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We have recently been monitoring the calendar spreads and term structure of WTI crude oil futures with a little more attention, as there have been notable developments.
As a refresher, a calendar spread is simply the difference in price between two contracts with different expirations. For example, contracts with a December ’17 expiration are currently trading at a roughly $1.00/bbl premium to contracts expiring in December ’18 (this is called an inverted market, or backwardation, and is not typical in energy markets). Normally, back-month con-tracts are more expensive than front-month contracts to reflect the price of storage and other variables. Such a structure is called normal contango.
Over the last week or two, calendar spreads have surged, which would be considered very bullish in normal market conditions like we had late last year when OPEC announced their agreement to cut production with several large NOPEC producers. After that announcement, the entire WTI expiration curve rallied on the speculation of that bullish development in the supply-demand fundamentals with front-month contracts out-performing back months (calendar spreads rallied, con-firming the move in active-month futures).
In the current case, the strength in the calendar spreads has been the result of weakness in back-month contracts like December ’18. Think about the simple equation a – b = c (calendar spread). If “a” (Dec ’17) and “b” (Dec ’18) are both increasing, but the pace of a’s increase is faster, “c” will be positive (so the calendar spreads would be rallying, which is bullish). Right now, “c” is rising because of a faster decline in “b” than in “a” and that is far less of a reason to be optimistic on this current, sluggish trend higher in oil prices.
Stepping back, this development in the calendar spreads confirms what we have been saying, and that is we remain in a lower-for-longer price environment in the energy market.
The logical reason for a faster decline in back-month contracts such as December ’18 expiration suggests that US producers are hedging out future production for wells they have either just brought online or are in the process of bringing online. And this concept supports our idea that US production has not only bottomed, but has begun a cyclical move higher.
Bottom line, that trend is long-term bearish oil for two reasons. First, the obvious fact that rising US output will offset the efforts of the production cut agreement overseas is supply side bearish. Second, OPEC producers are not likely going to be comfortable with the idea of losing market share to the US again (after all, that is the reason they switched to “full-throttle” policy back in summer 2014, which led to the near-80% plunge in oil prices over the subsequent 18 months). The more market share OPEC loses to the US the more likely their compliance to individual quotas will begin to fall, which is very bearish for prices as that is what this current recovery into the $50s is fundamentally based on.
Looking ahead, we could very well see a continued run higher towards our initial target of $57.50, or to our secondary target of $60/bbl, as optimism surrounding OPEC compliance remains elevated. The longer-term outlook is not so bright, and the low $50s will likely remain a “magnetic” level for WTI futures.
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