Oil trader says demand is down as much as 20% from last year

Javier Blas March 25, 2020

LONDON (Bloomberg) - Global oil demand has fallen as much as 20% from last year as more countries lockdown billions of people inside their houses in a bid to halt the spread of the coranavirus, the world’s top independent oil trader said.

Russell Hardy, the head of Vitol Group, said that consumption of crude had dropped by between 15 million and 20 million barrels a day from the normal level of 100 million barrels a day. “Demand is down significantly,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg TV Wednesday. “Demand is going to be down for a decent period of time,” he added.

The loss will continue at that level for at least a few weeks, Hardy said, contributing to an average annual decline of at least 5 million barrels a day, by far the largest the global oil market has suffered since reliable data is available from the early 1960s.

“There’s a lot of oil in the market and there’s a lot of stocks that we’re going to have to build, because it’s not going to be consumed,” he said, highlighting that the national lockdown announced on Tuesday in India has contributed to a fresh “substantial loss of demand.”

The oil trader estimates that gasoline demand is down 50% in Europe and 35% in the U.S. While diesel is less affected, jet-fuel consumption has “virtually gone” with 6 million barrels a day lost out of a normal level of 7.3 million barrels a day.

Vitol occupies a central position in the global flow of oil as the world’s largest independent energy trading house. With ships, barges and pipelines moving enough petroleum every day to fulfill the needs of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the U.K. combined, the company enjoys one of the best overviews on global supply, demand and prices.

Hardy, a 54-year-old chemical engineer who has traded oil for decades, said that the only way to deal with the surplus was for refineries to cut their processing rates, and then oil producers reducing their own output, either willingly or via low prices forcing shutdowns.

Globally, refiners have already reduced the amount of crude they process by 7 million barrels a day, Vitol estimates, and they will cut a further 7 million through this week. “That will push the problem from the refined products into the crude market. Everyone is then going to try to figure out what happens with crude.”

Despite already falling 60% from January, Hardy said that Brent and West Texas Intermediate, the crude oil benchmarks, are going to come under further pressure. “We probably we have to drift a bit lower from here,” he said.

Brent dipped below $25 a barrel in intradray trading last week, and WTI is now around $23.50 a barrel.

Oil prices will suffer the most as crude and refined products storage fill up to the very top of the tanks. “Then the market hits a wall, and then producers have to make decisions whether they want to carry on pushing oil into the market when there’s no demand to take it,” Hardy said.

Producers need to reduce supply by about 10% to avoid overwhelming storage capacity, he said. “We need to cut crude supply by 10 million barrels a day pretty quickly. And I don’t see, barring some cartel action, how that happens with Brent near $30 a barrel. Oil prices will need to go lower.”

“If Brent drops to $20 a barrel, then the netback prices for some producers go into the single digits, and we will likely see a reaction.”

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