Crude oil prices have fallen significantly since the beginning of 2020, largely driven by the economic contraction caused by the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID19) and a sudden increase in crude oil supply following the suspension of agreed production cuts among the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries. With falling demand and increasing supply, the front-month price of the U.S. benchmark crude oil West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fell from a year-to-date high closing price of $63.27 per barrel (b) on January 6 to a year-to-date low of $20.37/b on March 18 (Figure 1), the lowest nominal crude oil price since February 2002.
WTI crude oil prices have also fallen significantly along the futures curve, which charts monthly price settlements for WTI crude oil delivery over the next several years. For example, the WTI price for December 2020 delivery declined from $56.90/b on January 2, 2020, to $32.21/b as of March 24. In addition to the sharp price decline, the shape of the futures curve has shifted from backwardation—when near-term futures prices are higher than longer-dated ones—to contango, when near-term futures prices are lower than longer-dated ones. The WTI 1st-13th spread (the difference between the WTI price in the nearest month and the price for WTI 13 months away) settled at -$10.34/b on March 18, the lowest since February 2016, exhibiting high contango. The shift from backwardation to contango reflects the significant increase in petroleum inventories. In its March 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), released on March 11, 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast that Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) commercial petroleum inventories will rise to 2.9 billion barrels in March, an increase of 20 million barrels over the previous month and 68 million barrels over March 2019 (Figure 2). Since the release of the March STEO, changes in various oil market and macroeconomic indicators suggest that inventory builds are likely to be even greater than EIA’s March forecast.
Significant price volatility has accompanied both price declines and price increases. Since 1999, 69% of the time, daily WTI crude oil prices increased or decreased by less than 2% relative to the previous trading day. Daily oil price changes during March 2020 have exceeded 2% 13 times (76% of the month’s traded days) as of March 24. For example, the 10.1% decline on March 6 after the OPEC meeting was larger than 99.8% of the daily percentage price decreases since 1999. The 24.6% decline on March 9 and the 24.4% decline on March 18 were the largest and second largest percent declines, respectively, since at least 1999 (Figure 3).
On March 10, a series of government announcements indicated that emergency fiscal and monetary policy were likely to be forthcoming in various countries, which contributed to a 10.4% increase in the WTI price, the 12th-largest daily increase since 1999. During other highly volatile time periods, such as the 2008 financial crisis, both large price increases and decreases occurred in quick succession. During the 2008 financial crisis, the largest single-day increase—a 17.8% rise on September 22, 2008—was followed the next day by the largest single-day decrease, a 12.0% fall on September 23, 2008.
Market price volatility during the first quarter of 2020 has not been limited to oil markets (Figure 4). The recent volatility in oil markets has also coincided with increased volatility in equity markets because the products refined from crude oil are used in many parts of the economy and because the COVID-19-related economic slowdown affects a broad array of economic activities. This can be measured through implied volatility—an estimate of a security’s expected range of near-term price changes—which can be calculated using price movements of financial options and measured by the VIX index for the Standard and Poor’s (S&P) 500 index and the OVX index for WTI prices. Implied volatility for both the S&P 500 index and WTI are higher than the levels seen during the 2008 financial crisis, which peaked on November 20, 2008, at 80.9 and on December 11, 2008, at 100.4, respectively, compared with 61.7 for the VIX and 170.9 for the OVX as of March 24.
Comparing implied volatility for the S&P 500 index with WTI’s suggests that although recent volatility is not limited to oil markets, oil markets are likely more volatile than equity markets at this point. The oil market’s relative volatility is not, however, in and of itself unusual. Oil markets are almost always more volatile than equity markets because crude oil demand is price inelastic—whereby price changes have relatively little effect on the quantity of crude oil demanded—and because of the relative diversity of the companies constituting the S&P 500 index. But recent oil market volatility is still historically high, even in comparison to the volatility of the larger equity market. As denoted by the red line in the bottom of Figure 4, the difference between the OVX and VIX reached an all-time high of 124.1 on March 23, compared with an average difference of 16.8 between May 2007 (the date the OVX was launched) and March 24, 2020.
Markets currently appear to expect continued and increasing market volatility, and, by extension, increasing uncertainty in the pricing of crude oil. Oil’s current level of implied volatility—a forward-looking measure for the next 30 days—is also high relative to its historical, or realized, volatility. Historical volatility can influence the market’s expectations for future price uncertainty, which contributes to higher implied volatility. Some of this difference is a structural part of the market, and implied volatility typically exceeds historical volatility as sellers of options demand a volatility risk premium to compensate them for the risk of holding a volatile security. But as the yellow line in Figure 4 shows, the current implied volatility of WTI prices is still higher than normal. The difference between implied and historical volatility reached an all-time high of 44.7 on March 20, compared with an average difference of 2.3 between 2007 and March 2020. This trend could suggest that options (prices for which increase with volatility) are relatively expensive and, by extension, that demand for financial instruments to limit oil price exposure are relatively elevated.
