After a half-year of hemming and hawing, here at last is statistical battle II. A refresher: Venezuela is a land where there often appears to be no objective truth. There are often two ways of seeing a situation, both of them defensible with evidence, and both backing people’s self-interest. Venezuela’s oil output is like that. There have been innumberable attempts to estimate the real number, or prove that the government is telling the truth, or prove that the government is lying. Here are a couple examples from the last few days. On the one hand, Barclays Capital says (PDF) the government number is pretty close to the truth:
Another method is to compare what Venezuela reports about its level of exports and what the rest of the world reports that it is importing from it. We did this exercise with data for 43 countries from the United Nations commodity trade statistics database for 2005-09…we do not find a major deviation from the official export data published by Venezuelan institutions.
The problems are, first, the ad hominem: they are Venezuela perma-bulls. This is at least the second time they have released essentially the same report. While I didn’t see any problem with the first one, they don’t recognize the changes we saw in 2010. Which is related to my second critique, that they routinely interpret data in ways that give Venezuela the most possible exports. For example, they assume that all the oil going to the Hovensa refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands is from Venezuela. U.S. Energy Department data show that in Jan-Nov 2010 (December data not released yet), Venezuela provided only 56 percent of the oil there, or 228,000 barrels a day, down from 271,000 barrels a day in 2008. Similarly, Barclays uses 2008-09 numbers for Curacao, even though the PDVSA refinery there was shut down for almost all of 2010. (Oh and Barclays — if you need some help identifying the other countries that provided oil to Hovensa, let me know. My rate is cheap and I have the spreadsheet up on my screen now.)
And then there’s Merrill Lynch, cited here in El Nacional (my translation), saying that the country is only selling a million barrels a day at full price and its total exports are in collapse:
The official oil export goal for 2011 is 2.6 million barrels a day, but Bank of America-Merrill Lynch warns that in a best-case scenario, external sales will reach 1.8 million barrels a day.
All of which is compromised by the fact that people have been talking about Venezuela’s impending economic collapse for so long that it’s simply boring.
The last time I asked readers for thoughts on this I got the usual mix of well informed oil professionals who doubt the Venezuela numbers but have little basis for estimating their own figure, pro-government foreigners who say there’s nothing wrong with the official numbers, and a few people asking “who cares?” There are a few really top analysts out there who have studied the matter impartially and tend to always say the same thing: “not as much output as the government says, but not as bad as OPEC and the secondary sources say.”
One of the big problems is that there is so much room for fudging in oil numbers. Oil “from Venezuela” can mean many things to many people. It may have come from any number of places to Venezuela. Venezuela is careful to report all its exports, but may not be so diligent about imports. There was the intriguing note in the Wikileaks cables saying that Venezuela re-imports oil without reporting it, though I find the sourcing on that cable to be suspect at best. There’s also this issue that PDVSA oil doesn’t necessarily come from Venezuela — the company has an agreement with Ecuador, for example, to swap crude for diesel; obviously it’s easier to take the crude and sell it in the higher-price Pacific basin than ship it to Venezuela, process it and physically send back the same carbon atoms as oil products.
And finally, I don’t know if any of the oil reported as coming from Venezuela is diluted with oil from elsewhere at some point in the supply chain, and I don’t know how good customs agencies are at disentangling mixed loads. So there may be ways for PDVSA to look more productive than it is — even with the monthly audits it is providing.
My inclination is to say, screw it. I don’t care about the absolute number. What matters to me is the trend. Is Venezuela oil output growing, shrinking or staying the same?
Sadly, even on this, the different sources disagree — and not in the way you would expect. A lot of people use the OPEC estimates of oil output as a starting point. Here’s what they see in the last couple years in Venezuela:
The regression line on their numbers shows an average increase in oil output in Venezuela over the last couple of years. Their estimators claimed that Venezuela originally complied with OPEC cuts and then went out of compliance, and output ended up rising, before falling slightly in recent months. Suddenly OPEC is the only organization in the world that says Venezuela’s output has been rising.
Meanwhile, Venezuela provides a monthly report of its audited oil exports and imports. This audit is rather superficial, but it’s better than nothing — a reputable company, Inspectorate, reads over the bills of lading for oil tankers at Venezuelan ports, tallies up how many barrels came and went, and provides a report. They warn that they can’t vouch for the accuracy or completeness of the bills of lading, but they say (in as many words) that they don’t see anything obviously suspicious.
So what do their tallies show?
A pretty steep decline. Now, these are just exports. If domestic sales are increasing — perhaps to sell fuel oil and diesel to power plants — that will accelerate the decline in exports. Except, not all that much. Venezuela is now also providing domestic sales figures.
The lines in the upper right corner show Venezuela’s total sales: Exports plus domestic sales. The first conclusion here is that OPEC still looks like a low number. Venezuelan officials would have to find a way to boost their output figures (or hide import figures) equal to about a quarter of the country’s claimed output in order for OPEC to be right.
The second conclusion is that total sales are falling. The regression line shows sales declining every month by an average of about 10,000 barrels a day. I see no immediate reason this trend will change. The next big output-boosting projects to come on line will be early production in the new Carabobo and Junin projects, which will each pump 50,000 or so barrels a day. Here’s Eni saying they expect to start early production in 2013. Petrovietnam and Chevron are also supposedly racing to get production underway. But none will be producing this year, and it will take a very coordinated effort to pump new oil next year. But a year from now, if this trend keeps up, the early production will only bring Venezuela back to the level it’s at now.
So that’s my take. I don’t know the exact number, but I think that Venezuela’s self-declared decline of 10,000 barrels a month is probably a good starting point for analysts to work from. As far as the real number, I like the idea that the two figures — the outside and Venezuelan figures — are somehow “converging asymptotically on the truth,” as one outside oil estimator put it to me a few months ago when I interviewed him about the trends.