America does rely on oil in many ways. It’s about 90 percent of the energy that we use in transportation. And it’s more than a third of the overall energy that we use. In fact, it’s probably going to stay that way for a lot, a lot longer. The Energy Information Agency administration predicts that going out to 2050 is still going to over a third of the energy that we’re going to use. So how was it possible for oil to reach a negative value and what does it mean for the American economy? To understand what happened, it’s important to know how a futures contract functions. So the futures market is a way to bet on the future price of a certain commodity.
Different types of oil from all across the world are traded by barrels in their individual market places. But two futures contracts serve as the major benchmark for oil price. Brent Crude trades oil from the North Sea in northern Europe, setting the standard for international oil prices. While the West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, trades a specific grade of oil traded in Cushing, Oklahoma, that serves as a domestic benchmark for oil prices. A refinery might have a contract with a producer and say, we will pay you that Brent price or we’ll pay you the Brent price minus the transportation costs. Or you know that it’s all subject to negotiation. And those two are well known. It’s a shorthand, if you will. And a lot of times other crudes are priced off of those crudes because they’re well, known the quality is high and has a long track record. Similar to most treated commodities, oil prices rely heavily on how much of it is available on the market. In other words, supply and demand. Oil like just about anything else in the world is determined that prices are determined by a willing buyer and a willing seller. And so that means that as demand goes up, more people are buying it.
The price will typically go up, supply stays the same and vice versa. If supply suddenly increases, then then typically the price will go down if the demand stays the same. The demand is determined by how much oil is needed at any given moment due to its crucial role in the economy. High demand has often been associated with a healthy economic growth. Historically, oil demand has moved with the economy of a country. It’s been very tightly tied because almost all transportation comes from burning oil and a lot of other industrial processes use oil. So when the economy is humming along strongly, the demand goes up. And when you have a recession, the demand goes down. On the other hand, supply is usually determined by the producers who have control over its output. Historically, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, otherwise known as OPEC, has played a crucial role in determining the supply. OPEC currently has 13 member countries, including Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela as founding members. However, a lot has changed in recent years as the U.S. surpassed both Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest crude oil producer since 2018. Thanks to the rise in production from American shale fields. Essentially these countries and OPEC, everyone is competing for market share.
Everyone wants to produce more for their country, but also the optionality to export it to another country and especially growth regions such as China, Asia. Being an investor or a producer in the oil industry means keeping an eye on this fine balance between supply and demand, as well as the geopolitical events that could threaten the industry. Never forget about geopolitics and the impact it can have on the oil price, because that can be that X factor of why oil may have a big premium or a big discount to fundamentals that you see supply and demand. It’s because geopolitics introduces other risk factors. A historic drop occurred on April 20th, 2020, with U.S. oil prices on WTI dropped by almost 300 percent. Trading around negative 37 dollars. What happened with oil in terms of the negative pricing in April with the futures contracts was rather unprecedented. We have seen negative prices before. For example, last year we were talking about negative natural gas prices and Waha in April 2019. But that’s more due to processing or field issues, not what is happened specifically this time with the COVID 19 and in the price war. Oil prices had been under pressure since January as China battled the spread of COVID 19.
When the pandemic finally reached the rest of the world, demand took a devastating hit. People started talking about the demand going down 2 or 3 percent instead of growing by 1 or 2 percent, as was had previously been expected. But then by the time it got to the United States and all over Western Europe, the forecasts were very different. And at the trough, we probably saw demand in April bottom out, down 30 percent. So we’ve never seen anything like this, certainly in the last 40 years since world oil markets have developed. To make matters worse, a price war erupted between Saudi Arabia and Russia in early March after OPEC and its allies failed to reach an agreement on deeper supply cuts. Oil saw its worst trading day in 20, 29 years. Yesterday, both WTI crude and Brent crude lost nearly a quarter of their value, and the S&P energy sector ended the day 50 percent off its 52 week closing high. Saudi Arabia launched a price war against other key producers. As supply remains steady while demand struck record breaking lows. The petroleum industry quickly began running out of storage space to put their oil. Cushing plays a very big role as one of the main hubs of that commercial storage. And Cushing at the time of the negative contract was around 70, 70 percent full, and what was left was perhaps already committed. So that was a huge issue because Cushing plays one of the main roles in pricing the WTI contracts. As the delivery date for WTI grew near. And investors had nowhere to put the oil. They soon began a massive sell off, prompting an unprecedented crash into the negative territory. WTI special in a way, because it’s so tightly connected to physical oil. And so if you’re holding a contract for WTI, you’re expected to take possession of oil.
What was happening was the buyers who had bought a futures contract, which meant they had responsibility to take delivery of the oil, recognized that that storage was filling up and they had no place to put the oil and they didn’t want the oil. And so they wanted to get out of the contract. Usually they can get out of the contract by getting somebody else to take the oil instead at a positive price. Cause oil’s a valuable commodity. But there was nobody who wanted to take that oil, particularly because it was located in an area that was producing way more oil than they needed. And the pipelines to move oil out of that area were completely full. The historic drop quickly sent shockwaves through the U.S. financial market. The Dow plunged by over 1,200 points over the following two days, and brokerage firms like interactive brokers reported taking 109 million dollar hit to cover its customers losses. It was kind of like what happened in 2000 where we we’re wondering if the computers could roll over. Some of the traders computers couldn’t even handle the negative. They weren’t set up for a negative. So you can imagine the disarray and the surprise, you know, that some traders faced the next morning when they looked at their margin calls or what they owed based on the severity of this drop.
However, experts point out that although the event was unexpected, there was no need to panic. It was not unforeseen. The exchange itself saw it as a possibility ahead of time. They actually discussed what to do if that were to happen, reprogram their software and so forth. And at least one major media outlet reported on it a week ahead of time before it happened. Also, some other products have gone negative in the past. Things like natural gas. So I think it’s important to put it in perspective that while this had never happened with oil before, it was just on one particular instrument. The WTI was just for one day and it was seen as at least a remote possibility ahead of time that it happened. It was very few contracts. There was very little trading at those prices and the price very quickly rebounded into positive territory.