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Trump's crackdown on Iran leaves the oil market vulnerable to price spikes

Key Points
  • The Trump administration says the oil market can handle the loss of Iranian barrels as the U.S. tightens sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
  • Analysts say the effort to drive Iran's exports to zero will further tighten global crude supplies at a time of heightened geopolitical risk.
  • By pumping oil to offset Iranian losses, producers will leave themselves with little spare capacity to tackle unplanned supply disruptions.
Donald Trump
Pete Marovich | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In the Trump administration's telling, its decision to cut off Iran's oil exports in just over a week will have little impact on crude prices. There's enough supply to meet global demand, officials say, and the administration's Middle East allies will ride to the rescue if the world finds itself short of fuel.

But outside the Oval Office, the outlook is not so rosy.

Analysts say President Donald Trump's hardline approach injects new risks into a fragile market besieged by instability in key oil-producing nations. They say global crude supplies are already getting tight, and Trump's surprise crackdown will leave the market with little cushion to address future disruptions.

"Oil production is being curtailed at a time when Venezuelan output is rapidly falling, conflict in Libya is reviving, and OPEC spare capacity remains tight. This could nudge the oil market dangerously close to a negative supply shock," Montreal-based macro research firm BCA Research said Monday.

Oil prices surged to nearly six-month highs after the Trump administration said it will not extend sanctions waivers for several of Iran's biggest oil customers. The exemptions allowed a handful of countries — including China and India — to import limited shipments of Iranian crude without triggering U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The move aims to shrink Iran's oil shipments from roughly 1 million barrels per day to zero, though analysts expect some countries to defy the ultimatum.

Still, investment banks now expect Iranian shipments to fall by another several hundred thousand barrels per day, further tightening the market. This comes as Venezuela's output craters under the weight of economic crisis and U.S. sanctions and a fresh round of deadly civil conflict rocks Libya.

The Trump administration says Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to fill the gap left by the Iranian barrels.

That suggests those OPEC members will soon hike production, reversing output cuts they implemented in January. OPEC and its oil market allies, including Russia, have been keeping about 1.2 million bpd off the market following a collapse in oil prices last year.

Saudi Arabia is already pumping about 500,000 bpd below its quota, giving the kingdom leeway to put more barrels on the market as shipments from Iran sink.

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However, analysts don't think the kingdom will unleash a flood of oil. That's because the Saudis fear a repeat of last year's price collapse, which was caused in part by OPEC hiking output proactively ahead of the renewal of U.S. sanctions on Iran in November.

"I do think they'll come through, but they're not going to be as enthusiastic this time around as they were, I think, in November," said John Kilduff, founding partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital.

"To the extent that they're reluctant or they don't [raise output], it's easy to see [U.S. crude] heading up and above $70 a barrel. We're just that tight in the market right now," he said. It was trading above $66 a barrel on Tuesday.

The Trump administration also says the U.S. will play a crucial role in filling the void. Officials note that American oil output has risen to a record high around 12 million bpd and is forecast to continue growing later this year.

However, the U.S. is mostly producing light sweet oil, and it's the medium sour crude grades used in U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and throughout Asia that's in short supply. Blocking Iranian crude exports will only exacerbate the situation because Iran is a major source of medium sour crude.

Saudi Arabia and UAE can theoretically address the gap because much of the oil they've taken off the market since January is medium sour crude, said Matt Smith, director of commodities research at tanker-tracking firm ClipperData.

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But for every barrel the Saudis and other producers pump to offset the drop in Iran's exports, they have one less barrel at their disposal when an unplanned outage hits the market. Cutting into this spare capacity typically boosts oil prices because it leaves the market with little insurance against supply shocks.

"We will be closer to balance, but that balance will be more precarious given that lack of spare capacity," Smith said. "We're already seeing those heavy sour barrels drop off the market from Venezuela. We're now seeing it from Iran."

"Yes, we may see some stepping up here to fill the void, but that's only going to leave things more finely balanced."

Shin Kim, head of supply and production analytics at S&P Global Platts, says cutting off Iran's exports will leave the oil market with virtually no spare capacity at a time of heightened supply risks.

"Today's announcement that the U.S. will not issue waivers for Iranian oil purchases moves oil markets into much tighter territory for the remainder of the year," she said in an email Monday.

With oil demand rising into the summer, when Americans hit the road and Saudis blast air-conditioning, Brent crude prices will probably stay pinned between $70 and $80 a barrel, Swiss investment bank UBS said in a research note.