In this bubble of lockdown and social distancing, where tangible contact has become so abstract and virtual, the oil market is suffering from a rare plight of physicality.
West Texas Intermediary crude – aka US light, sweet oil – crashed yet further as Americas oil inventories filled to the brim.
Data released last week confirmed both record inventory volumes and record low gasoline demand.
Americas primary crude hub at Cushing, Oklahoma is running out of storage space.
In futures trading, the WTI price is on the verge of caving below US$10 per barrel.
“With storage filling up, the price of oil for immediate delivery has tanked,” said Saxo Bank analyst Ole Hansen.
“The near US$9 spread between May and June is a clear sign that physical oil traders have no space available.”
Saxo says only a major, fundamental change (like producers being forced out of business or a significant improvement in demand) can now arrest the slide.
It is reminder for commodities traders and commentators, who are much accustomed to an abstract and macro view of oil, that a real industry and real infrastructure exists beneath all the noise of the capital markets and derivative market jiggery-pokery.
For all the chatter, theorising and trading, frankly, the closest most ever come to actual petroleum is when on the forecourt.
Right now, the price of an American barrel is at a multi-decade low as petroleum consumption has come to a practical standstill.
It could be easy to complicate and aggrandise, but, instead lets borrow and bastardise a lazy market makers adage – “theres just more producers than users, mate”.
But, isnt cheap oil good for consumers?
Crude prices being so low reveals facets of the economy that are at best awkward and idiosyncratic, if outright not problematic.
On the surface, deeply discounted fuel should be great news, especially as we find ourselves at the precipice of recession and maybe even depression.
It means we can fill our cars on the cheap.
Lower haulage costs would, at least in theory, mean cheaper food and consumer goods.
It could help margins among the embattled retailers, and, generally put a bit of bang onto every consumers buck.
Doesnt it sound positive and doesnt it seems simple to say cheap oil is good for consumers. But, this basic observation vastly overlooks the obvious abnormal circumstances that brought crude here in the first place.
On a personal level, a recent delivery of kerosene heating oil cost around 45% less than the same order before Christmas – which was great!
It is a small win. But, its not enough to see any individual better off in any meaningful way, financially and economically.
By analogy, it would be true that a new pair of socks would last 100% longer if my left foot was in plaster, but, thats not incentive to spend the rest of today practising Mui Thai on the wall.
Oil dividends underpin almost everyones personal finances
Oil money permeates deep into the economy, particularly as the super majors like BP and Royal Dutch Shell are vital and typically iron-clad dividend payers.
These stocks are cornerstones in all kinds of portfolios, not least those that prop up pension funds across the City.
Given that pretty much all other blue-chips have so far had to capitulate to either cut or suspend dividends, with about £30bn in payments for 2020 now missing, this latest oil price slump may prove to be another hammer blow to the equity-centric financial system.
Investment is still needed to avoid bust-and-boom volatility
Setting aside the seizure triggered by coronavirus lockdown, which sees consumption at a standstill, the crude market is usually dynamic.
Demand is persistent (normally) and every barrel consumed from reserves must be replaced for the market to at least standstill.
It is the reason that capital investment is typically strong and ever-present year in, year out.
Moreover, the discovery and development of new oil fields is a complex and takes many years of work and investment.
A lack of investment today creates supply shortage in the future.
In due course, that turns to a bubble of higher prices, driving over-investment to tip the market back into oversupply.
A glance at a chart of historic crude prices tells you that whilst coronavirus is unprecedented, oil prices rarely stay in goldilocks territory very long.
Quite what happens next remains unclear, especially as only a vanishingly small number of producers will be able to operate profitability at current real time prices.
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