Oil clawed back some losses as Chinese manufacturing data beat expectations, but futures were still heading for the worst quarter on record as the physical market showed further signs of collapse.
Futures in New York were higher on Tuesday but crude is still down 65% since the end of December. While Brent and West Texas Intermediate futures are holding up above $20 a barrel, in the world of physical crude, where traders buy and sell actual barrels, prices continue to be in freefall. The price difference between where the paper market trades and the physical market has widened to reach multi-decade highs in some cases, suggesting that financial flows are supporting the futures market.
With demand weakening by the day and producers refusing to cut output, Dated Brent, the benchmark to price about two-thirds of the world’s actual barrels in the physical market, was assessed at $17.79 a barrel on Monday, well below where Brent futures traded. In North America, WTI in Midland, the capital of the Permian region, traded at just $10.50 a barrel, and multiple key grades, including Canadian crude and Bakken crude from North Dakota, traded below $5 a barrel.
The broad market weakness comes as refineries from South Africa to Canada have shuttered while others in major consuming countries, such as India, are cutting back. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is directing huge amounts of crude toward Egypt as the producer prepares to flood Europe with its barrels. The huge oversupply is collapsing the oil market’s structure, and there may be more weakness to come as the world quickly runs out of storage capacity.
“Inventory builds will exhaust spare storage in mid-May,” said Standard Chartered analysts including Emily Ashford. “Balancing the market would require an unprecedented shutdown of output by operators, which is unlikely without significantly lower prices.”
In a sign of the need for oil production to fall, Pioneer Natural Resources Co. and Parsley Energy Inc. have asked Texas regulators to consider curbing output and to call an emergency meeting no later than April 13. Ryan Sitton, one of three commissioners on the Texas Railroad Commission, said on Monday that the regulating body will discuss reining in production at its next meeting.
Futures in the global Brent benchmark are signaling a historic glut is emerging. The May contract is trading at a discount of more than $14 a barrel to November, a more bearish super-contango than the market saw even in the depths of the 2008-09 global financial crisis.