(Bloomberg) — Oil traders struggling to navigate one of the biggest oil crashes in history say the worst is yet to come.
Even after plunging about 60% this year to the lowest since 2003, prices will likely drop further to $20 a barrel or below, according to a survey of traders from some of the world’s biggest oil companies and merchants. Analysts from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to Citigroup Inc. also expect prices to extend declines in the coming months, with some even speculating certain regional prices could go negative as markets try to send signals to halt supply.
Oil has been battered by the simultaneous fight against Covid-19, which is expected to reverse more than a decade of global demand growth, and a flood of supply as Saudi Arabia and Russia battle for market share. The sudden and severe plunge in oil prices has helped fuel the broader sell-off across markets, and threatens economies across Latin America and the Middle East, as well as the U.S., where the energy industry accounts for large chunks of both output and debt.
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Picking a bottom in the crude market is always a stress-inducing enterprise when prices touch new lows daily. Brent dropped 13% Wednesday to settle at $24.88 a barrel, the lowest since May 2003. There have been three double-digit percentage moves in Brent so far this month, tied with the Gulf War in January 1991 and the financial crisis in December 2008.
Eighteen of 20 oil and products traders surveyed by Bloomberg see Brent falling to $20 a barrel or lower, with West Texas Intermediate seen $3 to $5 below that. The price weakness is expected to last from a matter of weeks to as long as the end of the year, said the traders, who aren’t authorized to speak publicly.
“The $20 level is easily breachable” by mid-April, said R. Ramachandran, a director at Indian oil refiner Bharat Petroleum Corp.
Brent was trading at $28.64 a barrel as of 8:34 a.m. in Singapore on Friday, holding Thursday’s 14% surge after President Donald Trump said he could intervene in the Saudi-Russia price war.
Some traders point to prices falling deep enough that physical players start buying oil to store it — a common practice known as the contango trade — leading to a natural bid in the marketplace. That will only work, however, until storage tanks fill up. Others see prices continuing to sell off until producers can no longer pump profitably, forcing them to shut in production and take supply off-line. Several traders said they were eyeing the cost to produce U.S. shale oil as a support level at the bottom.
“WTI will fall below the cash cost of U.S. shale production, which is around $20,” said Zhang Chenfeng, an oil-trading analyst at Chinese hedge fund Shanghai Youlin Investment Management Co. “The huge pressure from contango may send the front-month prices to $15 as some traders need to keep the contango to sell their inventories.”
Analysts at Goldman Sachs said in a note this week that the bank was lowering its Brent forecast for the second quarter to $20 a barrel from $30. It added that the fall to cash costs would be consistent with prior large bear markets of 1999, 2009 and 2016, when total storage capacity was never reached but local logistical saturation proved binding.
Citigroup said its base case is that Brent would average $17 a barrel or lower in the second quarter, with a bear case of a $5 average and the potential for negative physical prices in some areas because of a lack of storage and logistics. Energy Aspects said Brent risks testing $10 a barrel in April, though prices will likely to remain in the $20 range for all of 2020. Mizuho Securities USA LLC analyst Paul Sankey also flagged the risk of negative pricing unless shale output declines faster than inventories build, which he sees as doubtful.
“This is Operation Desert Storm, Enron, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina/Rita, Lehman Bros, combined.” said Stephen Schork, president of the energy consultancy Schork Group Inc. “And we are waking up to this combo every single day.”
(Updates with oil prices in seventh paragraph)
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