If not for the trade war, both oil and gasoline prices could be much higher than they are now on rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
Analysts say oil could be more than 10% higher, but if there is a resolution of trade issues, and the situation in the Middle East intensifies, there are risks of price spikes that take oil to as high as $100 a barrel this summer.
“If you do get a trade war resolution, a better economy coupled with Iran sanctions, that’s a recipe for higher oil,” said Francisco Blanch, head of global commodities and derivatives at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Blanch said under that scenario, one incident could trigger a spike in Brent, the international benchmark, to $100 a barrel.
“I think the real risk is Iran misreads [President Donald] Trump and Trump misreads Iran. I do think the real risks are increasing for sure,” said Blanch. His forecast is for Brent to reach $82 per barrel during the summer.
West Texas Intermediate futures are flat this week at just around $62 per barrel and down 2.2% for the month so far, even though the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Gulf due to unspecified threats, which U.S. officials say are the work of Iran.
The U.S. Wednesday ordered all non-emergency diplomatic staff to leave Iraq, after two separate attacks in the region and as the U.S. responds to other nonspecific threats. This week, two Saudi tankers were among four ships attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and Houthi rebels, who have ties to Iran, claimed responsibility for a separate drone attack on a key Saudi Arabian pipeline.
While its not clear Iran was involved, analysts expect more such incidents.
“Senior Iranian officials have made veiled and not-so-veiled threats to obstruct the ability of its regional rivals to export oil and exponentially raise the economic costs of remaining on the current policy course. They have also warned of ‘planned accidents’ which could lead to direct confrontation,” notes Helima Croft, global head of commodities strategy at RBC.
The Houthi, operating from Yemen, have previously attempted attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure. Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in Yemen. Iran also provides funding for Hezbollah, a Lebanon based group designated as terrorists by the U.S.
The Saudi Aramco oil pipeline was temporarily closed after the drone incident. It is a 1,200 mile oil artery the Saudis built to bypass the Straits of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war.
Croft said the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain would likely discourage Iran from trying to close the Straits of Hormuz, though it could could use its proxies and stage one-off attacks on ships.
“It is important to note that these are not the only flash points in the region, and while an off-ramp may yet emerge, the hawks appear in ascendancy, which leaves oil’s risk premium set to take center stage,” she noted.
Croft said while the Trump administration has not blamed Iran in the attacks this week, they are “under a very heavy cloud of suspicion and there is growing concern that the region’s long simmering cold war may be poised to become a hot one.”
John Kilduff of Again Capital, said that scenario is one side of the tug of war on oil prices.
“The battle in the oil market is the geopolitical premium versus the slowing global economy, which is the fallout from the trade war,” said John Kilduff of Again Capital “WTI would be pressing $70, and Brent would probably push on $80 to $85.” Brent futures were just under $72 per barrel.
But those prices have not moved much higher in last few weeks, even as it became clear the U.S. would play hardball with Iran and pressure its oil sales to zero. It’s been a year since the U.S. dropped out of the agreement between Iran and six nations, which prohibited Iran from working on its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. The U.S. is the only nation to break from the agreement.
Iran has threatened to restart elements of its nuclear program, unless the European signatories of the accord help allow it to make oil sales.
“Historically, with this kind of tension in the Gulf, there would definitely be a security premium in the price. We haven’t seen it this time—so far,” said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Markit. “The two big reasons are the trade war, and its potential effect on economic activity and the huge growth in U.S. supply.”
Yergin said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made it clear when speaking to oil industry leaders that the boom in U.S. oil production has helped give the U.S. flexibility.
“This is a case study of how the growth in shale, and the change in the U.S. position affects perceptions about security,” said Yergin. In the past year, the U.S. has surged past Russia to be the world’s largest oil producer. Last week, U.S. production was at 12.1 million barrels a day, while exports surged to 3.3 million barrels a day.
“You have this firewall of U.S. output,” said Kilduff. “The Saudis can really turn the spigot on at will. There’s a lot of cushion as we go into this situation with Iran.” Saudi Arabia and OPEC, have been attempting to keep the oil market in balance under an agreement with Russia and other non-OPEC producers. The joint monitoring committee for that group meets this week.
“There was chatter in the market that this weekend, they could agree to raise the production cap to respond to the loss of Iranian crude,” he said. Analyst said Iran exports have already fallen below 1 million barrels a day and it could drop more, to as little as 200,000 barrels a day.
Analysts say the potential for more incidents in the Gulf is increasing, as Iran gets more desperate and its economy gets weaker under U.S. sanctions.
