Tag Archives: contango

Crude Oil Market Structure Looks Weak, But It Is Only One Part Of A Complicated Puzzle


  • Term structure – contango says too much oil around.
  • Brent-WTI says Iran will flood the market.
  • Crack spreads could crack the recent lows for crude.
  • OPEC meeting is the next big event – signals are that these guys cannot agree on anything.
  • Crude oil and a turbulent world.

The price of crude oil has not looked this bad since March, when it made lows of $42.03, or on August 24, when it fell to $37.75. On Friday, November 20, active month January NYMEX crude oil settled at $41.90 per barrel. The expiring December contract traded down to lows of $38.99 on the session. There are very few positive things to say about the future prospects for the price of crude oil at this time. The fundamental structural state of the oil market is bearish for price.

Term Structure – contango says too much oil around

Two weeks ago, the IEA told us that the world is awash in crude oil. The international agency told us that worldwide inventories have swelled to 3 billion barrels.

When crude oil was trading over $100 per barrel on the active month NYMEX futures contract during the summer of 2014, the market was in backwardation. Deferred futures prices were lower than nearby prices. This condition tells us that a market is tight, or there is a supply deficit. As the price of oil began to fall, term structure moved from backwardation to contango. This told us that the market moved from deficit to a condition of oversupply. This past week, the contango on the nearby versus one-year oil spread once again validated the glut condition in crude oil.

(click to enlarge)The December 2015 versus December 2016 NYMEX crude oil spread closed last week at over $8.00 per barrel. The contango has increased to 20.46%, the highest level yet for this spread. The January 2016 versus January 2017 NYMEX spread also made a new high and traded above the $7 level.

Brent crude oil futures have rolled from December to January. The January 2016 versus January 2017 Brent crude oil spread was trading around the $7.62 or 17% level last Friday. Market structure is telling us that huge inventories of crude oil will weigh on the price in the weeks ahead. At their current levels, a new low below the current support at $37.75 seems likely. Meanwhile, a location/quality spread in crude oil is also telling us that prospects for the oil price are currently bleak.

Brent-WTI says Iran will flood the market

The benchmark for pricing North American crude is the NYMEX West Texas Intermediate (WTI) price. When it comes to European, African and Middle Eastern crudes, Brent is the benchmark pricing mechanism. For many years, Brent crude traded at a small discount to WTI. That is because WTI is sweeter crude; it has lower sulfur content. This makes WTI more efficient when it comes to processing the oil into the most ubiquitously consumed oil product, gasoline.

That changed in 2010. The Arab Spring caused uncertainty in the Middle East to rise. As the majority of the world’s oil reserves are located in this region, the price of Brent crude rose relative to the price of WTI. Brent crude included a political premium. Additionally, increasing production from the United States, due to the extraction of oil from shale, exacerbated the price differential between the two crudes. In 2011, the price of Brent traded at over a $25 premium to the price of WTI. Recently, the spread between these two crudes has been converging. While the spread on January futures was trading at a premium of $2.40 for the Brent futures as of last Friday, it had moved much lower during the week.

The premium of Brent over WTI has evaporated over the course of 2015. The reason is two-fold. First, the number of operating oil rigs in the United States has fallen dramatically over the past year, indicating that production of the energy commodity will fall. Last Friday, Baker Hughes reported that the total number of oil rigs in operation as of November 20 stands at 564 down from 1,574 at this time last year. While lower U.S. production is one reason for a decline in the spread, increased production of Iranian crude oil has had a more powerful effect on the spread.

The nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran means that sanctions will ease and Iran will pump and export more crude oil in the weeks and months ahead. Iran has stated that their production will initially rise by 500,000 barrels per day and it will eventually rise to over one million. These two factors have caused the Brent-WTI spread to converge. The price trend in this spread is a negative for the price of crude at this time.

Crack spreads could crack the recent lows for crude

Recently, we have seen divergence emerging in crude oil processing spreads. Gasoline cracks have been outperforming crude oil, while heating oil crack spreads continue to trade at the weakest level in years.

Last Friday, the NYMEX gasoline crack spread closed at just over $14 per barrel.

The monthly chart of the gasoline crack highlights the recent strong action in this spread. Gasoline is a seasonal product; it tends to trade at the lows during this time of year. In 2014, the high in the gasoline crack at this time of year was $12.36. Therefore, compared to last year, gasoline prices are strong relative to the price of raw crude oil. This could be due to the current low level of gasoline futures – the December NYMEX gasoline futures contract closed last Friday at $1.2866 and the January futures closed at $1.2670 per gallon. The current low level of gasoline prices has increased demand from drivers as refineries work to process heating oil as the winter is only a few weeks ahead. In September U.S. drivers set a record for miles traveled by automobile.

