COMMENT – Is the current oil rally running more on fumes than fundamentals?

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Oil prices have surged to two-month highs – $31 a barrel yesterday – on growing signs of a rebound in oil demand, as the easing of lockdowns spread worldwide. At its peak in April, global lockdown measures affected around 3.9 billion people. But an estimated 3.7 billion people are now living in areas that are experiencing some version of a “reopening.”

Data from China has stoked some bullishness in oil markets, although there are some mixed signals. Traffic is back in many Chinese cities, and there are early signs that China’s oil demand is rising back close to pre-pandemic levels around 13 million barrels per day (mb/d). 

At the same time, a new coronavirus cluster in China suddenly sparked another lockdown measure. While Wuhan and other regions may be opening up, roughly 108 million people in Jilin province just went into lockdown. It’s a sign that the fight against COVID-19 will likely be frustrated by repeated flare ups in new cases, which may ultimately lead to renewed lockdowns. 

Massive supply cuts go even further in explaining the recent jump in prices. Oil traders view the implementation of the OPEC+ cuts favorably, with the 9.7 mb/d cuts phasing in swiftly. Part of the reason is that some oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, began having difficulty finding a home for its oil, so a portion of the cuts arguably became involuntary. 

Moreover, the physical oil market is not “out of the woods” just yet, according to Rystad Energy. “We still see a 13.7 million bpd implied liquids (crude, condensate, NGLs, others) stock builds in May-20,” the firm said in a statement. That is down by half from the peak of the glut (-26.7 mb/d in inventory builds in April), but a significant overhang remains. 

Separately, Commerzbank argued that the oil market optimism may be running a little too far. “Despite all the euphoria, however, we believe that caution is still advisable: it will probably take some years before demand recovers to its pre-crisis level,” Commerzbank wrote on Monday.

In addition, the price rally may also be the result of speculative positioning – the physical market is trending towards rebalancing, but the rally can also be explained by overly exuberant speculative positioning.

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