The fortunes of the oil market have turned around dramatically in the past month. This time last month, investors were watching the futures market in disbelief. The May contract for West Texas Intermediate oil was set to expire, and prices did the unthinkable — they plunged 300% in one day, deep into negative territory. In the spot market all across North America, prices also turned negative, meaning people literally couldn’t even give oil away.
There were dire forecasts of much more pain ahead, and a recurrence of the wild trading was feared for the June contract. But now the outlook is much improved, as the June contract is set to expire Tuesday. The world has changed, and the ugly crisis created by both oversupply and a sudden lack of demand is beginning to reverse.
“We think fundamental right steps have been taken to get us on sounder footing,” said Helima Croft, head of global commodities strategy at RBC. Croft said the “green shoots of recovery in place,” as Chinese and U.S. demand are improving, and OPEC plus ended its feuding and agreed to sharply cut output.
China has been buying more oil, and its demand is clearly strengthening. U.S. drivers are getting back into their cars as coronavirus shutdown restrictions lift. On the supply side, Saudi Arabia last week added another 1 million barrels a day cut of its own to the OPEC plus deal for a 9.7 million barrel reduction, and America’s oil industry has cut its production quickly and sharply.
Oil prices jumped sharply Monday, rising on the positive developments and a rally in risk markets sparked by Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s comments that the Fed will can do more to support markets and the economy. WTI futures for June were up 7.4% at $31.62 per barrel in afternoon trading.
Now, the demand side of the market and the supply side are improving in tandem, to reduce the oil glut that was close to filling all available storage facilities, including ships at sea. The fact that the world was running out of places to store oil in April was behind the sharp drop in the futures contract. Investors were unable or unwilling to take delivery of oil, and there were also investors who became trapped in the trade as the selling spiraled. Interactive Brokers took a $109.3 million hit to cover its customers’ losses.
Oil is now trading above $30 for the first time since March 17, and RBOB gasoline futures have risen above $1 per gallon for the first time since March 13. The strong move higher in the June contract is also forcing some investors to cover short positions, adding to the rise.
The United States Oil Fund ETF, based on futures contracts, was up more than 8% Monday. Some investors initially blamed USO for causing the market disruption last month, but the fund had already rolled out of the May contract before the market began to crater. A popular oil play for retail investors, USO has since restructured its holdings to distribute them more evenly across later dated contracts, rather than holding them in the front month.
As the June contract gets set to expire, the landscape has changed dramatically for the U.S. oil industry. U.S. production was at a record high in March, and has cut back by 1.5 million barrels a day in just about six weeks, to 11.6 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration’s latest weekly data. Analysts expect production could be down by another 500,000 to 1 million barrels soon.
“It’s just a massive response by the U.S. industry,” said John Kilduff, partner with Again Capital. “This is a remarkable plunge in activity. … It’s pretty clear the U.S. is now the swing producer.”
Baker Hughes reported that another 34 oil rigs went out of service last week, leaving just 258 active oil rigs, about a third of the rig count last year.
“Storage at Cushing actually fell last week. That was the whole mechanism last month that drove the negative pricing,” said Kilduff. “There were barrels to take in and no place to put them.” Cushing, Oklahoma is the storage hub for WTI, so the market watches storage levels there closely.
“The pace was such that it would have been topped out by the end of June,” Kilduff said, but that seems to have reversed. Traders said oil prices were also lifted Monday by a report from Genscape that showed another big drop in Cushing storage levels. Government data on the latest storage levels will be released Wednesday.
The weekly U.S. government data shows implied demand for gasoline was also up sharply, with demand at 7.4 million barrels a day, from the early April trough of 5.1 million barrels a day. Normal demand for this time of year is about 9.5 million barrels a day, and it peaks ahead of the July 4 holiday. Analysts said the government data overstates retail demand, which is more like 6.5 million barrels a day in mid-May.
Analysts say demand has improved and as of last week, it was off by about 30% from normal levels, much better than the approximately 50% drop in demand in early April. U.S. gasoline demand is key because it is typically equal to about 10% of global oil demand.
Francisco Blanch, head of global commodities and derivatives at Bank of America, said he expects the rally to continue for now, but prices will not go that much higher. “This is a recovery that has a pretty low ceiling. My sense is that if prices approach $40 a barrel, then production will come back pretty quickly,” he said.
Oil prices were also helped Thursday by a news report that Chinese demand has returned to levels near where it was before the lockdown there.
RBC has been tracking Chinese data, including on airline flights, and it expects demand will recover an average 9% this quarter, 17% in the third quarter and 25% in the fourth quarter from the lows seen during the first quarter. Croft expects the recovery in China to be the quickest, relative to other global regions.