The heating oil processing spread is a very different story. While the gasoline crack is relatively strong, the heating oil crack is very weak.

(click to enlarge)Last Friday, the January heating oil processing spread closed at around the $17.50 per barrel level. Last year at this time, the low in this spread was $22.73. In 2013, the low was $24.53 and in 2012, the low was $37.75 per barrel. The current level of the heating oil crack spread is seasonally the lowest since November 2010 when it traded down to $12.35 per barrel. In November 2010, crude oil was trading above $84 per barrel.

One of the many reasons that the crude oil price is weak these days is that demand for seasonal products, heating oil and diesel fuel, is low and inventories of distillates are high. As you can see, there are very few bullish signs in the fundamental structure for the crude oil market these days. In two weeks, the oil cartel will sit down to decide what to do now that the commodity they seek to “control” is awash in a sea of bearishness.

OPEC meeting is the next big event – Signals are that these guys cannot agree on anything

When OPEC met in November 2014, the price of crude was around the $75 per barrel level. When they met late last spring, the price had recovered to around $60. In both cases, the cartel left production levels unchanged. The stated production ceiling for the members of OPEC is 30 million barrels per day. The member nations are currently producing over 31.5 million barrels per day and increasing Iranian production means that OPEC output will likely rise. As the price of oil falls, the members need to sell more to try to recoup revenue. For the weaker members, the oil revenue is an imperative. Even the stronger members are under pressure. Saudi Arabia recently began selling bonds; they are borrowing money from the markets to replace lost income due to the lower crude oil price.

Meanwhile, OPEC’s current strategy is to continue to produce to flush high cost producers out of the market and build market share for the cartel members. However, OPEC did not count on a global economic slowdown, particularly in China. At the December 4 meeting of oil ministers in Vienna, it is likely that demand for crude oil will be an important consideration.

Dominant members of the cartel remain at odds. Saudi Arabia and Iran are on opposite sides and are involved in a proxy war in Yemen. The weaker members of OPEC want the stronger members to shoulder the burden of production cuts, and that is not likely to happen any time soon. In a hint of the discord between the member nations, on November 17, OPEC’s board of governors was unable to agree on the cartel’s long-term strategy plan and they tabled the issue until 2016. The issues revolve around ceiling output, setting production quotas and methods of maximizing member profits.

This tells us that unless the cartel is planning a giant spoof on the market, there is probably going to be no change in production policy. The current level of cheating or daily sales above the production ceiling may even increase. At this point, I doubt whether OPEC members could agree on whether it is sunny or cloudy outside given vast political, economic and cultural divergences among member nations. This means that selling will continue and even increase over the months ahead.

Crude oil and a turbulent world

All of the news, fundamentals and technicals for crude oil point to new lows and a challenge of the December 2008 lows of $32.48 per barrel. Last week, Goldman Sachs came out with a prediction that oil could fall to $20 per barrel. This is not such a bold call given the current state of the oil market, the strength of the dollar and the overall bear market for raw material prices. Last week, copper put in another multi-year low, iron ore fell to new lows and the Baltic Shipping Index fell to the lowest level since 1985.

However, all of the bad news for crude oil is currently in the price. We have seen this before. In March when crude oil traded to lows, there were calls for crude oil to fall – Dennis Gartman, the respected commodity analyst, went on CNBC and said that crude oil could fall to $10 per barrel as the energy commodity could go the way of “whale oil.” In late August, when oil fell to recent lows at $37.75, there were multiple calls for oil to fall to the low $30s and $20s. In both cases, powerful recovery rallies followed these bearish market calls. Following the March 2015 lows, oil rallied for over two months and gained 48.9%. In August of this year, a seven-week rally took oil 35% higher. The bearish prediction by Goldman Sachs last week could just turn out to be a contrarian’s dream.

There are a number of issues, big issues, going on in the world that can turn crude oil on a dime. First, Brent has fallen relative to WTI and the political premium for oil has evaporated. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the price of crude oil doubled in a matter of minutes. While the Middle East has always been a turbulent and dangerous part of the world, I would argue that today, it is far more turbulent and far more violent. The odds of attacks against oil fields and refineries in the Middle East have increased exponentially particularly given the recent ISIS attacks in France and around the world. At the same time, all of the bearish fundamental news about crude oil has decreased the political premium, and it is politics and war that could turn out to outweigh all of the current fundamentals.

