Soft start for crude oil, but a ceiling appears in sight

The steady decline in U.S. crude oil inventories may be coming to an end on seasonal factors.
By Daniel J. Graeber Follow @dan_graeber Contact the Author   |   Aug. 18, 2017 at 10:03 AM
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Aug. 18 (UPI) -- Crude oil prices drifted around neutrality early Friday in a sign that balance was more about offsetting factors than a drain on global inventory levels.

"OPEC, despite its epic efforts to actively manage the oil market into equilibrium after three years of oversupply and growing inventories, may have been forced into a stalemate," Vandana Hari, an industry analyst and founder of Vanda Insights, said in an emailed statement.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries started a project in January designed to eat away at the surplus for the five-year average for global crude oil inventories with managed production declines. The agreement stimulated oil prices to an extent, but came as U.S. shale oil producers were making improvements in operational efficiency.

Global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that if the price for West Texas Intermediate moves above $60 per barrel near the end of the decade, production from the Permian shale basin in Texas would drive about 20 percent of the total U.S. exploration because efficiency improved. The firm based its assessment on a break-even price for Permian operations at around $41 per barrel.

Hari said a report this week from the U.S. Energy Information Administration of a large drop in crude oil inventories was offset by an increase in U.S. crude oil production, which she said leaves oil prices locked in a relatively narrow trading range.

"What should be worrying about this seeming impasse for OPEC is that there is also a clear downside bias to crude, as a continued decline in U.S. crude stocks at the feverish pace seen since April this year looks unlikely beyond the summer peak demand season, while expectations of a persistent global supply glut have taken a firm hold," she said.

The price for Brent crude oil was up 0.2 percent at 9:15 a.m. EDT to $51.13 per barrel. WTI narrowed the spread on Brent somewhat, gaining 0.36 percent to $47.26 per barrel.

Ole Hanson, the head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank, said in an emailed newsletter earlier this week that crude oil prices have lost ground since June and the possibility that crude oil prices move much higher than $50 per barrel is unlikely because OPEC is struggling to clear the oversupply. The International Energy Agency reported the market was moving toward balance, but said that even if stockpiles for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development dropped 500,000 barrels per day until the end of first quarter 2018, they would still be about 60 million barrels above the five-year average.

Markets will likely move strongly one way or the other after drilling services company Baker Hughes releases weekly data on exploration and production. Reported as rig counts, gains in the United States would likely push oil prices lower as drilling figures offer a loose indication of momentum in a particular sector.

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