President Donald Trump this week denied reports that the U.S. was considering sending as many 120,000 troops to the Middle East to deal with Iran. But he added if troops were necessary, he’d send “a hell of a lot more.” Trump’s advisers, however, are seen as more hawkish than the president, and it was his national security adviser John Bolton who advised President George W. Bush in the war against Iraq.
“It’s a flammable situation and with lots of room for miscues and miscalculations,” said Yergin.
Blanch said Iran has several options, including dropping out of the nuclear agreement, but the most likely is indirect actions through proxies.
“There’s no sense they’re going to come back to the negotiating table,” said Blanch. “Iran could see being more proactive against U.S. aggression, for the home audience. At the end of the day, the loss of market share for Iran is a gain forthe rest of the region. Other than letting others pocket money for the barrels you no longer can sell, you could target those barrels and maybe in the process push the price up and put some pressure on the Trump administration which doesn’t want to see higher gasoline prices. It’s a fine line to walk.”
“Because of the maximum pressure campaign the U.S. is putting on Iran, there’s little doubt the Iranians will try to act out through proxies in the areas. We’re tripping into conflict. That’s the sense in the market,” said Kilduff.
Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser says Trump has become the ‘face of racism and exclusion’
CEO Joe Kaeser gestures during the annual results press conference on November 9, 2017 in Munich, Germany.
TF-Images | TF-Images via Getty Images
The CEO of German industrial giant Siemens sharply criticized President Donald Trump Saturday for a rally in North Carolina where Trump continued to attack progressive congresswomen after telling them to “go back” to where they came from, saying the president has become the “face of racism and exclusion.”
“It troubles me that the most important political office in the world is becoming the face of racism and exclusion,” Kaeser said in a Twitter post in German. “I lived for many years in the USA and experienced freedom, tolerance and openness as never before. That was ‘America Great at work’!!”
Kaeser was responding to a Twitter post by a German conservative politician, Ruprecht Polenz, who posted an article about Trump’s recent rally in North Carolina. Trump supporters yelled “send her back” after he continued to verbally attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar. Omar was born in Somalia and became a U.S. citizen when she was a teenager.
Polenz said Germany would have to take Trump back if such comments were serious. Trump’s grandfather Friedrich was born in Germany and emigrated to the U.S. in 1885.
Trump later tried to distance himself from his supporters chants, saying he disagrees and “was not happy with it”
Last Sunday, Trump lashed out at progressive congresswoman on Twitter, telling them to “go back” where they came from. Though he didn’t mention them by name, he was likely tweeting about Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib were born and raised in the United States, while Omar became a U.S. citizen when she was a teenager.
Trump’s comments have been condemned by the leaders of European allies, including British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. May called the the president’s comments “completely unacceptable.” Merkel, during her summer press conference, said she stands in solidarity with the congresswomen.
Kaeser has in the past criticized Trump’s trade policies, but praised the president’s 2017 tax overhaul.
Siemens employs more than 50,000 people in the U.S. and has 60 manufacturing, digital and R&D locations in the country. A rival of General Electric, the company manufactures gas turbines and generators, wind turbines and rail systems among other businesses in the U.S. Siemens says it has invested $40 billion in the U.S. over the past 15 years. The company’s U.S. subsidiary generated 4.3 billion euros ($4.8 billion) in revenue in the second quarter of 2019.
In May, the company announced it would cut 10,000 jobs worldwide in a major restructuring that includes the spinoff of its oil, gas and power generation business.
Here is the original German-language post on Twitter:
Amazon’s updated suspension policy still has sellers worried
Amazon made sweeping changes to its terms of service for third-party sellers on Wednesday in an effort to address an issue that’s plagued the biggest piece of its e-commerce business.
As part of a settlement it reached with German antitrust authorities over its marketplace policies, Amazon said it will now give a 30-day notice to sellers facing suspensions and provide specific reasons to those who are blocked for “alleged legal infringements.” Until now, Amazon could terminate seller accounts at any time “without justification,” according to the agreement announced by The Federal Cartel Office of Germany.
But sellers and marketplace experts who have become all too familiar with Amazon’s increasingly cavalier approach to suspensions are worried that the changes, set to go into effect globally on Aug. 16, don’t go far enough to protect merchants from having their business suddenly disrupted, or even decimated, without recourse.
“It’s a good step forward, but the update fails to address some of the root cause issues around the suspension problems,” said Peter Kearns, a former Amazon Marketplace manager who now works for 180Commerce, providing consulting and strategy services to third-party sellers.
