OPEC wins over hedge funds to make 2017 oil's most bullish year

By Carlos Caminada and Catherine Traywick on 12/31/2017

CALGARY and WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- Oil bulls are charging into the new year with unprecedented vigor, and the credit goes to OPEC.

The signs that the group is winning its tug of war with shale are compelling, and money managers have taken note: Their combined bets on rising prices for West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude reached record levels in December.

“At least through the first half of 2018, they’ll stay pretty bullish,” said Ashley Petersen, lead oil-market strategist at Stratas Advisors in New York. “June will be a real turning point because that’s when we’ll hear about unwinding the deal, and if OPEC doesn’t handle it delicately, then there will be concern that the market will be flooded with oil again.”

The last week of the year saw futures trading above $60/bbl in New York and $67 in London for the first time since mid-2015, after the two most important oil benchmarks surged more than 40% from their doldrums in June. The rally came on the back of a well-orchestrated campaign led by Saudi Arabia and Russia to enforce and extend supply curbs implemented by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producing nations.

The effort culminated with a meeting in Vienna in November, where the group and its allies agreed to extend the cuts through the end of next year. Meanwhile, U.S. crude stockpiles have declined by about a fifth since peaking in March and approached the end of the year at their lowest level since October 2015. 

While the threat of too much shale production next year still looms, producers are ending the year a lot less gung-ho than they started. Under pressure from investors to focus on profits over growth, explorers have slowed down on drilling with the U.S. rig count stalling in December.

“The expectation is that the rebalance will continue,” Gene McGillian, a market research manager at Tradition Energy in Stamford, Conn., said by telephone. “We’ve approached an area where we really need to see a steady diet of positive information.”

The optimism wasn’t so widespread earlier this year. Concern that OPEC’s efforts weren’t enough and would end abruptly in March 2018 led short-sellers to dominate the scene for several months, with WTI plunging to the low-$40s in June.

"It really wasn’t until the fourth quarter that we saw a resounding faith in the recovery," Stratas Advisors’ Petersen said.

Global events also swung the market up and down along the way, such as Hurricane Harvey, supply disruptions in Libya and Kurdistan, a pipeline shutdown in the North Sea, and last but not least, a brutal cold snap in the final week of the year that drove up demand for heating oil, fuel oil and natural gas.

One of the most remarkable shifts that occurred in 2017, if a very technical one, was the change in the futures curve -- first for Brent and more recently for WTI. Contracts for nearby delivery are trading at a premium to longer-dated ones as demand rises and supplies tighten. This pattern, known as backwardation, hadn’t been seen so consistently since 2014.

Hedge funds boosted their Brent net-long position -- the difference between bets on a rally and wagers on a decline -- to an all-time high on Dec. 12 and have kept it near that level.

The net-long  position on WTI increased 7.3% to 411,972 futures and options during the week ended Dec. 26, according to data from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission on Friday. That was close to a record set in February. Longs rose by 5.3% and shorts fell by 11%.

The net-short position of swap dealers, an indication of hedging, increased for the 11th straight week to a fresh record, according to the CFTC data.

In the fuel market, money managers increase their net-long position on benchmark U.S. gasoline by about 10%. Meanwhile, the net-bullish  position on diesel rose by 26% to a record as the cold snap boosted heating demand.

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