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Global oil flow trackers set to keep Opec honest

After the excitement around Opec agreeing oil supply cuts with Russia and other non-members at the end of last year, attention in 2017 has quickly shifted to the next key question: will they actually deliver all the promised cuts?

A group of companies believe that they are positioned to deliver that answer, trumpeting their years of experience tracking global oil flows, using everything from modern satellite technology to an old-fashioned network of sources on the ground.

Resting on their analysis will be billions of dollars worth of oil trades, with their clients stretching from some of the world’s largest hedge funds to Opec members themselves, all hoping to gain an edge over their rivals.

Matt Smith, director of commodity research at one tanker-tracking firm, Clipper Data, says his company uses a combination of satellite monitoring — the vast majority of the world’s oil tankers now carry trackers designed to help avoid collisions — and relationships with companies that collect the port agent bills.

More importantly, Mr Smith says, is their use of historical modelling, which allows them to assess the type and quantity of crude likely to have been loaded on to individual vessels.

“We’ve mapped out the entire world, every port, so we know what oil has been loaded or offloaded at each port historically,” Mr Smith adds.

“Our catchphrase is ‘know the cargo’. It’s easy enough to track these vessels by AIS (satellite tracking) but adding these layers creates a much fuller picture.”

Mr Smith says that it was necessary to treat the early data on Opec shipments with caution. In the first 10 days of January, exports from the core Gulf states showed a sharp decrease, down more than 10 per cent on October, which is the reference month against which supply cuts were agreed.

But with each supertanker carrying more than 2m barrels of crude, the data can be noisy. By January 12, exports had rebounded from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait, putting them on a par with October, according to Clipper Data.

“While we are seeing initial signs of lower exports, we await a bigger data set before having a firm conviction that a trend is in place,” says Mr Smith.

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Rival tanker tracking companies agree it may be too early to definitively answer if Opec is making good on its cuts. One of the oldest ship trackers, whose history predates the widespread use of satellite monitoring, is Geneva-based Petro-Logistics.

Run by Daniel Gerber, whose father Patrick started the closely held company in 1980 after years of working for the sanctions-hit Rhodesian government, Petro-Logistics says it wants to see more information before making a definitive call.

While the Gulf states have been very vocal about how much they are cutting, with Saudi Arabia’s oil minister claiming on Thursday that the kingdom had already cut production below 10m barrels a day — the lowest in two years — Daniel Gerber wants to see at least two weeks’ shipping information first.

“This is a key time for the industry right now,” Mr Gerber said. “The trick is now to assess if the cuts are real or whether it’s just posturing.”

While Petro-Logistics has adopted satellite tracking like other firms, it also boasts a network established long before such technology was available that it believes gives it an edge.

1. Jan 20 2016 — Brent crude price hits 12-year low

2. April 17 2016 — Doha talks end in failure

3. Nov 30 2016 — Opec reaches agreement on how to distribute output cuts

4. Dec 10 2016 — Non-Opec producers such as Russia agree to join oil deal

5. Jan 2017 — Opec oil production cuts due to take effect

Russia, which is the largest non-Opec exporter, agreed to join the cartel in cutting output in December but has been eyed with suspicion by many in the market given a history of reneging on deals in the past. In contrast to Opec exports that largely move by ship, a larger percentage of Russia’s oil exports flow via pipeline or rail.

“Russia’s been the backbone of our analysis for over 30 years,” says Mr Gerber. “We cover seaborne and pipeline and rail movement — full spectrum. We have contacts in place to make sure our information is accurate.”

Still, the relatively easy availability of satellite tracking data has encouraged some smaller traders to try and develop their own systems to better understand the market and level the playing field with bigger competitors.

Samir Madani, a Sweden-based entrepreneur who trades oil as a hobby, says he built tankertrackers.com with amateur traders Lisa Ward and Kishore Gunturu after the three met on Twitter. The website utilises satellite and government data to compile oil shipping and production data that other traders can freely use.

“I’m very tech orientated; I like data solutions,” says Mr Madani. He is best known in the oil industry for popularising the hashtag #OOTT on Twitter for oil stories and information, which now gets more than 2m views a day.

While acknowledging that the website may not be as accurate as the information provided by dedicated full-time tanker tracking companies, he says it still provides traders with a strong sense of shipment trends in the market, which will be key as Opec cuts.

“We’ve instilled a lot of confidence in people for what we’re able to do. We want to prove to the industry that three hobbyists can pull this off.”

Mr Gerber at Petro-Logistics says that the biggest players in the oil industry will still be prepared to pay for customised reports and the extra information that satellite tracking alone cannot provide.

“We’ve long said that tanker tracking is as much an art as a science. There is no substitute for the human element.”

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