Oil enthusiasts haven’t been jumping on board the latest rally.
As crude has soared more than 50 percent since Feb. 11, the number of bets on increased prices has barely budged. Instead, the upward pressure on prices appears to have come from traders cashing out of bearish wagers at an unprecedented pace. The liquidation of short positions during the last seven weeks covered by data from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission was the largest on record.
“The rally has come from shorts getting scared out of their positions, and you’re not seeing a lot of money coming in on the long side,” said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital LLC, a New York hedge fund focused on energy. “It really calls into question the fortitude and staying power of the rally.”
There has been plenty of bullish news to stoke the rebound. About 15 or 16 oil-exporting countries will attend a meeting to consider an output freeze next month, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries Secretary General Abdalla El-Badri said in Vienna last week. U.S. crude production fell to the lowest since November 2014. But American supplies remain stubbornly abundant as imports surge, and a production freeze by Saudi Arabia and Russia would still leave those countries’ output at historically high levels.
“Even a freeze will lock in record production, and the countries not participating — Iran and Libya — have the most barrels to add,” said Kilduff.
Short positions on West Texas Intermediate crude, or bets that prices will fall, have dropped by 131,617 contracts since Feb. 2, the biggest liquidation in CFTC data going back a decade. To close out a bearish position, traders buy back futures and options, putting upward pressure on prices. In the same period, bullish wagers fell by 971.
In the past 10 years, there have been only two other seven-week short-covering streaks, CFTC data show. The first started in September 2009 and the second in December 2012. Both were much smaller than the recent one and were accompanied by oil rallies.
The rebound faltered a day after WTI prices touched a four-month high of $41.45 a barrel on March 22, tumbling 4 percent in New York after government data showed U.S. crude supplies surged the prior week to the highest level since 1930. Stockpiles rose more than three times what was projected by analysts in a Bloomberg survey, thanks largely to imports that reached the highest level since June 2013, the Energy Information Administration report showed.
WTI oil for May delivery declined 7 cents to settle at $39.39 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Monday.
The dollar’s advance also weighed on oil after Federal Reserve officials signaled their expectation for another interest-rate increase. A stronger dollar reduces investor appetite for commodities denominated in the currency.
In other markets, net bearish wagers on U.S. ultra low sulfur diesel shrank by 6,311 contracts in the week ended March 22, CFTC data show. Diesel futures climbed 6.3 percent in the period. Net bullish bets on gasoline traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange decreased 4,715 contracts as futures gained 6.3 percent.
As for oil, money managers slashed bearish bets by 25,435 contracts, or 28 percent, in the report week, bringing them down to a nine-month low of 64,431 positions, the CFTC data show. Bullish wagers increased by 5,844, or 2 percent, to 300,261. The resulting net-long position advanced to 235,830.
“When energy markets get loaded to one side of the boat like that, you can have vicious reversals,” said Kilduff.