After five weeks of being whiplashed by financial market fears, crude reconnected with its own fundamentals over March 12-16, only to become locked in a narrow price band, with WTI anchored at $60/barrel and Brent at $65. Predictions of ballooning non-OPEC oil supplies were counter-balanced by reiterations of confidence in strong global oil demand growth this year, depriving the market of any incentive to either go long or short.
The limbo could prove to be short-lived. As the week came to a close, Iran and the fate of its nuclear deal had moved to the top of news headlines. The sudden departure of Rex Tillerson, a moderate on Iran, and his replacement as US secretary of state by the more hawkish CIA director Mike Pompeo, could precipitate a clash between the two countries over the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal. The fate of the Iran nuclear deal is now a cliffhanger and likely to inject a fear premium in crude over the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, anxiety over the possible outbreak of trade wars, especially between the US and China, as well as the US and its partners in the precarious North American Free Trade Agreement — Canada and Mexico — could continue to rattle the financial markets. The fears come on top of lingering uncertainty over the course of US inflation rates and monetary policy. The Federal Reserve is widely expected to raise interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point at its next meeting March 20-21.
Myriad concerns rippling through the financial markets since the start of February ultimately converge to hang a question-mark over the presumed strong and synchronous global economic growth this year. They have rattled equity markets across the world and are likely to continue buffeting crude as well. A deceleration in the global economic growth would not bode well for the health of oil demand.
The oil market’s focus this week was primarily on OECD inventory data and outlook for global oil supply and demand balances. The closely-watched monthly oil market reports from OPEC and the International Energy Agency released on Wednesday and Thursday respectively were remarkably similar in tone and almost evenly split between the bullish and bearish elements on the horizon. The weekly US stocks data also pulled market sentiment in opposite directions, showing a major build in crude inventories and a plunge in gasoline and distillate stocks for the week ended March 9.
The OPEC and IEA reports lent further credence to expectations of a shale renaissance in 2018, given their projections of US crude production vaulting by 1 million b/d or more this year, way higher than the growth recorded in 2017. The market is once again paying attention to the weekly US rig count data after mostly ignoring it through the latter half of last year, once the shale growth trajectory had become clear. The rig numbers are not a good proxy for US crude production rates, but a useful input for market participants continuously trying to assess or validate their assessment of shale’s growth.
Unfortunately, the rig count is also not telling a coherent story yet. Baker Hughes reported a drop of four in the number of oil rigs operating in the US in the week ended March 9 to a total of 796, reversing six successive weeks of increases, and leaving the market guessing on what the trend might be.
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This winter, natural gas prices have been at their lowest levels in decades. On Monday, February 10, the near-month natural gas futures price at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) closed at $1.77 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). This price was the lowest February closing price for the near-month contract since at least 2001, in real terms, and the lowest near-month futures price in any month since March 8, 2016, according to Bloomberg, L.P. and FRED data.
In addition, according to Natural Gas Intelligence data, the daily spot price at the Henry Hub national benchmark was $1.81/MMBtu on February 10, 2020, the lowest price in real terms since March 9, 2016. Henry Hub spot prices have ranged between $1.81/MMBtu and $2.84/MMBtu this winter heating season (since November 1, 2019), generally because relatively warm winter weather has reduced demand for natural gas for heating. Natural gas production growth has outpaced demand growth, reducing the need to withdraw natural gas from underground storage.
Dry natural gas production in January 2020 averaged about 95.0 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), according to IHS Markit data. IHS Markit also estimates that in January 2020 the United States saw the third-highest monthly U.S. natural gas production on record, down slightly from the previous two months.
IHS Markit estimates that U.S. natural gas consumption by residential, commercial, industrial, and electric power sectors averaged 96 Bcf/d for January, which was about 4.4 Bcf/d less than the average for January 2019, largely because of decreases in residential and commercial consumption as a result of warmer temperatures.
However, IHS Markit estimates that overall consumption of natural gas (including feed gas to liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities, pipeline fuel losses, and net exports by pipeline to Mexico) averaged about 117.5 Bcf/d in January 2020, an increase of about 0.2 Bcf/d from last year. This overall increase is largely a result of an almost doubling of LNG feed gas to about 8.5 Bcf/d.
Because supply growth has outpaced demand growth, less natural gas has been withdrawn from storage withdrawals this winter. Despite starting the 2019–20 heating season with the third-lowest level of natural gas inventory since 2009, by January 17, 2020, working natural gas inventories reached relatively high levels for mid-winter. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) data on natural gas inventories for the Lower 48 states as of February 7, 2020, reflect a 215 Bcf surplus to the five-year average. In EIA’s latest short-term forecast, more natural gas remains in storage levels than the previous five-year average through the remainder of the winter.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), January 2020 was the fifth-warmest in its 126-year climate record. Heating degree days (HDDs), a temperature-based metric for heating demand, have been relatively low this winter, which is consistent with a warmer winter. During some weeks in late December and early January, the United States saw 25% to 30% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average. This winter, through February 8, residential natural gas customers in the United States have seen 11% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center data
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
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