By Irina Slav
Crude oil has been having a great 2021 so far—a very different situation to last year’s when the pandemic devastated demand for all commodities fueling a price rout that lasted well into 2020. Now, commodities are back with a vengeance, and nowhere is this vengeance clearer than in oil. Crude has become the hottest commodity for traders in the past few weeks as surging demand has topped all expectations, sparking a run on oil futures. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, in mid-June, the ratio of bullish to bearish bets on oil in New York stood at a staggering 23 to 1. This compares with a ratio of 6 to 1 at the beginning of the year.
This is the speculative component of the price rally, and it is certainly a big component. But the fundamental component is a big one, too. OPEC+ stunned everyone earlier this month when it failed to reach an agreement on how to proceed with its production control beyond the current month. The UAE, a dissenter who had already criticized some aspects of the production cut deal, this time really dug its heels in and refused to make any concessions until concessions were made to it.
The latest update from this front is that the members of the oil-producing cartel have yet to make progress on the deal, according to unnamed sources familiar with the situation, who spoke to Reuters this week. The sources said Russia had been trying to bring the UAE and Saudi Arabia together to the negotiations table but was apparently having trouble succeeding, so a new meeting of OPEC+ was unlikely this week.
Meanwhile, however, there have been headwinds at play, too, namely fresh worry that the delta variant of the coronavirus could reverse the global economic recovery that has driven the surge in oil demand that few expected. Because of this worry, Reuters reported Monday, oil started the week with a loss, although a minor one, at less than a percentage point for both Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate.
On the stock market, oil traders have been taking profits. This has weighed on oil prices as well. Per Reuters’ John Kemp, last week hedge funds sold a total 34 million barrels of WTI and 5 million barrels of Brent as well as 14 million barrels of U.S. gasoline. The selloff, Kemp noted, came from the closing of bulling positions to the tune of 55 million barrels—and not the opening of bearish ones, suggesting sentiment remained upbeat on the whole.
According to the Wall Street Journal, however, there may be a ticking bomb hiding among all these oil bets. That ticking bomb would be the option that many traders have been using to bet on oil reaching $100 by the end of 2022. Analysts are concerned that a reversal of oil’s fortunes would lead to an options selloff, which, due to the size of the options market in oil right now, would send ripples across financial markets.
In all fairness, the chances of a sudden drop in oil prices are slimmer than they would normally be during a rally caused mostly by tightening supply. Normally, higher prices lead to greater production. This time, however, higher production is not coming. U.S. shale producers are being extra-careful and are not in a hurry to bring back too many barrels. Supermajors are being targeted by activist shareholders to reduce their output rather than boost it. There’s Iranian oil that a couple of months ago many expected to quickly return to legal global markets, but it appears that it will take a while yet for Iran and the United States to seal a deal that would make this possible. Wild price swings are likely to continue as speculators try to make the best of the oil rally.