The marketplace has been a blessing and a curse for Amazon since the company flung open its doors to many more outside sellers around the world, particularly from China. Third-party merchants now account for 58% of items sold on Amazon, up from 31% a decade ago, and produce higher margins than Amazon’s retail model, because sellers pay for all sorts of services, like storage, shipping and advertising, and keep Amazon from having to spend so much on inventory.
“Third-party sellers are kicking our first party butt,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in his annual shareholder letter this year.
But with millions of new sellers sourcing products from tons of unvetted manufacturers, counterfeits have flooded the marketplace, leading to a swarm of infringement claims. As Amazon has cracked down on the counterfeit problem by aggressively suspending abusers, many honest sellers have gotten kicked off as well, and Amazon has been unable to manage the deluge of complaints.
Germany’s antitrust office wrote in the agreement that it looked into the suspension problem mainly because “numerous sellers complained about the unsubstantiated and surprising cancellations and resulting loss of turnover.” U.S. regulators haven’t taken specific action, but presidential candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), have publicly criticized the company for having too much market power, and European Union officials recently launched an antitrust investigation into Amazon’s business practice regarding third-party sellers.
Seller anecdotes of wrongful terminations are not hard to find. For example, CNBC previously reported that one seller got suspended after a fake law firm filed a false complaint, while another seller was attacked and wrongfully suspended by a competitor calling himself the “virus of Amazon.” Last year, a small business called Cheapskates Liquidators was suspended because of incorrect claims that it sold inauthentic items and, in trying to get reinstated, the company entered a dark hole of unresponsiveness.
In the updated agreement shared with third-party sellers on Wednesday and viewed by CNBC, Amazon included a red-lined version that compares the old and new language. Here’s the most relevant part to suspensions:
Old version: “We may terminate or suspend this Agreement or any Service for any reason at any time by notice to you.”
New version: “We may terminate your use of any Services or terminate this Agreement for convenience with 30 days’ advance notice. We may suspend or terminate your use of any Services immediately if we determine that (a) you have materially breached the Agreement and failed to cure within 7 days of a cure notice unless your breach exposes us to liability toward a third party, in which case we are entitled to reduce, or waive, the aforementioned cure period at our reasonable discretion; (b) your account has been, or our controls identify that it may be used for deceptive or fraudulent, or illegal activity; or (c) your use of the Services has harmed, or our controls identify that it might harm, other sellers, customers, or Amazon’s legitimate interests. We will promptly notify you of any such termination or suspension via email or similar means including Seller Central, indicating the reason and any options to appeal, except where we have reason to believe that providing this information will hinder the investigation or prevention of deceptive, fraudulent, or illegal activity, or will enable you to circumvent our safeguards.”
Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee who now helps sellers get reinstated and stay compliant, said he’s encouraged by the update but still needs to see how it’s implemented. The 30-day notice will give sellers more opportunity to respond to unfair suspensions and make their case, but the rest of the language is vague and gives Amazon plenty of leeway, he said.
“They need better training and to be more specific in terms of reason and causality around the suspensions,” McCabe said.
Much of McCabe’s time is spent helping sellers file their appeals for reinstatement and finding the right person inside Amazon to actually see the documentation because so many of the processes are automated and the system is overwhelmed. Slow response times and the lack of awareness that employees have about specific violations result in small businesses losing revenue at critical times of the year, like the holiday season or Prime Day. Furthermore, Amazon’s suspension notices often don’t provide specific remedies, making it difficult for sellers to understand the corrective actions they need to take.
In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the updates are intended to “clarify selling partner rights and responsibilities.”
“These changes allow Amazon to continue to protect our customers and selling partners from abuse, while making explicit our practice of providing notice and offering a path to appeal our decisions for sellers who believe we’ve incorrectly taken action against their accounts,” the company said.
In online seller forums, merchants have voiced their complaints about issues like a lack of clarity in emails from Amazon representatives and low levels of engagement. One seller, who was suspended for violating a little known pricing policy, wrote about the frustrating nature of the appeals process. Email correspondence between Amazon and another suspended seller shows how challenging it is to dispute certain allegations.
Then there’s Amazon’s reliance on imperfect technology. Amazon’s automated system, driven by machine learning algorithms, often flags non-violations, creating “false positives,” especially when there are dirty tricks involved like a competitor trying to take down a higher-ranked seller, according to Jerry Kavesh, an Amazon seller and consultant. The changes don’t mention those issues or how to address them, he said.
