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Portfolio > ETFs > Broad Market

Expect More Oil Price Declines, Strategist Says

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For the second consecutive day oil prices plummeted, dragging down stock prices with them.

June U.S. crude oil futures contract ended the day down 43% from Monday’s close at $11.57 a barrel. May futures contracts, which expired today and which closed Monday with an unprecedented negative price — of almost -$38 a barrel — finished at $10.01 a barrel.

The S&P 500 index finished down 3% to 2,736 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended  down 2.6% at 23,018.

“Demand has essentially collapsed,” said Bart Melek, global head of commodity strategy at TD Securities, about the oil market. He expects a continued “massive decline” in demand until the lockdowns of economies around the world begins to ease.

According to Melek, demand for oil has fallen by 25 million barrels per day, far more than the 10 million barrels per day cut that OPEC and Russia agreed to make in May and June.

In the meantime, storage for the surplus oil is disappearing around the world. That played a major role in Monday’s plunge into negative oil prices. Investors owning May crude oil futures were unable to roll over into June due to lack of buyers, which meant they were stuck with taking delivery of physical crude at the contract’s expiration — and willing to pay a buyer to take it off their hands. The same thing could play out later this month with the current June futures contract.

“Can we go negative again?” asked Melek. “Anything is possible. Until yesterday it never happened before, why not again?”

He explained that “the problem is that these futures contracts are physically commodities. If they can’t be stored, production has to stop. The market is telling you that product cuts are needed everywhere.”

But many small producers, including frackers, don’t want to stop production because of the high costs to restart operation. Melek says they will if prices turn negative again.

Another dimension in the market: ETFs. They account for about 25% to 30% of open interest in the futures market, and they certainly don’t want to take the physical commodity.

The U.S. Oil ETF (USO) , the biggest oil-focused ETF, designed to closely track the price of the commodity, fell 25% on Tuesday, after announcing earlier in the day that it would no longer create new shares to meet demand. 

Due to strong demand late last week from investors suspecting a market at or near bottom, the ETF ran out of shares to provide to Authorized participants and  has to wait for SEC approval to issue more, said Dave Nadig, chief investment officer and director of research at ETF Trends. 

That announcement followed a regulatory filing with the SEC announcing the ETF’s intention to change its structure, ​allowing investments in one or two months beyond the most current futures contract. USO amended that filing with another one on Tuesday that would add even more flexibility to its holdings “in response to ongoing extraordinary market conditions in the crude oil markets​.​​”​

Under the latest filing USO ETF  “may invest in​” ​ oil future contracts trading “in any month available​,” ​in  other permitted investments described in its prospectus, including cash-settled options on ​futures contracts, or in other “oi​l​-​r​elated ​i​nvestments​”​ that provide ​the ETF with “greater liquidity or transactions with more favorable pricing.”

Whether those changes will help the ETF manage the extraordinary volatility in the oil market is unknown. Melek said investors should expect a rough few months in the oil market. “The market is doing exactly what’s it supposed to and it’s telling that production needs to be cut.”   


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