Adding to this, we expect a friendlier investment environment for gold to reverse last year’s 120 tons reduction via ETFs to a renewed increase. However so far, and despite the strong gains since November, we have yet to see demand for ETFs – often used by long-term focused investors – spring back to life, with total holdings still hovering near a two-year low. ETF demand struggles when investors trust central banks will deliver what they promise, and with inflation coming down that that trust is currently not being challenged.
However, it is our belief that inflation, following a slump during the next six months, will start to revert higher, primarily driven by rising wage pressures and China stimulus raising demand and prices for key commodities, including energy and metals. Until such time we will likely see gold spend most of the first quarter consolidating within a USD1,800 to USD1,950 range, before eventually moving higher to reach a fresh record above USD2,100. If achieved we could see silver return to USD30 per ounce, a level that was briefly challenged in early 2021.
Crude oil demand will, according to the International Energy Agency, rise by 1.9 million barrels per day in 2023, bringing the total to the highest ever. The main engine behind that price supportive call is a strong recovery in China as the country moves away from lockdowns towards a growth-focused recovery, driven not only by increased mobility on the ground but also supported by a post-pandemic recovery in jet fuel consumption as pent-up travelling demand is unleashed.
What it will do to prices very much depends on producers’ ability and willingness to bump up supply to meet that increase in demand. We expect multiple challenges will emerge on that front to support higher crude oil prices later in the year once demand in China increases, sanctions on Russian crude and fuel products continue to bite, and OPEC shows limited willingness to increase production.
The theme for our quarterly outlook, ie the model is broken, has very much been felt and seen across the energy sector this past year. Russia’s attempt to stifle a sovereign nation and the Western world's push back against Putin’s aggressions in Ukraine remains a sad and unresolved situation that continues to upset the normal flow and prices of key commodities from industrial metals and key crops to gas, fuel products and not least crude oil. EU and G7 sanctions against Russian oil from December last year has created several new price tiers of oil where quality differences and distance to the end user no longer are the only drivers of price differentials between different crude grades. Seaborne crude oil flows from Russia has held up but will increasingly be challenged in the coming months as EU’s product embargo is introduced in February.
These developments have forced Russia to accept a deep discount on its crude sales to customers not involved in sanctions, especially China and India. The second-wave reaction to these developments has been strong refinery margins in China, a country with capacity beyond what is required for the domestic market. Depending on the strength of the economic rebound in China, we are likely to see an increase in product flows from China to the rest of the world. Together with the US, the Middle East, an emerging refining powerhouse, these flows will likely make up the shortfall in Europe from the removal of supply from Russia.
Crude oil’s trajectory during the first quarter primarily depends on the speed with which demand looks set to recover in China. We believe the recovery will be felt stronger later in the year, and not during the first quarter which seasonally tends to be a weak period for demand. With that in mind we see Brent continue to trade near the lower end of the established range this quarter, mostly in the USD80s before recovering later in the year once recession risks begin to fade, China picks up speed and Russian sanctions bite even harder.
OPEC meanwhile has increasingly managed to rein back some price control, not least considering the level of market share it controls together with members of the OPEC+ group. Through their actions they have been able to create a soft floor under the market and the question remains how they will respond to a renewed pickup in demand. Not least considering their frustrations with Western energy companies and what they see as political interference in global oil flows and not least last year’s decision by the White House to release crude oil from its Strategic Reserves.
Overall we see another year where multiple developments will continue to impact both supply and demand, thereby raising the risk of another volatile year which at times may lead to reduced liquidity and with that fundamentally unwarranted peaks and troughs in the market. Following a relatively weak first quarter where Brent should trade predominately in the USD80s, a demand recovery thereafter combined with supply uncertainties should see Brent recover to trade in the USD90s with the risk of temporary spikes taking it above USD100.