ETF Securities Research Blog

Erosion of Qatar’s dominance in LNG could drive demand responsiveness

The recent Saudi Arabia-led confrontation with Qatar could drive an increase in the use of flexible liquefied natural gas contracts and thus allow demand to be more responsive to price.

As we noted in “US natural gas – international demand unlikely to absorb domestic glut”, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) market is in the midst of change. Qatar is the world’s largest producer of LNG with most LNG transacting in long-term contracts at fixed price. However, the emergence of Australia and the US as large players in the market will lead to growth in flexible contracts. Based on EIA projections, the US is likely rise from being a negligible player (less than 1% of global supply) to the world’s third largest (after Qatar and Australia), with the US LNG market growing six-fold by 2020.

LNG capacity

This development could resemble the evolution we saw in the oil market in the 1970s and 1980s. Until the late 1970s, almost 90% of the world’s crude oil was sold under long-term contracts at prices set by the major oil companies. OPEC produced 67% of the free world’s crude oil, allowing it to dominate the price and quantity of oil sold. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, market-based spot and futures trading gained in importance as production from the non-OPEC countries surpassed OPEC oil production and as non-OPEC producers went to the spot markets to build market share. By the end of 1982, almost half of all internationally-traded oil was traded on exchanges using flexible futures contracts.

Unlike crude oil, the global natural gas market is fragmented with prices driven by local fundamentals. LNG, which is gas turned into liquid and then shipped before re-gasification at destination, represents a small proportion of the local natural gas market. For example, the price of natural gas in the US is less than half the price of natural gas in Europe or Asia. While the US natural gas futures (Henry Hub) is the most liquid market and is used as main benchmark, prices move in response to domestic fundamentals leaving it a poor hedge for natural gas prices in other countries. In addition, the size of the LNG market is currently too small for LNG to truly impact on natural gas futures prices

Considering this, the recent Saudi-led confrontation with Qatar can pose a risk to global supplies of LNG. Although shipments from the country have not been affected as yet, we cannot rule out an impact if the impasse intensifies. We believe that it could be a catalyst to quicken the migration away from long-term fixed contracts with Qatar to flexible contracts in countries like US and Australia. With importing countries eager to maintain energy security, they may demand Qatar also alter contracts to be more flexible (especially for new contracts).

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