After a brief drop in Saudi oil exports in April and May, June crude loadings appear to be back on the rise, according to tanker tracking firm ClipperData.
That could spell trouble for the oil market, which is eager to see OPEC production cuts translate into fewer barrels being sent to fill up storage tanks overseas. Throughout the first six months of the output cut deal, exports have remained fairly robust.
In April, top exporter Saudi Arabia finally saw a sharp drop in the amount of oil it loaded on to tankers compared with October, the reference level for OPEC's output cut deal. The good news is that decline showed up in lower U.S. crude imports from the kingdom this month.
But the bad news is just one month after OPEC agreed to extend its output deal through March, ClipperData reports the Saudis and other OPEC members are loading up tankers once again.
"We're seeing a fairly widespread rebound in the June numbers," said Matt Smith, director of commodity research at ClipperData.
"That's been the trend of OPEC loadings all year: move to compliance and move out of it from an export perspective."
June loadings are also on the rise in the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Angola, according to ClipperData.
Recent production increases in Nigeria and Libya, two OPEC members exempt from cutting output, are also starting to show up in loadings, the data show.
For now, it appears that many of those barrels are headed for Asia, Smith said. By shipping less oil to the United States, Saudi Arabia could help manage market sentiment, he added.
Weekly U.S. stockpile figures are among the most transparent and closely watched inventory data. If traders see those levels dropping, oil prices could rise on the view that OPEC is finally achieving its goal: driving down global stockpiles to the five-year average.
U.S. crude prices collapsed to a 10-month low just above $42 a barrel last week, before rebounding through Tuesday as traders covered short positions.
But there is little good news in the physical market beyond the drop in Saudi exports to the United States, Smith said.
In addition to higher OPEC loadings in June, crude in floating storage appears to be rising and crude in transit remains elevated, according to ClipperData's tracking.
"None of those three are showing signs of a materially tightening market," Smith said.
"I think the global market is showing signs of strain simply because you've got floating storage off Singapore and Malaysia close to the highest levels of the year," he said. "They're not dropping. In fact, they're tipping higher."