Moreover, a surprise from outside of the Middle East could foster an increase in the price of oil. The world is now almost counting on Chinese economic weakness. Last week, Jamie Dimon, the Chairman of JPMorgan Chase, said that he is bullish on Chinese growth. If China does begin to show signs of growth, this could turn out to be supportive of crude oil and commodities in general, which remain mired in a bear market. Right now, the price of crude oil looks awful and fundamentals support a new low. However, all of that bearish data is in the price, and any surprise, in a world that always seems be full of surprises, could ignite the price once again. We saw this in March and again in August. As oil makes new lows, keep in mind that crude oil is a complicated puzzle. It is the unknown that will likely dictate the next big price move in oil. I am watching crude oil now and wondering whether Goldman Sachs called the turn in the market with their bearish forecast.

As a bonus, I have prepared a video on my website Commodix that provides a more in-depth and detailed analysis of the current state of the oil market to illustrate the real value implications and opportunities.

By Andrew Hecht in Seeking Alpha

Crude Oil Remains A ‘Sell’ After Rising Imports Fuel Surprise Inventory Build


  • Crude oil prices closed down 4% yesterday, breaking through a 2-month support level at $57/barrel, after an EIA report showed an unexpected build in inventories.
  • I argue that the domestic supply/demand balance has not improved and is just as bearish now as it was last winter when oil was in free fall.
  • Based on my analysis of supply/demand data presented in this article, I believe crude oil has further to fall.
  • My trading strategy, including holdings, price targets, and entry/exit points are discussed in detail.

By Force Majeure

After trading tightly range-bound between $58/barrel and $61/barrel since mid-April, crude oil finally broke down yesterday, after an EIA Petroleum report showed that crude oil inventories increased more than expected. The commodity slid 4.2% – its largest single-day loss since April 8 – to a 9-week low closing price of $56.92/barrel. The commodity is down 6.6% since recording a peak of $61/barrel one week ago on Tuesday. Further weighing on prices were unclear reports of a draft of an Iranian nuclear deal that would relax sanctions and permit a resumption of exports, as well as continued fears over Greece’s exit from the eurozone. This article will discuss yesterday’s EIA inventory report and use this data to support my argument that crude oil supply and demand remain just as unbalanced presently as when oil was trading at $45 per share, justifying my continued bearish position on the commodity.

In yesterday’s Petroleum Report for the week ending June 26, the EIA announced that crude oil inventories increased by 2.4 million barrels, versus the analyst consensus for a 2-million barrel storage withdrawal. The storage build was also markedly bearish compared to last week’s 4.9 million barrel withdrawal, last year’s 3.2 million barrel withdrawal and the 5-year average 4.1 million barrel withdrawal. It was the first storage injection in 9 weeks since the week ending April 24. Storage injections during the final week of June are highly unusual, and last week’s build was the first storage injection during the last week of June since the week ending June 29, 2007, and only the third this millennium.

At 480 million barrels, total crude oil storage is 90 million barrels above the five-year average inventory level and 80 million barrels above last year’s level, versus a 84 and 75 million barrel surplus last week, respectively. The increase in crude oil surplus is a sharp departure from the past two months which had seen surpluses, versus the five-year average decline in 8 of the past 9 weeks from a peak of over 113 million barrels. Figure 1 below shows the storage surplus versus the five-year average and 2014 over the past year.

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Figure 1: Crude oil storage surplus versus 2014 and the 5-year average showing an increase in the surplus after several weeks of decline. [Source: Chart is my own, data from the EIA.]

What happened over the past week that led to such an abrupt change in crude oil supply/demand balance?

Not much, I argue. And that is the problem.

There are three components of US supply/demand balance – domestic production, demand (measured by refinery inputs), and imports.

Domestic production was largely unchanged last week, declining by 9,000 barrels per day, from 9.604 million barrels per day the previous week to 9.595 million barrels last week. Domestic production remains at record highs, despite an oil rig count that has fallen 60% since October. Production is up 1.2 million barrels year-over-year.

Crude oil demand was likewise flat week-over-week, declining a negligible 1,000 barrels per day last week to 16.531 million barrels per day. Demand is up 313,000 barrels per day year-over-year. Note that this is well shy of the 1.2 million barrel per day year-over-year increase in production. As a result, the purely domestic supply/demand picture – demand minus US production – is markedly loose compared to last year. Figure 2 below compares the purely domestic supply/demand picture for 2015 versus 2014.

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Figure 2: Purely domestic crude oil supply/demand balance equal to demand minus domestic production. Supply/demand remains loose to 2014 and has been flat over the past 2 months, indicating minimal tightening of the market. [Source: Chart is my own, data from the EIA.]

