Investors see oil break out of narrow range with record bets

By Mark Shenk on 2/27/2017

NEW YORK (Bloomberg) -- Oil has been bound to the tightest price range in more than a decade, and yet hedge funds have never been so confident it will eventually rally.

Money managers boosted their bets on rising WTI prices to a record on speculation that OPEC and its partners will manage to ease a global supply glut. America’s crude producers, which are increasing output, aren’t so sure. They’ve been hedging against price declines for this year and 2018.

Oil has traded above $50/bbl since OPEC and 11 other countries started trimming supply on Jan. 1, which has in turn helped fuel a revival in U.S. shale drilling. American explorers have almost doubled the number of rigs targeting oil since May, according to Baker Hughes. The mixed signals have locked WTI in its narrowest range since 2003 this month.

"I’m looking for prices to rise this year, but not above $60, and the reason for the ceiling is the tremendous resilience of U.S. shale," Tamar Essner, a New York-based energy analyst at Nasdaq, said by telephone. "The market is very one-sided right now, which makes me nervous because that often precedes a reversal."

Hedge funds boosted their net-long position on WTI, or the difference between bets on a price increase and wagers on a decline, by 6% in the week ended Feb. 21, U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission data show. WTI  rose 1.6% to $54.06/bbl in the report week. The U.S. benchmark on Monday was trading at $54.40.

"I’m perplexed to see the ongoing accumulation of length in a market that’s not rewarding it with higher prices,"  Tim Evans, an energy analyst at Citi Futures Perspective in New York, said by telephone. "This shows implied faith that the market will tighten in the future and that will push prices higher."

Right Track

OPEC and its partners achieved 86% of their agreed cuts last month, the organization said last week. The group’s Joint Technical Committee concluded that producers “are on the right track towards full conformity” with supply cuts. They will probably need to keep output low once the accord expires in June in order to clear the glut, according to Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne and Citigroup’s head of commodities research, Ed Morse.

U.S. crude inventories climbed to 518.7 MMbbl in the week ended Feb. 17, the highest level in weekly data going back to 1982, according to the EIA. Production rose to 9 MMbpd in the period, the highest since April. As stockpiles mount, producers are increasingly seeking protection against a price reversal. Their net-short position keeps getting closer to the record bearish stance reached in April of last year.

Worried Producers

"Producers know the market as well as anyone," Bob Yawger, director of the futures division at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in New York, said by telephone. "They’re worried about the deal holding for more than six months. It’s more likely than not that the market will tank if the deal’s not extended or there’s extreme cheating."

As for hedge funds, their net-long position in WTI increased by 23,299 futures and options to 413,637, the most in data going back to 2006. Longs rose 4.6% to an all-time high, while shorts slipped 7.5% to the lowest since July 2014.

"The hedge funds have piled on bullish positions," Yawger said. "The downside is that someday, if it looks like the OPEC deal is coming apart, the market can fall apart very quickly."

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