Money managers who buy oil on the futures market are betting the price slide is near an end.
After contributing to the price dive for much of the summer and fall, the speculators are shifting ground. For the past two weeks, investors are taking more "long" positions in West Texas intermediate futures in the expectation that prices will soon rise, and fewer of them are "shorting" that market in a bet that WTI will continue to fall, according to the U.S. Commodity and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
OPEC secretary-general Abdallah el-Badri has insisted that the world does not face a major supply glut. At a weekend conference in Dubai, the head of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries blamed "speculation" for driving down prices after the cartel – led by Saudi Arabia – decided in late November not to reduce its official production quota.
But analysts said Tuesday that the traders have been leaning against the price weakness for the past two weeks by increasing what is known as the "net long position" in the market.
"The trade flows suggest it is not money managers selling this market; on balance, they are buying," said Timothy Evans, energy futures specialist at Citigroup Global Markets Inc. The speculative market "may not be enough to put a floor under prices. But it is not contributing to the fall."
Mr. Evans said the hedge funds and other money managers see less risk that prices will continue to fall, and more reward if they rebound. He added, however, that he expects the physical market will be oversupplied by 1.5 million barrels a day through the first half of 2015, and it could take a geopolitical crisis or OPEC reversal to ignite a major rally.
Prices fluctuated wildly on Tuesday after influential OPEC ministers said Monday the biggest producers in cartel are willing to wait out the plunge in prices until high-cost producers cut back on their investment and the market settles.
International Brent lost $1.31 (U.S.) to $59.75 a barrel, while North America's West Texas intermediate gained a few cents to $55.98 after falling as low as $53.60 during the day. Both benchmarks have fallen 25 per cent to five-year-lows since OPEC's November bombshell.
In the past two weeks, money managers have reduced their short positions on key future markets by 13,342 contracts, and increased their long contracts by 9,326, for a net increase in the long position of 23,708 contracts, according to the CFTC.
The change in sentiment "is essentially an early-warning sign that the bottom is near," said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economics Research Inc. of Winchester, Mass. "Of course, I thought the bottom was near two weeks ago."
But the speculative shift is hardly a huge bet on a quick recovery. When prices were peaking in June, the CTFC reported a record net long position of a staggering 813,566 contracts – the equivalent of 813 million barrels of crude. The money manager buying activity helped drive Brent to $115 a barrel after it had traded in a narrow range around $110 for the previous year, and boosted WTI to a peak of $107 a barrel.
At that point, the crisis in Ukraine and threat of sanctions against Russia had traders worried about loss of supply from the world's second-largest oil exporter, while incursions by the Islamic State militant group in northern Iraq added to geopolitical fears.
But as the crises abated somewhat and Libya began boosting its production in late spring, the market's focus shifted to surging U.S. production and slowing demand growth in China. Money managers largely unwound their long positions between June and the end of September, which accelerated the drop in prices through the summer.
Houston-based consultant Andrew Lipow said OPEC is merely looking to shift the responsibility for the market turmoil, just as the cartel members blamed speculators for the rapid run-up in prices in 2008, when booming Chinese demand and tight supplies drove crude to $147 a barrel.
"It's always easy to blame the speculators," Mr. Lipow said. "While there is no doubt in my mind that you have had companies or whoever coming into the oil market and selling it down, they were looking around and seeing an oil glut on the market and the reluctance of OPEC to do anything about it."