Increased price correlation among several asset classes also suggests that similar economic factors are driving prices in a variety of markets. For example, both the correlation between changes in the price of WTI and changes in the S&P 500 and the correlation between WTI and other non-energy commodities (as measured by the S&P Commodity Index (GSCI)) increased significantly in March. Typically, when correlations between WTI and other asset classes increase, it suggests that expectations of future economic growth—rather than issues specific to crude oil markets— tend to be the primary drivers of price formation. In this case, price declines for oil, equities, and non-energy commodities all indicate that concerns over global economic growth are likely the primary force driving price formation (Figure 5).
U.S. average regular gasoline and diesel prices fall
The U.S. average regular gasoline retail price fell nearly 13 cents from the previous week to $2.12 per gallon on March 23, 50 cents lower than a year ago. The Midwest price fell more than 16 cents to $1.87 per gallon, the West Coast price fell nearly 15 cents to $2.88 per gallon, the East Coast and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 11 cents to $2.08 per gallon and $1.86 per gallon, respectively, and the Rocky Mountain price declined more than 8 cents to $2.24 per gallon.
The U.S. average diesel fuel price fell more than 7 cents from the previous week to $2.66 per gallon on March 23, 42 cents lower than a year ago. The Midwest price fell more than 9 cents to $2.50 per gallon, the West Coast price fell more than 7 cents to $3.25 per gallon, the East Coast and Gulf Coast prices each fell nearly 7 cents to $2.72 per gallon and $2.44 per gallon, respectively, and the Rocky Mountain price fell more than 6 cents to $2.68 per gallon.
Propane/propylene inventories decline
U.S. propane/propylene stocks decreased by 1.8 million barrels last week to 64.9 million barrels as of March 20, 2020, 15.5 million barrels (31.3%) greater than the five-year (2015-19) average inventory levels for this same time of year. Gulf Coast inventories decreased by 1.3 million barrels, East Coast inventories decreased by 0.3 million barrels, and Rocky Mountain/West Coast inventories decrease by 0.2 million barrels. Midwest inventories increased by 0.1 million barrels. Propylene non-fuel-use inventories represented 8.5% of total propane/propylene inventories.
Residential heating fuel prices decrease
As of March 23, 2020, residential heating oil prices averaged $2.45 per gallon, almost 15 cents per gallon below last week’s price and nearly 77 cents per gallon lower than last year’s price at this time. Wholesale heating oil prices averaged more than $1.11 per gallon, almost 14 cents per gallon below last week’s price and 98 cents per gallon lower than a year ago.
Residential propane prices averaged more than $1.91 per gallon, nearly 2 cents per gallon below last week’s price and almost 49 cents per gallon below last year’s price. Wholesale propane prices averaged more than $0.42 per gallon, more than 7 cents per gallon lower than last week’s price and almost 36 cents per gallon below last year’s price.
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In 2020, renewable energy sources (including wind, hydroelectric, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy) generated a record 834 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity, or about 21% of all the electricity generated in the United States. Only natural gas (1,617 billion kWh) produced more electricity than renewables in the United States in 2020. Renewables surpassed both nuclear (790 billion kWh) and coal (774 billion kWh) for the first time on record. This outcome in 2020 was due mostly to significantly less coal use in U.S. electricity generation and steadily increased use of wind and solar.
In 2020, U.S. electricity generation from coal in all sectors declined 20% from 2019, while renewables, including small-scale solar, increased 9%. Wind, currently the most prevalent source of renewable electricity in the United States, grew 14% in 2020 from 2019. Utility-scale solar generation (from projects greater than 1 megawatt) increased 26%, and small-scale solar, such as grid-connected rooftop solar panels, increased 19%.
Coal-fired electricity generation in the United States peaked at 2,016 billion kWh in 2007 and much of that capacity has been replaced by or converted to natural gas-fired generation since then. Coal was the largest source of electricity in the United States until 2016, and 2020 was the first year that more electricity was generated by renewables and by nuclear power than by coal (according to our data series that dates back to 1949). Nuclear electric power declined 2% from 2019 to 2020 because several nuclear power plants retired and other nuclear plants experienced slightly more maintenance-related outages.
We expect coal-fired electricity generation to increase in the United States during 2021 as natural gas prices continue to rise and as coal becomes more economically competitive. Based on forecasts in our Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), we expect coal-fired electricity generation in all sectors in 2021 to increase 18% from 2020 levels before falling 2% in 2022. We expect U.S. renewable generation across all sectors to increase 7% in 2021 and 10% in 2022. As a result, we forecast coal will be the second-most prevalent electricity source in 2021, and renewables will be the second-most prevalent source in 2022. We expect nuclear electric power to decline 2% in 2021 and 3% in 2022 as operators retire several generators.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review and Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
Note: This graph shows electricity net generation in all sectors (electric power, industrial, commercial, and residential) and includes both utility-scale and small-scale (customer-sited, less than 1 megawatt) solar.
