Streetwise Professor

May 15, 2018

Contrary to What You Might Have Read, the Oil Market (Flat Prices and Calendar Spreads) Is Not Sending Mixed Signals

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 9:27 pm

In recent weeks, the flat price of crude oil (both WTI and Brent) has moved up smartly, but time spreads have declined pretty sharply.  A common mistake by oil market analysts is to consider this combination of movements anomalous, and an indication of a disconnect between the paper and the physical markets.  This article from Reuters is an example:

Oil futures prices have soared past three-year highs, OPEC’s deal has cut millions of barrels of inventory worldwide and investors are betting in record numbers that prices could rocket past $80 and even hit $90 a barrel this year.

But physical markets for oil shipments tell a different story. Spot crude prices are at their steepest discounts to futures prices in years due to weak demand from refiners in China and a backlog of cargoes in Europe. Sellers are struggling to find buyers for West African, Russian and Kazakh cargoes, while pipeline bottlenecks trap supply in west Texas and Canada.

The divergence is notable because traditionally, physical markets are viewed as a better gauge of short-term fundamentals. Crude traders who peddle cargoes to refineries worldwide say speculators are on shaky ground as they drive futures markets above $70 a barrel, their highest levels for three-and-a-half years, on concerns about tighter supply from Venezuela and the potential impact of U.S. sanctions on supply from Iran.

Investors have piled millions of dollars in record wagers in the options market, betting on a further rally on the back of rising geopolitical tensions, particularly in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and the global decline in supply.

“Guys who are trading futures have a view that draws are coming and big draws are coming,” a U.S.-based crude trader at a global commodity merchant said, adding that demand could ramp up as global refinery maintenance ends.

. . . .


Those on the front lines of the physical market are not convinced. Traders say the surge in U.S. exports to more than 2 million bpd has saturated some markets, leaving benchmark prices ripe for a correction.

“There is a huge disconnect between futures and fundamentals,” a trader with a Chinese independent refiner said. “I won’t be surprised if prices correct by $20 a barrel.”

In fact, the alleged “disconnect” is readily explained based on recent developments in the market, notably the prospect for interruption/reduction in Iranian supplies due to the reimposition of sanctions by the US.  The situation in Venezuela is exacerbating this situation.  Two things are particularly important in this regard.

First, the Iranian situation is a threat to future supplies, not current supplies: the potential collapse in Venezuela is also a threat to future supplies (although current supplies are dropping too).  A reduction in expected future supplies increases future scarcity relative to current scarcity.  The economically efficient response to that is to share the pain, that is, to shift some supply from the present to the future by storage.  To reward storage, the futures price rises relative to the spot price–that is, the time spread declines.  However, since the driving shock (the anticipated reduction in future supplies) will result in greater scarcity, the flat price must rise.

A second effect works in the same direction. This is a phenomenon that I worked out in a 2008 paper that later was expanded into a chapter my book on commodity price dynamics.  Both the US actions regarding Iran, and the current tumult in Venezuela increase uncertainty about future supplies.  The efficient way to respond to this increase in fundamental uncertainty is to increase inventories, relative to what they would have been absent the increase.  This requires a decline in current consumption, which requires an increase in flat prices.  But incentivizing greater storage requires a fall in calendar spreads.

An additional complicating factor here is the feedback between inventories or calendar spreads (which are often used as a rough proxy for inventories, given the opacity and relative infrequency of stocks numbers) and OPEC decisions.  To the extent OPEC uses inventories or calendar spreads as a measure of the tightness of the supply-demand balance, and interprets the fall in calendar spreads and the related increase in inventories (or decline in the rate of inventory reductions), it could respond to what is happening now by restricting supplies . . . which would exacerbate the future scarcity. Relatedly, a known unknown is how current spread movements reflect market expectations about how OPEC will respond to spread movements.  The feedback/reflexivity here (that results from a price maker/entity with market power using spreads/inventory as a proxy for supply-demand balance, and market participants forming expectations about how the price maker will behave) greatly complicates things.  Misalignments between OPEC behavior and market expectations (and OPEC expectations about market expectations, and on an on with infinite regress) can lead to big jumps in prices.

Putting to one side this last complication, contrary to what many analysts and market participants claim, the recent movements in flat prices and spreads are not sending mixed signals.  They are a rational response to the evolution in market conditions observed in recent weeks: a decline in expected future supply, and an increase in fundamental risk.  The theory of storable commodities predicts that such conditions will lead to higher flat prices and lower calendar spreads.

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  1. A beneficent God has decided to extend the life of the world’s oil reserves by appointing suitable rulers to Iran and Venezuela.

    Comment by dearieme — May 16, 2018 @ 11:04 am

  2. “But incentivizing greater storage requires a fall in calendar spreads.”

    doesnt incenting the market to store stuff require increasing contango (i.e. increasing time spreads)? … or by “fall in calendar spreads” do you mean a fall in backwardation?

    Comment by TC — May 16, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

  3. Agree with TC. The market is backwardated and it got worse until last week. No one would want to store anything other than the minimum at these spreads. So it is less backwardated, but not by much. Looks to me like “the market” believes that long term oil supplies will be more plentiful than current market.

    Comment by JavelinaTex — May 16, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

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