Note that last year at this time, demand exceeded domestic production by 7.8 million barrels per day, while last week, this spread was just 6.9 million barrels. Further, despite all of the hullabaloo over record demand and declining domestic production, this spread is sitting near the 2015-to-date average of 6.6 million barrels, and has been essentially flat since late April.

It is the third component of the US supply/demand picture – imports – that drove last week’s bearish storage build and had been masking the persistent supply/demand mismatch shown above in Figure 2 that allowed crude oil to rally more than 30% off the March lows. Imports increased by 748,000 barrels per day last week to 7.513 million barrels per day. It was the largest week-over-week increase since the week ending April 3rd and the largest daily average since the week of April 17th. Nevertheless, the 7.5 million barrel per day tally was a mere 170,000 barrels per day above the 1-year average import level. Figure 3 below plots crude oil imports versus the 1-year average over the last 12 months.

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Figure 3: Crude oil imports versus the 1-year average. After 2 months well below the 1-year average, crude oil demand rebounded last week. [Source: Chart is my own, data from the EIA.]

Note that after hovering in the 6.75-7.25 million barrel per day range since late April, last week’s imports were merely a return to the baseline. Furthermore, imports have room to go even higher. Figure 4 below shows the week-over-week change and the departure from 2015-to-date average imports by country.

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Figure 4: Crude oil imports by nation with week-over-week and departure versus the 2015 average included. While imports from Canada rebounded last week, large deficits versus the 2015 average remain in Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. [Source: Chart is my own, data from the EIA.]

Note that the second-largest weekly increase in imports last week came from our biggest oil trading partner, Canada, where imports increased by 142,000 barrels per day. However, thanks to persistent wildfires in Alberta’s prolific oil sands, imports are still 187,000 barrels per day below their 2015 average. As these wildfires have largely diminished, I expect Canadian imports will continue to increase, from 2.8 million barrels per day last week back to their 3.0 million barrel per day 2015 average in coming weeks. An even more impressive departure versus the 2015 average was seen in Saudi Arabia, where imports remained flat at 700,000 barrels per day last week, more than 250,000 barrels below their 2015 average of 992,000 barrels per day. Saudi Arabia is a country whose rig count is at record highs and which is spearheading the effort to destroy the US shale oil industry, so I expect these imports will recover rapidly over the next month. Finally, our third-largest trading partner, Mexico, saw its imports slide 290,000 barrels per day last week, and currently sit 215,000 barrels per day below its 2015 average – likely another short-term anomaly. Were just these three countries to have had their imports at 2015 baseline levels, last week’s storage build would have been a massive 7.1 million barrels. The gains seen in Venezuela, Kuwait, and other smaller trading partners that sent tallies above their 2015 averages may be at least partially attributable to a surge in Gulf Coast imports following delays caused by Tropical Storm Bill, and therefore, may decline in coming weeks. However, I expect the net change in imports to be upwards over the next month, putting further pressure on the supply/demand balance.

My rationale for emphasizing imports compared to US production and demand is that I believe that they have been artificially creating the appearance of a tightening supply/demand balance. Thanks to wildfires in Canada, Tropical Storm Bill interrupting shipments in the Gulf of Mexico, and unrest in the Middle East, imports during April, May, and early June (as shown in Figure 3) were depressed below the five-year average. This correlated strongly with a transition to storage withdrawals that helped to fuel the back-end of crude oil’s 30% rally from the March low of $43/barrel to $61/barrel. Figure 5 below compares crude oil weekly storage injections/withdrawals to imports.

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Figure 5: Crude oil storage changes versus imports. There is a strong correlation between storage withdrawals between May and late June and a decline in imports. Storage injections resumed last week, following a surge in imports. This supports imports being the major driver of the domestic supply/demand balance over the past few months. [Source: Chart is my own, data from the EIA.]

During this same period (as shown in Figure 2), domestic production and demand remained relatively unchanged. As a result, I firmly believe that the decline in imports hoodwinked many investors into thinking that the supply/demand balance was permanently tightening, due either to increasing demand from cheap oil or declining production from the declining rig count, when it was really a temporary drop in imports. Now that imports have returned to a baseline level, this “masking” of the supply/demand balance has been lifted, and the result was a bearish injection similar to those seen during oil’s springtime free fall – but during a time when the market expects withdrawals. It is therefore unsurprising that oil retreated to the tune of 4% yesterday.

