By Irina Slav
The recent resurgence in Covid-19 infections in many parts of the world led not just to a slump in oil prices but growing pessimism about the prospects of oil demand. However, some recent news has reversed the sentiment, with optimism pushing prices higher again. Perhaps the biggest news was the Food and Drug Administration’s granting full approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine this week. The approval sparked hopes that vaccine hesitancy in the United States would diminish now, which would in turn potentially encourage more fuel demand.
In further good news for oil, China reported zero new Covid-19 cases this week after clamping down on several local outbreaks. As the world’s largest oil importer, China is a weathervane for oil prices, and this week, the weathervane is pointing towards more oil demand.
A weaker U.S. dollar contributed to the positive sentiment as it is usually conducive to stronger oil demand, as did reports of higher refinery throughputs in India in July. These rose by close to 10 percent on the year and were accompanied by an increase in fuel demand in the country by the most since April.
This slew of bullish news for oil might lead to a change in the behavior of large oil traders such as hedge funds, which have continued selling oil futures for seven of the last nine weeks now, according to the latest weekly column on oil buying and selling by Reuters’ John Kemp.
Last week hedge funds and other institutional traders sold the equivalent of some 25 million barrels of Brent and 9 million barrels of West Texas Intermediate. Reuters’ market analyst noted that most of the sales were profit-taking, but about 12 million barrels were “new bearish short-selling” in anticipation of weaker fundamentals for oil in the second quarter. Since June 15, traders have sold a total 253 million barrels of oil.
The second-half outlook for oil demand remains mired in uncertainty. Despite rising levels of vaccination in Europe and the United States, analyst expectations about the lifting of all travel restrictions appear to be guarded. Per Reuters’ Kemp, most governments will likely also take the guarded path and not rush into lifting restrictions on international movement until there is a fair degree of certainty that the spread of the coronavirus is under control.
When this degree of certainty will be achieved remains to be seen as reports begin to come in about rising numbers of breakthrough Covid-19 infections in vaccinated people. The addition of booster shots is one possible solution, but availability may be limited in most parts of the world.
On the flip side, as a growing number of U.S. companies are beginning to mandate vaccines for their employees, some analysts expect a strong rebound in work-related travel in the fall.
“With many corporations and government agencies likely to enforce vaccine mandates, return to office travel should dramatically pick up in the fall,” OANDA analyst Edward Moya told Reuters this week.
Meanwhile, many will be watching this week’s Fed meeting, which could produce updates on the central bank’s plans to start winding down its stimulus program.
“While the virus remains a threat to the short-term demand outlook, despite signs of an improving situation in China, this week’s Jackson Hole summit may give the market some ideas about the timing of tapering,” Saxo Bank said in a market commentary on Monday.
Recent comments from senior Fed officials that tapering needs to start sooner rather than later because the economy is growing strongly have contributed to oil’s decline. This means that any news to the effect of tapering likely to happen later rather than sooner would be bullish for prices. The chance of this has recently increased with the number of Covid-19 infections.