oil at $10 a barrel

In my early stock market days, one of my bosses sent me on a tour of commodity-trading centers to get me up to speed on palm oil.  This was so I would understand the plantation stocks in Malaysia.  I mentioned to one head of trading I spoke with that my trip was part of a months-long project.  He looked at me like I was an idiot and slowly (so that even I could understand) explained that commodities were all about gut instinct and decisive action.  He hired good high school athletes, not scholars.   A classic jock vs. nerd confrontation.

This is to say that I’m not a commodities expert.  So maybe you should take my comments about crude oil with a grain of salt.  Anyway,

–crude for May delivery plunged over the weekend to right around $10.  On Friday April 3rd a barrel was going for $28+

–the main reason is that oil production is still miles ahead of oil use and there’s no easy way to store excess crude oil output

–this is an epic low in inflation-adjusted terms.  Saudi crude sold for less than $3 a barrel in dollars of the day in the early 1970s and rose to close to $30 in 1979-80, before plunging to $8 (about $27 in today’s dollars) in the recession that followed

–there would be an arbitrage opportunity if there were storage, since crude for August delivery is trading just under $30

–this is where my not knowing oil trading hurts:  I would have expected that future months would have collapsed in line with the current month.  I read this as traders thinking the May situation is a temporary blip, but I really don’t know

–for many years natural gas has sold at a substantial discount to crude, on a heating value basis.  Today they’re roughly equal.

my stock market take

The oil market is saying this is a temporary blip.  I’m not so sure.  But I don’t know.  And the energy sector is so small that I don’t need to do any more than observe.  So I’m going to sit on my hands.

If it persists, this situation is very bad for third-world countries like Venezuela or Russia that are radically dependent on oil.  It’s also not good for the oil countries of the Middle East, which have similarly one-dimensional economies.  They can likely continue to produce at a profit even at today’s price, but I’d expect that their governments would be forced to begin to liquidate their foreign investments as budget deficits soar.  This could have a negative effect on global stock and bond markets.

The largest effect on the US is a redistribution of wealth away from the big hydrocarbon-producing states to the consuming ones.  In theory, this should be an overall wash.  But since there’s very little discretionary driving going on, I think it’s a mild negative.

The price fall is good for the EU and most of Asia.

The US stock market is flattish, despite the oil price.  Both NASDAQ and the Russell 2000 are up slightly, suggesting that neither industries of the future and small business will be hurt by lower oil.  Even the Dow, which is showing its deep roots in industries of the past, is only down by about a percent.

An addendum (stuff I just found out):  the May crude contract expires tomorrow.  The holder is required to take physical delivery of 1,000 barrels/contract.  The price shows virtually no one wants to do so.  Apparently, it’s not clear whether storage will be available on settlement date.

contract closing:  the May crude oil contract closed today at minus $37+, meaning that the seller had to pay the buyer $37,000 to shoulder the burden of taking delivery of the 1,000 barrels each contract represents.  The buyer gets the oil plus the money.



oil below $20 a barrel

The Energy sector of the S&P 500 makes up 2.8% of the index, according to the S&P website.  This is another way of saying that none of us as investors need to have an opinion about oil and gas production, which makes up the lion’s share of the sector.

Last weekend Saudi Arabia and Russia, with a fig leaf provided by the US for Mexico’s non-participation, led an oil producers’ agreement to cut production by around 10 million barrels daily.

Prior to the meeting, crude had rallied from just over $20 to around $23.  Right after, however, the Saudis announced price discounts reported to be around $4 barrel for buyers in Asia.  Prices were reduced by a smaller amount in Europe but went up for US customers–apparently at the Trump administration’s request.  That sent crude prices into the high teens.

Why is this the best strategy for Saudi Arabia?

The commonsense answer is that Riyadh thinks it’s more important to secure sales volumes than it is to be picky on price.  This is at least partly because the world output cuts reduce, but by no means eliminate, the oversupply.  So there are still going to be plenty of barrels looking for a buyer.  Another reason is that since demand has dried up the Russian ruble has dropped by 20%.  That’s like a 25% local currency price increase for Russian crude, meaning lots of room for Moscow to undercut rivals.

investment implications

The most leveraged play to changes in oil prices is oilfield services.  Companies that specialize in exploration–seismic services, drilling rig firms–are the highest beta, firms that service existing wells less so.  During the oil price crash of the early 1980s, however,  drilling rigs were stacked for a decade or so.  On the other hand, oilfield services firms are the ultimate stock market call on rising oil prices.

