US oil prices plunge to negative territory on dual demand-supply shock

NEW YORK, April 20 (Xinhua) -- The soon-to-expire May contract for the U.S. oil benchmark went into a free fall to finish deeply in negative territory on Monday, as the energy market continued to reel from the dual demand-supply shock amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


File photo: CGTN

The West Texas Intermediate (WTI) for May delivery shed 55.9 U.S. dollars, or nearly 306 percent, to settle at -37.63 dollars a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The negative finish means producers would be paying buyers to take oil off their hands. 

It marks the first time an oil futures contract has traded negative in history, according to Dow Jones Market Data. The May contract expires on Tuesday.

The June WTI contract fell more than 18 percent to 20.43 per barrel. The global benchmark Brent crude for June delivery decreased 2.51 dollars to close at 25.57 dollars a barrel on the London ICE Futures Exchange.

Exchange-traded funds with oil-related assets also dipped noticeably on Monday due to the crude price crash. Meanwhile, Wall Street's major averages tumbled with the Dow closing down nearly 600 points. The S&P 500 energy sector slid 3.29 percent, among the worst-performing groups.

Traders tried to unload positions ahead of the contract's expiration, contributing to the historic drop, experts noted. On Monday, traders with long positions scrambled to get out amid fear that it would be difficult to find a place to park physical oil amid a rising glut of crude.

"We attribute the WTI price weakness to the imminent expiry of the May contract tomorrow," Giovanni Staunovo, a commodity analyst at UBS Global Wealth Management, told Xinhua on Monday.

Weaker demand tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and a potential supply glut is a more severe problem.

"The decline in more liquid futures contracts reflects the broader problem we have in the oil market -- severe oversupply in 2Q," said Staunovo, adding that with oil inventories trending higher over the coming weeks, the June contracts are likely to stay under pressure.

For the energy world, the knock-on economic effect from the pandemic was an immediate deep impact on global demand, sending fuel prices plummeting, said researchers at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.

Major oil producers have announced cutbacks in production in hopes of stabilizing the energy market, but many analysts say it is not enough to offset the pandemic shock.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its allies led by Russia, a group known as OPEC+, agreed to reduce output by 9.7 million barrels per day (bpd) for May and June after four days of talks.

Global oil demand is expected to fall by a record 9.3 million bpd year-on-year in 2020, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned in its newly-released monthly report.

The IEA said demand in April is estimated to be 29 million bpd lower than a year ago, down to a level last seen in 1995, due to COVID-19 as containment measures have brought mobility almost to a halt.

"We are also running out of places to store oil as demand has cratered," Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financials, said in a note on Monday.

The WTI continued to come under heavy pressure as inventories in Cushing, a key U.S. oil hub, have ballooned, while Midwestern refining margins tanked, noted experts at JBC Energy.

Inventories have ballooned by 48 percent to about 55 million barrels, according to a recent report from the Energy Information Administration. Capacity at the hub is about 76 million barrels, according to the IEA.

Many analysts believe headwinds remain on the energy market in the foreseeable future.

"We think it is too early to become outright bullish on the oil and gas sector given the many uncertainties around the supply and demand factors," market strategists at UBS said in a research note, adding there are still opportunities in risks.

"We are also convinced that the global oil industry will survive this crisis and that the recent sell-off has created opportunities in the sector," they said.