A detailed study to better understand Why the Crude Oil prices dived into Negative?: A month ago, on March 8th, 2020, ‘30% slash in the crude oil prices’ seemed to be the biggest headlines crude oil could ever get. However, on April 20th, the crude oil prices broke into the news for its extraordinarily inconceivable negative price dump. A negative price, theoretically, would essentially mean that you are to be paid for the purchase of the commodity. Today we try and decode how the crude oil prices ventured into the negative territory and what it would mean to us.
Does the ‘-ve’ represent all oils?
In short, the answer to the above question would be ‘No’. This is because there are multiple varieties of crude oils classified on the geography of their procurement, their quality, and other factors. This ensures their prices remain different just like other commodities.
Popular crude oil types are West Texas Intermediate( WTI), Brent Crude, Dubai Crude, OPEC, etc. An insight into the different types of oils would help us better understand why only a particular oil went negative.
— The Brent Crude
The Brent Crude oil is sourced from the waters of the North Sea between the UK and Norway. It consists of 0.37% sulfur. It is known to be of perfect suitability for the production of petrol. The fact that it is sourced from the sea makes its transportation cheaper from ships.
Financial Traders take delight in the Brexit crude oil as it is highly volatile. This gives it a larger scope to place their bets.
As the name suggests this oil is sourced from the US. The oil fields are drilled for their high-quality shale oil. The WTI crude oil consists of 0.24% sulfur. WTI is used in the production of diesel. However, being sourced from oil fields and the high cost of setting up pipelines make the ‘transportation and storage’ expensive.
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The Dubai crude aka Fateh is a medium sour crude oil extracted from the United Arab Emirates. The OPEC includes oil from OPEC members like (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and also Murban crude from UAE). The Urals crude is sourced from Russia. Several other crude oils also exist like the Tapis, Bonny Light, etc.
Just like any other commodities, these crude oils are priced differently based on the quality, cost of procurement, etc. Of the crude oils named above, the WTI had been priced at $-37.63 on April 20th.
What affected Oil Prices?
The factors that played a role in the massive fall of the oil prices were
— Demand and Supply Factors
The demand and supply play the most important role while determining the price of a commodity. Political tensions and war have had an impact on demand. This is because countries prefer to stock up due to future uncertainties driving up the prices. This was also noticed during the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq.
— The Russia v/s OPEC standoff
In today’s scenario, however, controlling the supply chain could have played a big role. Major players like Russia and the OPEC (spearheaded by the Saudi) had a fallout. This was over an agreement to reduce production during the pandemic in order to match the reduced demand. Russia expressed dissent over this as it seemed to favor the US WTI once prices are adjusted.
Result: In retaliation, Saudi Arabia increased its production flooding the markets in order to hurt Russian producers from falling prices. Anton Siluanov Russian finance minister responded by saying that they could handle the situation even when the prices dropped to $30 a barrel. He added that the government would be able to operate without difficulty for four years.
These conditions may have been tolerated by WTI in a normal situation. But considering the pandemic where two-third of the world’s economies are facing lockdown led to a backfire. This led to a build-up of oil reserves with no one available to make purchases.
This was because the airline industry one of the biggest consumers of crude oil has most of their planes grounded. Vehicular consumption at its minimum with people quarantining themselves and working from home. With industries requiring crude oils for production shut, this led to a huge build-up of reserves.
— Pricing Methodology of Crude Oil
Crude oil is priced based on the futures contracts set as benchmarks. Futures contracts are agreements to sell a commodity at a set agreed price and set date in the future. This is done due to the volatility of crude oil prices. Dealing in futures helps the producers and buyers possibly protect themselves from uncertainty. Producers and buyers enter into an agreement with a set price beforehand.
If in a situation the price set for crude oil increases at the set date the buyer is benefitted by the cheaper predetermined price. If in a situation the price decreases at the set date the seller makes a profit. This is because he can still benefit from the higher price as per the future contract.
In the crude oil future contract, however, there is another party of traders who serve as middlemen between the producers and buyers. The traders enter into agreements with the producers. They do this with no intention of acquiring the oil. They do this with the aim of earning a profit after entering into another contract with the buyers.
To combat this US President Donald Trump said the US would buy 75 million barrels to replenish the national strategic stockpile. This would also provide temporary relief to the oil businesses.
How did these factors lead to the eventual fall?
A discussed earlier the WTI already incurs additional expense due to the pipeline. In addition to this, the market was heavily supplied by the OPEC crude with no takers. To combat the price fall Saudi Arabia and Russia reached an agreement. They agreed to cut output by 9.7 million barrels per day for the next two months. This, however, was not enough to stop the prices from falling.
The reserves saved in Cushing, Oklahoma kept building up. The Eventual overflow led to a situation where producers began paying buyers to take the oil. But in such a case why did the producers not destroy the crude oil as it would protect them from further losses. This is because the U.S. antitrust law prohibits oil companies from coordinating their production.
In addition to this, the Future contracts of May saw no buyers. Both these issues further alleviated the problem. It eventually led to the oil prices moving into the negative territory.
What does this mean for the economy?
This meant that the buyers were in a position to be paid in return for the purchase of WTI oil. However, as mentioned earlier crude oil is traded based on future contracts. It would not enable a country to take advantage of these in a short period of time. Also, with the demand for crude oil dropped due to the lockdown the respective country reserves will not be able to hoard large quantities.
The Indian government may use any benefits arising to set off the losses due to the lockdown. However, It is not a completely rosy picture for the Indian Economy. This is because 7 million Indians currently reside in economies that depend on crude oil exports. Adverse fall in their crude oil due to the WTI will lead to adverse effects in their economy. Joblessness will further affect Indian states that depend heavily on the remittances that are transferred from these countries.
There also arises the question of the Indian Government benefitting directly from the WTI. In 2018, of the $106.7 billion worth of crude oil only $2.8 billion can be attributed to WTI.
The benefits of the fall in crude oil prices being relayed to commercial customers are doubted. This is because the government has not transferred the benefits of falling prices over to commercial consumers from the last two months. This also may be seen as a silver lining as in a situation of probable rises. The government may again hold their ground and not relay the losses in the form of high prices.
Low oil prices historically have been known to tip the scales of power from the producing countries to the importing countries. Low oil prices were also one of the reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union ( Yess… Chernobyl too!). Talking about the rebalancing of power, low oil prices are also known to encourage gender equality.
Studies with the Middle East as their prime focus have explained that oil production apart from various other reasons also impacts gender equality. Oil production being their biggest industry further discourages the women. With the number of women in the workforce reduced in turn leads to a reduced number of women with political interference. Further enhancing the patriarchal society. Talk about a silver lining.
The renewable resource industry is also in danger if crude oil products result in providing longer benefits.
When we look at these effects in the short term from the Indian perspective it really helps being tipped upwards especially when we are in the midst of ‘The Great Lockdown’.
Aron, Bachelors in Commerce from Mangalore University, entered the world of Equity research to explore his interests in financial markets. Outside of work, you can catch him binging on a show, supporting RCB, and dreaming of visiting Kasol soon. He also believes that eating kid’s ice-cream is the best way to teach them taxes.