What we can learn from oil's latest sticky patch

Spilt oil cans

Stock markets are generally rising high, especially in the US, but commodity prices are doing nothing of the sort (with the occasional supply-driven exception, such as nickel or iron ore). Despite a robust spring rally, the Bloomberg Commodity Index is down by around 5% from where it stood a year ago, and Brent crude oil is 14% lower.




Commodity prices are soggy even if equity markets are firm

Source: Refinitiv data

This could suggest that all may not be entirely well with the global economy, as you would expect to see raw material prices rise if activity and demand levels were high. That said, oil demand is expected to hit a new all-time high in 2019, at a fraction under 100 million barrels a day by the end of the year.

“Advisers and clients would normally expect raw material to rise if the global economy was strong and demand levels were high, and at least oil consumption is expected to hit a new all-time high in 2019”


Oil demand is seen reaching a new all-time high in 2019

Source: OPEC, Statista

Perhaps, then, oil’s latest sticky patch is more related to supply than demand. If so, advisers and clients need not be too alarmed by weakness in the price of crude.

Rigs rolling over

Supply can be quickly gauged. On the face of it, oil’s latest wobble is curtailing fresh exploration work, as you would hope and expect. Data from Baker Hughes shows that the active US rig count is 9% lower than it was a year ago and the international count is 3% higher, as oil firms keep a close eye on their expenses and cash flow.

“Oil supply can be quickly gauged. On the face of it, oil’s latest wobble is curtailing fresh exploration work as rig counts are dropping.”


Growth in global rig activity is slowing down

Source: Baker Hughes

Further good news can be found in the form of falling American oil inventories. US stockpiles of crude are now 9% lower than they were a year ago.

US oil stockpiles are falling

Source: US Energy Information Administration

This is despite a sustained increase in American oil and gas output from its onshore shale fields. Oil production is up by some 950,000 barrels a day, or 13%, over the past year. It may be that this is a key factor in capping the oil price, since this surge in output goes a long way to compensating for the 1.2 million barrel a day production cut sanctioned by OPEC in Vienna last December and then again in June.

US shale output growth is slowing

Source: US Energy Information Administration

Speculative approach

Yet even that growth in shale supply is relatively modest, as the annual rate of increase was running at 1.9 million barrels year on year in August 2018. Any further slowdown in shale could actually help oil, at least if OPEC and Russia maintain their current output discipline, yet, even with this deceleration in growth, crude remains weak.

One further factor which may be at work is how financial speculators are positioned via the futures market. Each contract is worth 1,000 barrels of oil and the fund flows here are huge, easily outstripping actual physical demand.

“One further factor which may be at work is how financial speculators are positioned via the futures market.”


According to data from the CME, the amount by which the number of speculative ‘long’ (buy) contracts exceeded the number of ‘short’ (sell) contracts peaked at 784,290 in January 2018. It did not take long for oil to peak.

Net long oil futures positions lie in the middle of their five-year range

Source: CME, Refinitiv data

Once the crude price began to roll over, buyers ran for cover and sellers took over. Net long positions shrank to 332,714 contracts in January 2019 and oil pretty much hit bottom at the same time. In other words, as in all markets, running with the herd just gets oil traders badly trampled. They need to go against the crowd.

Buyers have begun to gather again, perhaps emboldened by the diplomatic stand-off between Washington and Tehran, a delicate affair in which the UK is now embroiled after the mutual seizure of oil tankers in Gibraltar and then the Straits of Hormuz. Net long positions have crept back to around 450,000 contracts.

Pump up the dividends

That sits pretty much in the middle of the range for the last five years, as if to say even the professionals don’t have a strong feel for where oil is going next, so it would take a brave adviser or client to take a strong view right now.

The possible bad news is that oil’s weakness reflects soft demand. Annual oil consumption has only fallen twice since 2000, and that was in 2008 and 2009 when the global economy was on its knees.

The better news is that spikes in oil have tended to act as a brake on global economic activity, as per 1975, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2007, while relatively stable prices have tended to be a good lubricant.

“The better news is that spikes in oil have tended to act as a brake on global economic activity, while relatively stable prices have tended to be a good lubricant.”


Perhaps, therefore, a quiet oil market is generally more helpful to financial markets overall than a noisy one, and the best scenario for advisers and clients is more of what we have now, although history also suggests that periods of calm never last for too long.

AJ Bell Investment Director

Russ Mould’s long experience of the capital markets began in 1991 when he became a Fund Manager at a leading provider of life insurance, pensions and asset management services. In 1993 he joined a prestigious investment bank, working as an Equity Analyst covering the technology sector for 12 years. Russ eventually joined Shares magazine in November 2005 as Technology Correspondent and became Editor of the magazine in July 2008. Following the acquisition of Shares' parent company, MSM Media, by AJ Bell Group, he was appointed as AJ Bell’s Investment Director in summer 2013.

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