Given that US hydrocarbon output and usage are roughly equal, the country as a whole should be indifferent to price changes (yes, it’s more complicated, but at this point we want only the general lay of the land) rather than the net winner it was 15 years ago.  However, within the country oil consumers normally come out ahead, while oil producers are losers.

Typically, the resulting low gasoline prices would be a boon to truckers and to commuting drivers.  The first is probably still the case, the second not so much.

The bigger issue, I think, is the fate of the Big Three Detroit auto producers, who are being kept afloat by federal government policies that encourage oil consumption and protect high-profit US-made light trucks from foreign competition.  While nothing can explain the wild gyrations of Tesla (TSLA) shares, one reasonable interpretation of the stock’s resilience is the idea that the current downturn will weaken makers of combustion engines and accelerate the turn toward electric vehicles.

Personally, I’m in no rush to buy TSLA shares–which I do own indirectly through an ARK ETF.  But it’s possible both that Americans won’t buy new cars for a while (if gasoline prices stay low, greater fuel economy won’t be a big motivator).  And the rest of the world is going electric, reducing the attractiveness of Detroit cars abroad, and probably making foreign-made electrics superior products.

If there’s any practical investment question in this, it’s:  if the driving culture in the US remains but the internal combustion engine disappears, who are the winners and losers?









an ugly day: coronavirus + oil


In normal times, the world produces about 100 million barrels of oil daily and consumes about the same amount.  Small changes in either supply or demand can cause huge changes in price.  That’s because demand–autos, jet fuel, heating oil…is relatively inflexible (if seasonal).  Supply is also inflexible, because a cartel of suppliers, led by Saudi Arabia has been able to control output levels.  Their goal:  highest price possible without encouraging substitution.

A problem has surfaced, however.  A mild winter + reduced demand from airlines have combined to cause a potential supply overhang.  Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Russia about production cuts to offset this and keep prices high broke down.  Not only that, but the Saudis have apparently decided to punish Russia (and themselves) by starting to sell large amounts of oil at about $30 a barrel, or $10 a barrel below Friday’s price.


–the consensus view is that Saudi Arabia, radically dependent on oil exports, needs a price of $80+ to balance its budget; Russia, smaller and economically much weaker, needs $40+.  So both are it trouble.  Riyadh’s calculation must be that Moscow will soon feel the pain more quickly and will agree to production cuts

–a $30 price has two bad consequences for oil production companies in the US and elsewhere.  The lower price reduces revenues and profits.  This is an acute problem for some US shale companies, which have borrowed heavily in the junk bond market.  In addition, a standard way of evaluating natural resource companies is to compare the stock price with the per share value of the reserves they hold.  The price fall not only reduces the value of those reserves but also shrinks the amount, since some oil that’s viable at $40 becomes economically unfeasible to drill for at $30.

–if oil companies make up 4% of the S&P 500 and we say that they have lost a third of their value over the weekend, then the S&P should open 1.2% lower because of that.  Add in banks that will be in trouble and maybe that figure drops to down 2%.  Conceptually offsetting that would be the benefit to oil consumers of lower prices.  But that’s a diffuse group that is typically overlooked in a market downdraft   …and in this case prime beneficiaries like transport companies are being hit by coronavirus fears.

–as I’m writing, the S&P 500 is trading down about 5% in the premarket.  So the other 3% must be due to other factors–presumably coronavirus fears.  Those, in turn, break out, I think, into two factors:  the virus itself and the efforts of the Trump administration to prevent disease preparedness, information exchange and treatment.  To my mind, the last is the scariest part.

–if we were to posit no AI involvement in the premarket decline, this would look to me like the start of an old-fashioned selling panic.  In an AI-driven world, however, it’s not clear that that the idea of a cathartic release of pent-up fear setting the emotional stage for the next upswing still holds water.

All in all, for almost everyone a day to turn off the screen and go out in the sunshine.

how the market looks to me today

It may be that the market downdrift we’ve been experiencing since early October started out as a bout of yearend mutual fund selling, as I’ve been writing for a while.  Maybe not.  In any event, the selling has continued for far longer than the mutual fund hypothesis can explain.

It may be that the market has been thinking that the prices of IT-related shares had gotten far too high, given their earnings prospects.  Strike out the “far” and I’d have to agree; in my mind, the big issue preventing at least a temporary market rotation away from tech has been, and remains, what other group to rotate into.

It’s also possible that the operative comparison has been between stocks and bonds.  The ongoing upward yield curve shift now has short-term Treasury notes yielding around 2.5% and the 10- and 30-year yielding above 3%.  Arguably this is a level where income-hungry Baby Boomers could feel they should allocate somewhat away from stocks and into fixed income.