“Currently, appealing false positives go into a black hole, and even if they’re resolved, they stay on your account as a black mark,” Kavesh said. “Too many sellers can get their account suspended even though they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Kearns of 180Commerce said the updated language still gives room for unexpected account terminations. Even with the 30-day notice requirement, Amazon said in the new agreement that it could suspend accounts “immediately” under certain conditions, like if a seller engages in illegal activity or harmful conduct. While there are logical reasons for Amazon to maintain that right, it can leave sellers who were attacked by rivals in a helpless position.
“It still has that level of ambiguity that Amazon can just say, ‘We think you’re doing something wrong and we’re going to shut you down,'” Kearns said. “In this case, you’re guilty until you can prove you’re innocent.”
Iran denies that a second British ship was seized
The oil tanker Stena Impero, seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is anchored at Bandar Abbas harbor in Bandar Abbas, Iran, on July 20, 2019. The Stena Impero was surrounded and seized by four vessels including a helicopter of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on Friday in a key waterway in the Gulf before heading into Iranian waters.
Contributor | Getty Images
Britain said Iran seized two oil tankers in the Gulf on Friday and told Tehran to return the vessels or face consequences in the latest confrontation to ratchet up tension along a vital international oil shipping route.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said they had captured the British-flagged Stena Impero, announcing the move two weeks after the British navy seized an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar.
Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said the second vessel, the British-operated Mesdar, had not been seized. It said the ship had been allowed to continue its course after being given a warning over safety and environmental issues.
The Stena Impero and Mesdar changed direction sharply within 40 minutes of each other shortly after entering the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, taking up a course toward Iran, Refinitiv tracking data showed.
The data later showed Mesdar changing direction again, heading westward back into the Gulf.
“These seizures are unacceptable. It is essential that freedom of navigation is maintained and that all ships can move safely and freely in the region,” British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said.
Hunt later said, in comments reported by Sky News, that there would be consequences if Iran did not return control of the ships but said Britain was not considering military options.
U.S. President Donald Trump said he would talk to Britain about the issue, speaking after a war of words earlier on Friday about whether the United States had shot down an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz.
Already strained relations between Iran and the West have become increasingly fraught since the British navy seized Iran’s Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar on July 4 on suspicion of smuggling oil to Syria in breach of European Union sanctions.
Oil prices gained on Friday after the latest spike in tensions along the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world’s oil supplies pass.
Iran’s Guards, an elite force under the command of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said they seized the Stena Impero at the request of Iranian authorities for “not following international maritime regulations,” state television reported.
Northern Marine Management, which is owned by Stena AB, confirmed the Stena Impero was heading toward Iran.
Norbulk, the manager of the tanker Mesdar, said the vessel had been boarded by armed personnel but was later allowed to continue its voyage. It said the crew were safe and well.
Iran had said it would retaliate against the seizure in Gibraltar. Just days later, three Iranian vessels tried to block a British-owned tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz but they backed off when confronted by a British navy ship.
Refinitiv data showed the Stena Impero vessel is owned by Stena Bulk and indicated its destination had been the Saudi port of Jubail on the Gulf. The tracking map showed it veering off course about 1517 GMT and heading toward Iran.
The Mesdar made its shift toward Iran at about 1600 GMT.
“We received reports that the British Stena Impero oil tanker was causing incidents and, therefore, we asked the military to direct it to Bandar Abbas port for the necessary probes,” Allahmorad Afifipour, head of Hormozgan’s maritime authority, told Tasnim news agency.
Tasnim, which cited military sources as saying the Mesdar had not been seized, said the Stena Impero had been causing pollution by dumping oil residue.
An Iranian military source said the Stena Impero “had turned off its tracker and ignored several warnings by the Guards before being captured,” the official IRNA news agency reported.
State television said the Stena Impero was taken to a coastal area and turned over to the authorities to take the necessary legal steps, the television added.
Supreme Leader Khamenei said on Tuesday Iran would respond to Britain’s “piracy” over the seizure of the Iran’s Grace 1 tanker in Gibraltar.
Tehran has repeatedly called for the ship’s release, denies the allegation that the tanker was taking oil to Syria in violation of sanctions and says Gibraltar and Britain seized the vessel on the orders of Washington.
Tensions between the United States and Iran have been steadily rising since Washington withdrew last year from a global pact aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear program and imposed sanctions that seek to shutdown Iranian oil exports.
Iran has said it would not halt its oil exports, the government’s main source of revenue.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Tehran’s action suggested U.S. sanctions “are working and that negotiations with America or world powers will need to happen.”
Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, called on all those involved in Friday’s shipping incident to seek a swift resolution to the incident that threatened the safety of seafarers.
“Freedom of navigation is vital for global trade and we encourage all nations to uphold this fundamental principle of maritime law,” he said.
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