What I believe to be even more concerning is that there is little room to go higher on the demand front. Refinery utilization – the percentage of US refinery capacity that is being utilized to convert crude oil to gasoline and other finished products – was at 95.0% last week. This is the highest refinery utilization during the final week of June over the last 10 years. Figure 6 below shows refinery utilization for the last week of June from 2006 to the present.

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Figure 6: Refinery utilization during the final week of June for the past 10 years showing that, at 95%, 2015’s utilization is the highest of the decade. [Source: Chart is my own, data from the EIA.]

Furthermore, the maximum refinery utilization during any week in the last 10 years was 95.4%, recorded several times, most recently last December. As a result, at 95.0% refinery, utilization is nearly at its maximum capacity. The fact that we saw a 2.4 million barrel storage injection, with demand near its maximal level pulling hard at crude oil inventories and with imports still with room to run higher, suggests to me that oil still has room to fall.

Oil’s 4% decline to under $57/barrel represented a major breakdown not only from a fundamental level, as discussed above, but from a technical level. During the 44-day period from April 29 to June 30, crude oil had traded within a tight $4.17 range between $61.43/barrel and $57.26/barrel, the narrowest range since March 2004. Oil broke out of that range yesterday. Figure 7 plots the price of crude oil over the last 3 months, showing the rally, range-bound action, and the breakdown yesterday.

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Figure 7: Crude oil prices over the last 2 months showing range-bound trading largely between $58/barrel and $61/barrel. followed by a breakdown yesterday. [Source: Chart is my own, data from the EIA.]

Now that oil has fallen below its 2-month support level, I would not be surprised if more investors head for the exits.

I continue to hold three positions betting on a continued downtrend in crude oil prices. I own a 10% short position in the popular United States Oil ETF (NYSEARCA:USO) – increased from 5% last week – a large 15% short position in the leveraged VelocityShares 3x Long Crude Oil ETN (NYSEARCA:UWTI), and a 5% short position in the Market Vectors Russia ETF (NYSEARCA:RSX). The latter provides short exposure to an oil-driven economy, as well as the turmoil encompassing Europe. The short UWTI position is a higher-risk play on leverage-induced decay due to choppy trading. USO, of course, is a safer direct play on declining oil prices.

Should oil drop to $55/barrel – which has long been my short-term price target – I will begin to aggressively cover my UWTI short position to protect profits in a highly volatile trade, which is currently up 20% and would likely be pushing 35% if oil reaches $55/barrel. I will likewise plan to close out my RSX short around the same level to lock in profits, should the European crisis appear to be resolving.

However, I plan to hold USO for the foreseeable future. Following yesterday’s decline, contango in the oil futures market is again rising, with the 4-month spread up to $1.21, or 2.2%, after bottoming out at $0.86 last week. Should oil continue to fall, the contango will likely widen further, and I could easily see contango-generated returns topping 5% on a position held through the Fall. I feel USO is a safer, less volatile long-term hold than UWTI (despite the fact that UWTI triples the contango-generated gains and also benefits from leverage-induced decay). My price target to close out my USO position is currently $50/barrel. Factors that would likely cause me to cover sooner would include any socioeconomic forces that look like they would suppress imports for an extended period, or if US production (finally) begins declining in a meaningful way. As a result, my “stop” is a fundamental stop, and I do not have a specific stop price. Should oil rally in the face of the current bearish fundamentals, I will even consider adding to my USO short position up to 15%. If I had no crude oil short exposure, I would be reluctant to open a position here with oil down 7% in a week. Rather, I would wait for a bounce before initiating any position.

In conclusion, I believe that US crude oil demand and production remain in a stable, bearish pattern. Instead, the fundamental supply/demand picture is, and has been, dictated by fluctuations in crude oil imports. I do not believe that the underlying fundamental picture has changed since March, and that a return to baseline import levels last week following months of temporary suppression unmasked this persistent supply/demand imbalance. With crude oil demand unlikely to go higher with refineries near peak capacity, domestic production stable, and crude oil imports with room to go even higher, particularly from Canada and Saudi Arabia, I expect continued weakness in crude oil in the months to come. Once the summer driving season fades and demand declines, I would not be surprised to see the domestic oil surplus climb back above 100 million barrels over the next 1-3 months. Further exacerbating bearish sentiment are the possible resumption of Iranian exports and continued anxiety over Greece and the eurozone, although I believe these fears to be secondary to the ongoing domestic storage glut. My 1-3 month price target is $55/barrel, with a potential to drop as low as $50/barrel during this time. As a result, I plan to hold my large basket of crude oil short positions in USO, UWTI, and RSX.

Additional disclosure: As noted in the article, I am also short RSX and UWTI.