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Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com. 

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Oil Enters A Bear Market As Recession Fears Grow

  • Oil prices have fallen by more than 20% since March highs.
  • Oil and gas stocks are underperforming the S&P 500 in recent days.
  • Market experts have interpreted the slide as a sign that some oil producers have been selling longer-dated contracts to hedge their supplies.

For the second day in a row, oil and gas stocks emerged as the worst-performing S&P sector as U.S. crude oil futures settled in a bear market, falling more than 20% from a March peak on Wednesday. Front-month WTI crude closed -1% at $98.53/bbl, the lowest settlement in nearly three months and the second straight settlement below $100, while front-month Brent crude ended -2% at $100.69/bbl just a day after dipping below the psychologically-important level of $100/bbl for the first time since April.

Whereas Wednesday's decline looks tame in comparison to the previous day when both Brent and WTI collapsed nearly 10%, it extended the energy sector's losing streak and plunged it into bear territory for the first time in months. It has also reversed a recent trend where the sector was outperforming all other 10 market sectors to a situation where it's underperforming virtually everything.

The selloff has been so deep that prices have crashed all the way along the futures curve. For instance, Brent for December 2023 shed 8.8% on Tuesday to trade at its lowest level since March, almost as much as nearby prices. 

Market experts have interpreted the slide as a sign that some oil producers have been selling longer-dated contracts to hedge their supplies. Although such volumes have so far been rather modest, they can still compound the pressure on nearby futures.

Recession Fears

The funny thing is that this is all based on market sentiment and bearish projections but has little to do with the physical oil markets.

"A growing number of analysts are expecting that many of the world's leading economies will suffer negative growth in the next few months, and this will drag the U.S. into a recession," Fawad Razaqzada, market analyst at City Index, has told Bloomberg.

Related: Coinbase: Oil And Tech Stocks Are As Risky As Crypto

Months of dwindling liquidity, alongside heavy technical selling as well as hedging activity by oil producers, have all contributed to the slide. However, the biggest driver has been concerns about a possible recession and an overly hawkish Fed, which have served to undermine the idea of oil prices being a means of hedging against inflation. 

"Recession fears likely pushed some investors out of the oil trade as an inflation hedge," Giovanni Staunovo, analyst at UBS Group AG, has told Bloomberg.

Last month, Federal Reserve officials determined to maintain an aggressive interest rate hike regime in a bid to cool down inflation and prevent it from becoming entrenched, even if that means slowing down the U.S. economy. According to minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee's June 14-15 policy meeting, the central bank plans to increase rates by either 50 or 75 basis points at its next meeting slated for July 26-27, hot on the heels of a 75-basis points raise in June--the biggest in nearly three decades. Indeed, it's June's massive hike that triggered the ongoing oil price selloff, meaning the oil bulls might not get a much-needed reprieve any time soon.

That said, the closely watched physical oil markets that give important clues to supply-demand trends have largely remained unchanged, with supply remaining tight and demand still high. Physical barrels are still fetching huge premiums over their benchmarks, so much so that Saudi Arabia recently lifted its prices to Europe to a record just hours before the plunge in futures. Meanwhile, prices of diesel and gasoline remain well above crude, giving refineries a big incentive to buy barrels.

If anything, the market appears bound to get even tighter, with Libya's output plunging and Kazakhstan's exports at risk. 

But that might only be the beginning of oil supply woes.

The U.S. and its allies could be about to engage in a dangerous move that might catapult oil prices to unchartered territory. According to Bloomberg, the allies have discussed a mechanism to cap the price of Russian oil at $40-$60/bbl in a bid to cut Vladimir Putin's revenue for the war in Ukraine.

However, such a move comes with the risk of Putin's retaliation, which could be catastrophic for the oil market.

Last week, J.P. Morgan Chase warned that global oil prices could climb to a "stratospheric" $380/bbl if G7 nations succeed in imposing caps on the price of Russian oil and prompt Vladimir Putin to inflict retaliatory production cuts.

According to JPM, Russia's robust fiscal position means the country can afford to slash crude output by as much as 5M bbl/day without excessively damaging its economy. However, such a drastic reduction would be very bad news for oil consumers as it would push Brent crude prices to $380/bbl.

"The most obvious and likely risk with a price cap is that Russia might choose not to participate and instead retaliate by reducing exports," "It is likely that the government could retaliate by cutting output as a way to inflict pain on the West. The tightness of the global oil market is on Russia's side," JPM  analysts wrote.

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Razi Ahmad on July 08 2022 said:
    I think Crude prices have bottoming out and soon it will be going North. Just wait may be 5 USD more for Brent after which, a breakout will occur lasting 3 months. If instead it returned, good for global economy specially the poor nations. Coal, Natural Gas, LNG...Corn /// All will go up / down with Crude.

    Good factors could be suspension of Russian invasion (or U turn by Europe to revoke ban on Russia. They cannot understand that US and its Defence companies are actually flourishing and inflation is actually hurting the economies of Europe and its citizens.

    Yes, Libya and Ecuador are in serious political turmoil where internal fight is underway for who control the Oil production. Had these issues are resolved at any one place, the crude will go down. People of these countries are reckless, now when the crude can provide handsome money to national kitty, they are fighting generating half or quarter only. And am sure their issues would be settled when its price fall to normal.

    Likewise, people are forgetting Iran, specially Europe, what is fault of Iran? So, any lifting of embargo on Iranian oil can make the crude to going South easily.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on July 08 2022 said:
    Far from it, the global oil market is still underpinned by a most bullish state since 2014, a robust global oil demand and a fast-shrinking global spare oil production capacity including OPEC+’s despite concerns about a harsh recession involving the major economies.

    The sudden drop in crude oil prices today is overwhelmingly due to profit-taking by oil traders amid recession concerns.

    And while a hard recession normally leads to a demand destruction and a decline in oil prices, this time it will neither adversely impact demand nor prices because of global energy shortages and a shrinking global spare capacity. In such a tight market, demand destruction hardly works.

    Based on the above, I project that both oil demand and prices will continue their surge in coming months with Brent crude price hitting $130-$140 a barrel.

    Moreover, attempts by Western nations to cap prices of Russian oil and petroleum products in order to keep the flow of Russian oil while reducing Russia’s oil revenues are doomed to fail miserably.

    Russia could retaliate by halting supplies of its crude oil and petroleum products to Western nations while continuing to sell vast volumes of its oil exports to China and India. This will cause oil prices to surge further probably to $120-$130 a barrel thus inflicting considerable damage on the nations imposing a cap on prices. Russia can afford to slash crude oil exports by more than 3.0 mbd without affecting Russia’s revenues and economy.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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