Whatever the market’s motivation, however, I’m sticking with my idea that the S&P bottomed on October 29th.


Many times, when the market has hit a low and has begun to rebound, it will reverse course to “test” the previous low.  Also arguably, that’s what has been happening over the past week or so–formation of what technicians in their arcane lingo call a “double bottom.”  The main worry with this idea is that two weeks after the initial low is an unusually short time for the double bottoming to be happening.  Still, it’s my working hypothesis that this is, in fact, what’s going on.

The things to monitor are whether the market breaks below the late October low and, if so, whether it breaks below the April or February lows.


Another topic:  oil.  Crude oil and oil stock prices have been plunging recently.  Most non-US producers added extra current output to offset the assumed negative impact of the US placing renewed sanctions on the purchase of oil from Iran.  At the last minute, however, Washington granted exceptions to large purchasers of Iranian crude.  Because of this, oil has continued to flow in addition to the extra oil from OPEC.  Since demand for oil is relatively inflexible, even 1% – 2% changes in supply can cause huge changes in price.  Whether or not the US deliberately set out to deceive OPEC and thereby cause the current oversupply, the price of oil is down sharply since the US acted.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have just announced supply cuts.  Given that Feb – April is the weakest season of the year for oil demand, it’s not clear how long it will take for the reductions to lift the oil price.  It seems to me, though, that the more important question is when rather than if.  So I’ve begun to nibble at US shale oil producers that have been flattened since Washington’s action.

OPEC and $80 oil: last week’s meeting

$80 per barrel oil

Over the past year the price of a barrel of crude oil has risen from $50 to $80.  The latter figure is substantially below the $100+ that “black gold” averaged during 2011-2014, but hugely higher than the low of $25-minus thee years ago.

conventional wisdom upended

Two pieces of conventional wisdom about oil have changed during the past half-decade:

–effective shale oil production technology has shelved the previous, nearly religious, belief in the near-term peaking of world oil productive capacity.  More than that,

–the development of viable electric cars has won the world over to the idea that a substantial amount of future transportation demand is going to be met by non-petroleum vehicles.

new meaning for “peak oil”

The “peak oil” worry used to be about the day when demand would outstrip supply (as emerging economies switch from bicycles/motorcycles to several cars per household–just as conventional oil deposits would begin to give up the ghost).  The term now means the day (in 2040?) when demand hits a permanent peak, and then begins to fall as renewable energy supplants fossil fuels.

new OPEC solidarity

When Saudi Arabia, the most influential member of OPEC, said during the recent supply glut that its target for the oil price was $80 a barrel, I thought the figure was much too high.  Why?  I expected that the cartel wouldn’t stick to mutually-agreed output restrictions (totaling 1.8 million daily barrels) for the years needed for oversupply to dry up and the price of output to rise.  That was wrong.

I think the main reason for OPEC’s uncharacteristic sticktoitiveness (first time I ever typed that word) is the realization that petroleum is going to yield to renewables as firewood was supplanted by coal in the mid-nineteenth century and coal was replaced by oil in the mid-twentieth.

There are other factors, though.  The collapse of the Venezuelan government means that country now produces about a million barrels a day less than two years ago.  Also, Mr. Trump’s aversion to all things Obama has prompted him to pull the US out of the Iranian nuclear agreement and reinstate an embargo.  This likely means some fall in Iranian output from its current 4.5 million or so daily barrels, as sanctions go back into effect.  Anticipation of this last has upped today’s oil price by something like $10 a barrel.

adding 600,000 barrels to OPEC daily output

Just prior to the Trump decision on Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia were suggesting publicly that the coalition of oil producers eventually restore as much as 1.5 million barrels of daily production, as a way of keeping prices from rising further.  Mr. Trump has reportedly asked the two to make any current increase large enough to offset the $10 rise his Iran action has sparked.

Unsurprisingly, his plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears.  Last Friday the cartel announced plans to put 600,000 barrels of daily output back on the market–subject, I think, to the condition that the amount will be adjusted, up or down, so that the price remains in the $75 – $80 range.

optimizing revenue

The old OPEC dynamic was Saudi Arabia, which had perhaps a century’s worth of oil reserves and therefore wanted to keep prices steady and low vs. everyone else, whose reserve life was much shorter and who wanted the highest possible current price, even if that hastened consumers’ move to alternatives.

Today’s dynamic is different, chiefly because the Saudis now realize that the age of renewable energy is imminent.  Today all parties want the highest possible current price, provided it is not so high that it accelerates the trend to renewables.  The consensus belief is that the tipping point is around $100 a barrel.  $80 seems to give enough safety margin that it has become the Saudi target.