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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Oil Futures Point To Higher Oil Prices

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The EIA reported another strong week of inventory declines in its most recent data release, revealing a drawdown of 6.5 million barrels for the week ending on August 4. That means that the U.S. has now pulled more than 60 million barrels from storage since inventories peaked in March at 535 million barrels.

More importantly, there is growing evidence to suggest that the inventory drawdowns will continue and might even accelerate. That evidence can be found in the futures market, where changes in longer-dated contracts are no longer trading at a much higher price than near-term prices.

For much of the past three years, the oil futures market has been stuck in a state of contango – a situation in which oil contracts for the next month are trading at a steep discount compared to oil futures that would expire in six or twelve months. It may seem like some esoteric financial nonsense, but the contango was a glaring symptom of a market that was suffering from a glut of supply.

In essence, the front-month oil price was so discounted because there was too much oil moving around the globe. It was not a coincidence that the contango was the most pronounced when spot oil prices dropped to their lowest levels, such as in early 2016 when WTI dipped below $30 per barrel.

Now, things are changing. The contango has narrowed significantly, to the point of virtually disappearing. Which is to say, oil contracts for near-term delivery are priced just about the same as contracts six months ahead.

Not only is that a sign that the market is tightening – as traders are no longer drowning in oil in the short run – but it also suggests that going forward, things will continue to tighten. That is because the contango provided an incentive to store oil. A trader could purchase crude, pay for storage, and sell at a later date at a higher price. But with the contango nearly gone, the cost of storage would make the trade uneconomical. Related: Oil Glut Endures As OPEC Confirms Higher Output

That means that the narrowing of the contango could induce sharper and more consistent declines in inventories, as traders unload cargo that they no longer want to store.

For oil prices, this is bullish, since the supply glut sitting in storage will continue to come down.

Moreover, if the futures market actually flips into a state of backwardation – in which near-term prices trade at a premium to contracts six months out – it would provide an even stronger bullish jolt to prices.

Backwardation would not only lead to stronger inventory declines, but it would also throw a wrench in the plans of U.S. shale, by taking away one of their most coveted strategies in today’s market: hedging. Shale drillers typically lock in a certain portion of their production a year ahead of time, which insulates them from another downturn. Because the futures market has been in a state of contango, drillers were locking in much higher prices for the next year relative to today’s price. So they could be profitable even as the prevailing spot price looked weak.

Backwardation would upend that calculation. If all shale drillers have to go by is a futures price that is actually lower than today’s price, then the incentive to hedge is much diminished. That could translate into spending cuts, more modest drilling programs, and ultimately, lower oil production in 2018. Without the certainty of locking in production with hedging, it would be much riskier for these drillers to move ahead aggressively. To sum up, a shift into backwardation could slow the growth of shale to some extent. Related: A Red Flag For Oil? China’s Crude Imports Drop To 7-Month Low

In this sense, OPEC’s cuts have started to bear fruit. By taking barrels off of the market, they are draining inventories and narrowing the market contango. The end goal is higher prices, and we will eventually get there.

The one other wrinkle in this argument is the unpredictability and changing nature the futures curve. Shale can start and stop supply so quickly, that the longer-dated futures are much less reliable than they used to be. “Supply was always considered fix…but the reality is supply now can move faster than demand,” Goldman Sachs’ head of commodities research, Jeff Currie, told Bloomberg. “Velocity of supply changes the way these markets trade. When you look at oil…commodities are not anticipatory assets. They can’t price the future, they gotta price today.” Currie argued that the OPEC cuts last November changed the futures curve for the next year, but as the market priced in the expected change, it led to a supply response almost immediately from U.S. shale. In other words, “you can’t be trading oil three to six months out, because the supply can respond…you can’t be trading long-dated oil anymore,” Currie said.


Nevertheless, going forward, the futures market is starting to point to market tightness, a sign of stronger inventory declines and eventually higher prices.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Peter Paxtrom on August 10 2017 said:
    The reduction in the contango is occurring in part because there is an expectation that OPEC and Russia will be pumping more, and soon.

    Much of the oil drained from the US commercial stockpiles was actually exported to fill some of the void left by OPEC, while Russians have been taking over considerable market share from the Saudis. The Arabs will have to respond with added production or risk being left out of the market as the 'peek-oil' hearkens . . . . .
  • another guy on August 10 2017 said:
    Head fake. Look at oil and gas suppliers as the canary in the coal mine. XES ETF for example is now at lows set in February 2016 when oil was $26. Oil is about to collapse by $20 and there will be massive bankruptcies by smaller players.
  • Jhm on August 11 2017 said:
    This argument does not pass the sniff test. The futures curve prices oil at $54/b in 2025. And yet we are being told we should expect higher prices in the future.

    Ok,, if anyone believes that, they should be buying these underpriced futures, right?

    No, backwardation is the expectation of future surplus greater than current balance. This is a horrible long term outlook for oil.
  • Jeffrey J. Brown on August 11 2017 said:
    When we ask for the price of oil, we get the price of actual crude oil, and the most common definition of crude oil is crude oil with an API Gravity of 45 or less. The maximum API Gravity for WTI Crude Oil is 42 Degrees. Of course, what the EIA calls "Crude oil" is actually Crude + Condensate (C+C).

    But when we ask for the quantity of oil, we get some combination of actual crude oil + partial substitutes--condensate, natural gas liquids (NGL) and biofuels.

    The available data strongly suggest that actual global crude oil production has been on an "Undulating Plateau" since 2005, while global natural gas production and associated liquids, condensate and NGL, have (so far) continued to increase.

    I estimate that actual global crude oil production ranged from about 67 to 70 million bpd from 2006 to 2016, versus about 69 million bpd in 2005. Note that the ratio of global dry gas production to global C+C production was stable from 2002 to 2005, at 3,660 and 3,650 respectively (cubic feet per BO), but it rose sharply to 4,200 in 2016 (BP & EIA data).

    In other words, I suspect that the trillions of dollars in global upstream capex after 2005 only served to keep actual global crude oil production approximately stable, so what happens to actual global crude oil production given the large cutbacks in global upstream capex--especially given that global discoveries last year hit a 70 year low?
  • me on August 11 2017 said:
    In other words, “you can’t be trading oil three to six months out, because the supply can respond…you can’t be trading long-dated oil anymore,” Currie said.

    He's been smoking too much of that shale hopeium...
  • Jeffrey J. Brown on August 11 2017 said:
    I would also point out that what I define as Global Net Exports of oil (GNE*) have been at or below the 2005 rate of 45 million bpd for 11 straight years, through 2016, and the Chindia region has continued to consume an increasing share of flat to declining GNE.

    The volume of GNE available to importers other than China & India fell from 40 million bpd in 2005 to 33 million bpd in 2016.

    *Combined net exports, total petroleum liquids, from top 33 net exporters in 2005 (BP + EIA data)
  • James Rose on August 14 2017 said:
    Nice article Nick.
  • the masked avenger on August 14 2017 said:
    Yawnnnnn. A bunch of oil barrons just got woodies.......pysche!!!

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