Oil prices running out of reasons to rally
It is still early but all signs point to a stronger commitment from OPEC to adhere to the specifics of the cuts than market analysts might have given them credit for. That bodes well for a narrowing supply surplus – and ultimately a deficit – as well as falling inventories. In other words, OPEC is succeeding in putting upward pressure on prices.
However, the flip side of the equation is faster drilling from the U.S., where rig counts continue to climb. Oil output, according to EIA weekly surveys, is up roughly 300,000 bpd from summer lows, with more supply expected to come online in the months ahead as drilling picks up pace.
It is unclear, at this point, how rising U.S. supply and falling OPEC output will ultimately balance out. For now, the consensus seems to be tightening conditions in the first half of 2017, with much greater uncertainty in the second half, but that remains to be seen.
What is clear is that oil speculators have built up such a large bullish bet on oil that they have opened up crude to near-term downside risk. According to Reuters, hedge funds and other money managers amassed net-long positions in WTI and Brent equivalent to 796 million barrels in the last week of December, which was nearly double the amount from mid-November. The OPEC deal clearly fueled a huge speculative rush in rising oil prices, which, not coincidentally, corresponded with real gains in crude prices.
But at this point, there are very few short positions left in oil, while a massive volume of long bets have built up. That suggests two things, both of which are bearish for oil: there is not a lot of money left to go long, lowering the chances of further prices gains; and the potential for a correction in prices is very high at this point. Indeed, in the most recent week for which data is available, net-long positions declined a bit, raising the possibility that bullish bets have peaked. All it will take is a bit of bearish news to spark a downturn in prices.
There are a few minor worrying signs for oil prices that could crop up as additional bearish forces in the next few weeks. The U.S. DOE announced on January 9 a "notice of sale" from its strategic petroleum reserve, with plans to sell 8 million barrels for delivery over the course of February, March and April. Meanwhile, Libya is seeing rapid gains in oil exports after the reopening of a key export terminal, with output jumping to 700,000 bpd, according to the latest data, up sharply from the 580,000 it produced in November and the 300,000 bpd it exported before it started restoring output last summer. Moreover, Nigeria – which, like Libya, is exempt from the OPEC deal – is intent on restoring production. It may struggle to do that with the recent shuttering of the Trans Niger Pipeline, potential strikes from oil workers unions and the announcement from the Niger Delta Avengers that attacks will resume this year. In fact, production appears to have declined in December, falling 200,000 bpd to 1.45 mb/d, becau se of some of these issues. But if those problems can be overcome, Nigeria has latent production capacity that could come back online at some point.
And in a sign that there is not a lot of room on the upside, a kerfuffle in the Persian Gulf over the weekend did nothing to affect oil prices. A U.S. Navy destroyer fired three warning shots towards Iranian ships, an incident that in the past would have led to a sharp, even if brief, rally in crude prices. Instead, the markets shrugged off the incident – WTI and Brent sank on the first trading day after the event, on unrelated news. "The market is overbought and under a lot of downward pressure," Bob Yawger, director of the futures division at Mizuho Securities USA Inc., told Bloomberg. "The shots fired at the Iranian boats in the Strait of Hormuz didn’t do anything to the market. A few years ago that would have added a couple dollars to the price."