Sunday, April 26, 2020

Last contango in Harris (County)

The crude trading week that was gave the market a day that will live in infamy. For on Monday, April 20, 2020, the soon-to-expire WTI May contract – lost all its value, slid to zero and then went into negative prices for the first time in trading history eventually settling at -$37.63 per barrel down over 300%. 

Blame a supply glut that Harris County, Texas, US – home to America's oil and gas capital of Houston – is only too aware of, or blame the dire demand declines caused by the coronavirus/Covid-19 lockdowns around the world, or blame money managers holding paper barrel or e-barrels desperately looking to dump their holdings at the last minute with very few takers – whatever the reason might be, outrageously sensational the development most certainly was! 

Expiring crude futures contracts often have a run on them in a climate of depressed demand that we happen to be in but April 20 was something the Oilholic never imagined he would ever blog about. Yet here we are! The very next day – April 21 – the contract did return to positive turf after all the headlines had been written. So is it a 'switch the lights out' moment for the industry? Not quite. Is it an unmitigated disaster for Harris County and wider industry sentiment in North America – most certainly so. 

That's because near-term demand is not looking pretty, and the Oilholic sees no prospect of a return to normalcy at least until the end of July. That too might be contingent upon the global community getting some sort of a handle on the global pandemic. Implications in barrel terms could likely be a Q2 2020 demand slump of at least 20 million barrels per day (bpd) and might well be as much as 30-35 million bpd.

For upcoming and established US exploration and production plays gradually discovering lucrative East Asian markets of light, sweet crude and national headline production levels of 12.75 million bpd – the current situation is a crushing but inevitable blow. 

Chats with Wall Street and City of London forecasters – virtual ones of course (via Skype, WhatsApp, did anyone mention Zoom) – and with several industry contacts from Harris County, Texas to Denver, Colorado suggest come 2021 US production is likely to fall to ~11 million bpd. But a long-term market has been established for competitively priced light, sweet barrels currently available at a rather cheap price provided you can find a place to stack or store the barrels. 

In fact, the lowest spot price the Oilholic has encountered is just south of $2 per barrel as shutdowns and idle rigs become the order of the day. Only problem is storage – which contrary to popular belief, and as verified by satellite imagery – hasn't quite run out US onshore but is on the verge of being leased and spoken for. 

And it is costing dear on a floating basis too, something that is unlikely to change as traders gear up for contango plays! Simple formula - get your hands on crude cargo from anywhere between $2 to $18, ride out the coronavirus downturn, pin hopes on a Q4 2020 to Q1 2021 recovery and make a tidy profit!

Hypothetically, if December is the cut-off point for such bets right now, then WTI December contract is around $29 per barrel while WTI June is trading around $17. That gives one of the widest contango structure of $12 and a 70.6% discount to six-month forward contracts for anyone with hands on US light sweet crude; means to hold on to it; and flog it off six months later on margins not seen since 2009

It is doubtful the returns are likely to be of the magnitude raked in by Gunvor in the immediate recovery that followed the 2008-09 financial crisis but they could be substantial. Many on Wall Street are calling it the 'super-contango' but the Oilholic prefers something else. Opportunities and differentials like this do not come along often – so yours truly thinks calling it the 'Last contago in Harris' is way more colourful. That's all for the moment folks! Stay safe! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’! 

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© Gaurav Sharma 2020. Photo: View of Downtown Houston, Texas, US © Gaurav Sharma, May 2018.

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