Traders are snapping up bets that Brent crude will rise to $80 a barrel as U.S. President Donald Trump mulls renewing sanctions on Iran while conflict roils parts of the Middle East.
Investors in Brent now hold almost 137 million barrels worth of $80 call options, 37 percent more than they did two weeks ago, according to data from the ICE Futures Europe exchange. The spike comes as options markets show their strongest call-bias since 2014, when oil traded above $100 a barrel. Brent last week also climbed to its highest level in more than three years.
“The market is focused on macro and geopolitical risks,” said Thibaut Remoundos, founder of Commodities Trading Corporation Ltd., which advises on hedging strategies. “For oil prices, the path of least resistance remains higher. Who wants to short the market in size in the current geopolitical climate?”
President Trump has a deadline of May 12 to decide on waiving Iran sanctions, though whether he plans to reimpose penalties is too close to call, according to a Bloomberg survey of oil-market analysts last week. On Friday, he said the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- which is near its goal of draining a global oil glut -- is “artificially” propping up oil prices, though renewed sanctions on Iran would also likely push futures higher.
U.S. air strikes in Syria, where Russia is backing government forces in a civil war, and sanctions against Russian entities have added to geopolitical tensions. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to fend off missile attacks from pro-Iranian rebels in neighboring Yemen. Amid the flash points, oil market volatility has been on the rise, with a measure of expected price fluctuations hitting a seven-month high last week.
Still, with Brent above $70 a barrel and put options at their cheapest relative to calls since 2014, there remains a risk that heavy levels of hedging will hinder significant flat-price increases. Petroleo Brasileiro SA said last month it had locked in 20 percent of its output for 2018. The Mexican government also hedges its oil output each year.
“To cap Brent, we need to see large-volume, sovereign-type producer selling,” Remoundos said.
For the time being, Brent $80 calls vastly outstrip the next most-held options contracts for the following 12 months, which are $70 calls. There are about 53,000 more contracts at $80 than $70.
“Sizable open interest around the $80 strike calls on both the front and back months implies more upside” for prices, said Gareth Ryan, managing director of IUR Capital LLC in London.