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The tizzy that OPEC+ threw the world into in early July has been settled, with a confirmed pathway forward to restore production for the rest of 2021 and an extension of the deal further into 2022. The lone holdout from the early July meetings – the UAE – appears to have been satisfied with the concessions offered, paving the way for the crude oil producer group to begin increasing its crude oil production in monthly increments from August onwards. However, this deal comes at another difficult time; where the market had been fretting about a shortage of oil a month ago due to resurgent demand, a new blast of Covid-19 infections driven by the delta variant threatens to upend the equation once again. And so Brent crude futures settled below US$70/b for the first time since late May even as the argument at OPEC+ appeared to be settled.
How the argument settled? Well, on the surface, Riyadh and Moscow capitulated to Abu Dhabi’s demands that its baseline quota be adjusted in order to extend the deal. But since that demand would result in all other members asking for a similar adjustment, Saudi Arabia and Russia worked in a rise for all, and in the process, awarded themselves the largest increases.
The net result of this won’t be that apparent in the short- and mid-term. The original proposal at the early July meetings, backed by OPEC+’s technical committee was to raise crude production collectively by 400,000 b/d per month from August through December. The resulting 2 mmb/d increase in crude oil, it was predicted, would still lag behind expected gains in consumption, but would be sufficient to keep prices steady around the US$70/b range, especially when factoring in production increases from non-OPEC+ countries. The longer term view was that the supply deal needed to be extended from its initial expiration in April 2022, since global recovery was still ‘fragile’ and the bloc needed to exercise some control over supply to prevent ‘wild market fluctuations’. All members agreed to this, but the UAE had a caveat – that the extension must be accompanied by a review of its ‘unfair’ baseline quota.
The fix to this issue that was engineered by OPEC+’s twin giants Saudi Arabia and Russia was to raise quotas for all members from May 2022 through to the new expiration date for the supply deal in September 2022. So the UAE will see its baseline quota, the number by which its output compliance is calculated, rise by 330,000 b/d to 3.5 mmb/d. That’s a 10% increase, which will assuage Abu Dhabi’s itchiness to put the expensive crude output infrastructure it has invested billions in since 2016 to good use. But while the UAE’s hike was greater than some others, Saudi Arabia and Russia took the opportunity to award themselves (at least in terms of absolute numbers) by raising their own quotas by 500,000 b/d to 11.5 mmb/d each.
On the surface, that seems academic. Saudi Arabia has only pumped that much oil on a handful of occasions, while Russia’s true capacity is pegged at some 10.4 mmb/d. But the additional generous headroom offered by these larger numbers means that Riyadh and Moscow will have more leeway to react to market fluctuations in 2022, which at this point remains murky. Because while there is consensus that more crude oil will be needed in 2022, there is no consensus on what that number should be. The US EIA is predicting that OPEC+ should be pumping an additional 4 million barrels collectively from June 2021 levels in order to meet demand in the first half of 2022. However, OPEC itself is looking at a figure of some 3 mmb/d, forecasting a period of relative weakness that could possibly require a brief tightening of quotas if the new delta-driven Covid surge erupts into another series of crippling lockdowns. The IEA forecast is aligned with OPEC’s, with an even more cautious bent.
But at some point with the supply pathway from August to December set in stone, although OPEC+ has been careful to say that it may continue to make adjustments to this as the market develops, the issues of headline quota numbers fades away, while compliance rises to prominence. Because the success of the OPEC+ deal was not just based on its huge scale, but also the willingness of its 23 members to comply to their quotas. And that compliance, which has been the source of major frustrations in the past, has been surprisingly high throughout the pandemic. Even in May 2021, the average OPEC+ compliance was 85%. Only a handful of countries – Malaysia, Bahrain, Mexico and Equatorial Guinea – were estimated to have exceeded their quotas, and even then not by much. But compliance is easier to achieve in an environment where demand is weak. You can’t pump what you can’t sell after all. But as crude balances rapidly shift from glut to gluttony, the imperative to maintain compliance dissipates.
For now, OPEC+ has managed to placate the market with its ability to corral its members together to set some certainty for the immediate future of crude. Brent crude prices have now been restored above US$70/b, with WTI also climbing. The spat between Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have surprised and shocked market observers, but there is still unity in the club. However, that unity is set to be tested. By the end of 2021, the focus of the OPEC+ supply deal will have shifted from theoretical quotas to actual compliance. Abu Dhabi has managed to lift the tide for all OPEC+ members, offering them more room to manoeuvre in a recovering market, but discipline will not be uniform. And that’s when the fireworks will really begin.
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