US oil prices swing as coronavirus fuels storage fears

US oil prices endured another day of volatile trading on Tuesday as concerns over storage capacity prompted fears the American crude benchmark could again plummet into negative territory.

The West Texas Intermediate contract for June delivery fell 20 per cent to a low of $10.07 a barrel in early London trading, before clawing back nearly all of its losses to settle 3.4 per cent lower at $12.34. The volatility came on the heels of a 25 per cent plunge in the price of the same contract on Monday.

Extreme price swings have rocked global oil markets in recent sessions. Last week, WTI crude for May delivery fell to negative $40 a barrel shortly before expiry, marking the first time in history that the price of an oil contract had fallen below zero.

The coronavirus pandemic has reduced demand for oil by close to a third, raising concerns that a glut of unwanted supplies will overwhelm global storage capacity.

Oil tanks have been filled up or booked out by traders, while the amount of crude and fuel being stored on vessels at sea has surged, with IHS Markit putting seaborne crude stocks at 175m barrels, up from 100m in late March.

Robert Rennie, Sydney-based head of market strategy at Westpac, said the industry was approaching the limit of its storage capacity, including floating storage, which was having a “depressing effect” on prices.

Traders said the only resolution would be for production to start shutting down or throttling back, but most oil companies are hesitant to make the first move.

Oil-producer group Opec and its allies such as Russia are due to start cutting about 10 per cent of global supplies from early May — though that may be accelerated — but the size of the demand drop at the peak of lockdowns and travel restrictions is closer to 30 per cent of the normally 100m-barrel-a-day global market.

“Very little supply has been cut,” said Martijn Rats, global oil strategist at Morgan Stanley. “It’s a negligible amount.”

Line chart of West Texas Intermediate showing US oil benchmark dips again following sub-zero fall

Volatility in crude markets has been exacerbated by exchange traded funds. The tumble in US prices on Monday was driven by the world’s largest oil-backed ETF starting to sell off its positions in June futures contracts, moving into contracts for later delivery.

S&P GSCI, one of the largest indices tracking a basket of commodities, said on Tuesday it would make an “unscheduled” move out of the June WTI contract at the close of trading — as long as prices were not already in negative territory — adding a further wave of selling pressure as funds following the index will need to shift positions in response.

“No one wants to be among the last to close out their position ahead of expiry, fearing a repeat of the May expiry,” said Warren Patterson, Singapore-based head of commodities strategy at ING. “The move we are seeing suggests that the June contract is going to become increasingly illiquid, and as a result, will likely suffer from increased volatility in the lead up to expiry.”

Brent crude for June delivery also initially slid on Tuesday, hitting a low of $18.73 a barrel before rebounding to $20.46, ending the trading session 2.4 per cent higher. The international oil marker last week dropped below $20 a barrel for the first time in almost two decades.

Prices for physical cargoes in the spot market for delivery in the next couple of weeks are even weaker.

The price of dated-Brent, a physical benchmark based on a basket of North Sea crudes that is assessed by pricing agency S&P Global Platts, fell to $13.65 a barrel on Monday, down almost 15 per cent on the day — a sign that traders have little appetite for cargoes anywhere in the world.

Other energy markets have also been hit, with the price for cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) falling to the lowest on record, trading at less than $1.90 per million British Thermal Units. That is down more than 60 per cent from the start of this year.

Equity markets in Europe shrugged off volatility in oil prices to push higher. The European benchmark Stoxx 600 added 1.5 per cent, while London’s FTSE 100 rose 1.9 per cent and Frankfurt’s Xetra Dax gained 1.3 per cent.

That enthusiasm did not bleed into trading on Wall Street, where stocks struggled between positive and negative territory for the day. The S&P 500 edged 0.2 per cent higher in afternoon trading while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite slid 0.5 per cent ahead of the release of closely watched earnings results from leading groups, including Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Equity markets across Asia-Pacific had also been largely unmoved by ructions in the oil market overnight. Japan’s Topix rose 0.1 per cent, while South Korea’s Kospi edged up 0.6 per cent and China’s CSI 300 added 0.7 per cent.

Brokers said broad support from big central banks had provided some support for stock markets. The Bank of Japan on Monday said it would buy an unlimited amount of government bonds and keep interest rates low. Investors are also focused on meetings this week by the European Central Bank and US Federal Reserve.

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