Oil prices recovered some losses Tuesday after traders scrambled to avoid the worst of the damage wrought by volatile markets. The world is awash with too much oil at a time when coronavirus lockdowns on driving, flying and industrial activity has all but eliminated the need for the stuff.
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June futures contracts for West Texas Intermediate—the main U.S. bellwether—dropped nearly 20% and touched $10.24 a barrel before regaining ground to around $13.56 a barrel, up 6% on the day. Brent crude was up 2.9% at $23.72 a barrel. WTI traded at a massive difference to its European counterpart because of severe bottlenecks in storing oil in Cushing, Okla., where WTI contracts are settled.
The earlier drop in WTI briefly put it on track for the lowest closing level for an actively traded contract since at least 1986, according to data provider FactSet. WTI has only ever settled the day below $11 on six occasions, according to FactSet records, which stretch back to 1986. The last time was in 1998. The all-time low was March 31, 1986, when oil traded for $10.42.
A lightly traded futures contract for WTI traded for negative prices last week, spooking markets, and prompting investors to race out of contracts that require them to take delivery of oil in the coming months. Most oil watchers consider the most actively traded contract at any given time as the price that best reflects market conditions.
The selloff picked up steam Tuesday as investors sold the June contract and into ones that are tied to oil delivered in months down the road, said Giovanni Staunovo, commodity analyst at UBS’s Chief Investment Office.
“Everyone’s running out of the contract and they don’t want to be the last ones on the train, so that’s not helping prices,” Mr. Staunovo said.
S&P Dow Jones Indices said in a statement after Monday’s market close that it would remove the June U.S. crude contract during Tuesday trading hours from its widely followed indexes that track the oil market and switch to the July contract.
The move, which S&P said would include the S&P Goldman Sachs Com modity Index, comes earlier in the trading month than usual, and was “based on the potential for the June 2020 WTI Crude Oil contract to price at or below zero,” the index announcement said. BlackRock’s iShares S&P GSCI Commodity-Indexed Trust exchange-traded fund tracks that index and had around $400 million of assets as of April 27, according to the fund website.
BlackRock didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
That followed a decision by the United States Oil Fund —the largest exchange-traded fund that attempts to track oil prices—to sell its positions in the June contract and purchase positions in contracts several months away.
The crash in prices, and the dip into negative territory for the May contract last week, highlighted the dangers associated with holding oil futures that expire soon. Some WTI contracts require owners to take delivery of oil when the contracts expire. With oil tanks and pipelines full, some oil investors were forced to unload the right to collect that oil and pay the buyer to do so.
Many fear that negative oil prices could happen again. Prices on WTI contracts for July delivery have also come down in recent days to $18.99 a barrel. Contracts for delivery at the end of the year are at about $27 a barrel.
Government-imposed lockdowns aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus have suffocated global oil demand. Oil majors, frackers and national oil companies around the world have raced to shut off wells. A deal among major oil-producing nations to cut due to take effect Friday that will hold back approximately 13% of global supply.
But investors worry these measures won’t relieve the supply glut fast enough.
A lack of space to store oil onshore in the largely landlocked U.S. market has pushed WTI prices lower, said Bjarne Schieldrop, chief commodities analyst at SEB Markets. The hit to Brent prices, which are tied to oil produced in the North Sea, has been less severe. The Brent market is largely seaborne and space to store oil offshore remains. But as long as production continues amid weakening demand, space will run out, Mr. Schieldrop added.
“The final crunch point in time is still ahead of us,” he said. “Supply and demand will be forced to align meaning that production will have to shut down. That will be the final low point, but we are not there yet.”
Investors will keep a close watch on U.S. inventory data due out this week, with American Petroleum Institute stock-level data expected later Tuesday.