Despite the growing importance of environmentalism and the public scrutiny concerning the fossil fuel industry, natural gas has maintained its importance in the global energy mix. Rising power demand and installation of renewables such as wind and solar have strengthened the need for on-demand energy production, for which gas is the only alternative currently. Resource-rich countries are reaping the rewards of an expanding industry with ever-larger volumes being exported.
The largest importers of natural gas remain Europe and East Asia due to their large markets and few domestic options. This year, however, the fundamentals of the market have been upset due to unusual developments. Historically the spread between Asian and European gas hubs has been in favour of the former, which has been able to attract more cargoes due to higher prices. A combination of factors is making the task of traders harder as the apparent destination with the highest rewards is becoming less straightforward.
Historic characteristics of the market
Historically, natural gas prices in Asia tended to be higher due to low regional production, a large domestic market, and political decision-making that has favoured LNG over competing sources. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan led to the shutdown of the country’s nuclear facilities, which increased demand for super-cooled natural gas, making the Asian country the largest importer of LNG. In neighbouring China, the coal-to-gas policy has had a similar effect. Ever larger volumes of LNG are imported to clean the skies over its cities.
Another reason for producers preferring the Asian markets over Europe is the inter-basin freight differential between the route East of Suez and West of Suez. The costs of shipping LNG to Europe and returning the vessels are higher than for the eastern way to Asia.
Finally, Europe enjoys more alternatives regarding the import of natural gas. Competition between piped and shipped natural gas has a depressing effect on LNG prices as consumers can switch to fixed infrastructure energy resources from Russia, Algeria, and Norway.
Despite the reasons described above, the spread between Europe’s TTF and Asia’s JKM has narrowed significantly. Mild weather conditions have depressed demand leading to relatively full inventories, meaning lower prices for LNG in both regions.
The narrow spread between Asia and Europe had a favourable effect on LNG shipments to Europe during the first couple of months of this year when a record number of cargoes reached its shores.
However, the situation can transform quickly. The changing market environment requires quick thinking from traders to maximize financial results. The narrow spread between European and Asian hubs together with transportation costs mean cargoes can be diverted at the last moment. A shipment of Russian LNG, for example, was changed course before its final destination at Belgium’s Zeebrugge LNG facility due to favourable prices elsewhere. According to Jean-Christian Heintz, head of LNG broking at SCB Brokers SA, “you can see room for more diversions. It’s hard to believe JKM will strengthen any time soon, but TTF could weaken further as European stocks are full.” Currently, European inventories are 74 percent full, about 17 percent above the five-year average.
The million-dollar question remains how the price difference between European and Asian hubs will develop. While the situation changed in favour of the EU during the first couple of months, more recently, Asia has had the upper hand when it comes to attracting cargoes to its markets. The small difference between hubs on both continents means less certainty for buyers and sellers alike.
“At a certain point the market should regulate itself, if you see some supply going to Asia, it should help rebalance. Storages, however, are so full that just a few cargoes less may not be enough to change the picture,” according to Heintz.