In June 2015, oil prices surged to $60 per barrel, raising hopes that the oil price downturn would have been brief and the recovery swift. But by July, oil prices were heading back down, the beginning of a deeper slump that would continue for months.
A year later, a similar pattern could be playing out, or at least, that is what oil producers are fearing. After hitting a low point in February of this year, oil prices began a four-month rally, rising from $26 to $51 per barrel by June, the third year in a row in which the month of June saw a relative peak for oil prices. Now, July could once again mark a renewed nose-dive.
This time around, an array of oil producers are not taking any chances. According toBloomberg, more and more E&Ps are hedging their production, protecting themselves against a crash in prices. Earlier this month, Laredo Petroleum Inc., for instance, hedged more than 2 million barrels of its 2017 production. “The producers have sold the hell out of this rally,” Stephen Schork, president of Schork Group Inc., told Bloomberg. “The companies that did survive, they’ve been hedging into this rally. And they’re counting their blessings.”
Hedging even began before prices rallied. Reuters surveyed shale firms earlier this month, finding that 17 out of 30 had increased their hedging in the first quarter when oil prices were at a low point. Even though they locked in at low prices, doing so offered some stability and certainty in their revenue projections.
But it was also an indication of the level of anxiety with which E&Ps were approaching 2016. The rally since February has buoyed spirits, but with oil prices back to $45 per barrel, negative sentiment once again pervades the market. For the week ending on July 12, oil traders increased their short bets by 1.6 percent, the third week in a row that shorts climbed.
The logic is straightforward. Production is falling but global supplies are still elevated. Worse, inventories are only coming down slowly from record highs. Then there is the possibility of new drilling – the rig count rose again last week, with the industry adding 6 oil rigs and 1 natural gas rig, according to Baker Hughes. On the other hand, although drillers could get back to work, the markets are likely overestimating the impact of a few dozen rigs coming back into operation.
Meanwhile, the botched coup attempt in Turkey barely registered in oil. Supply disruptions through the Bosporus, where 3 percent of global crude travels, were certainly plausible, but the straits were reopened only hours after the overthrow failed. “The market is looking past the coup,” Ric Spooner, chief market analyst at Sydney’s CMC Markets, told Reuters.
At this point, the very large overhang of refined products weighing on the market is one of the most important indicators to watch, a glut that will take time to work through. The rapid buildup in storage levels of gasoline and diesel this year have taken the markets by surprise, and could ultimately delay what everyone thought would be a rebalance in the next few months.
“The rising inventories of gasoline have got the markets’ attention,” John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “The oil market is getting ready to break.”
The one bullish factor for oil prices is India, which has taken over from China as the main driver of demand growth. India just grew at its fastest three-month period in the past decade, the most recent data shows. “We think India is roaring right now and will be a key driver of demand,” Helima Croft, managing director and Global Head of Commodity Strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told CNBC’s “Futures Now” in a recent interview. Despite all the negative factors pointing to ongoing oversupply, RBC still thinks that crude prices could close out the year in the mid$50s per barrel, largely because of India.
But another downturn in prices is also a distinct possibility, and one that looks a bit more likely than it did a month ago. At the very least, it will take quite a bit of time before a serious price rally arrives. “Fundamental headwinds are growing, supply-demand rebalancing is likely still a mid-2017 event, but tail risks are admittedly large in both directions, as geopolitics add to uncertainty,” Morgan Stanley concluded in a recent report.