit by selling them forward in the futures market.
The price difference between Brent crude oil for immediate delivery and the one-year forward, a key contango yardstick, reached more than $11 a barrel in January 2015. But after OPEC and Russia announced their output cuts in late last year, the contango has all but dissipated, with the one-year Brent price spread at just about 80 cents a barrel on Monday.
“Less visible inventories have been drawing,” Martijn Rats, oil analyst at Morgan Stanley in London, said in a note to clients.