US oil futures plunge below $0 as COVID-19 forces supply glut

Stephanie Kelly, Reuters

Posted at Apr 21 2020 07:07 AM | Updated as of Apr 21 2020 08:25 AM

A 3D-printed oil pump jack is seen in front of a displayed stock graph and "$0 Barrel" words in this illustration picture, April 20, 2020. Dado Ruvic, Reuters Illustration

NEW YORK - US crude oil futures collapsed below $0 on Monday for the first time in history, amid a coronavirus-induced supply glut, ending the day at a stunning minus $37.63 a barrel as desperate traders paid to get rid of oil.

Brent crude, the international benchmark, also slumped, but that contract was nowhere near as weak because more storage is available worldwide.

While US oil prices are trading in negative territory for the first time ever, it is unclear whether that will trickle down to consumers, who typically see lower oil prices translate into cheaper gasoline at the pump.

As billions of people around the globe stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, physical demand for crude has dried up, creating a global supply glut.

Traders fled from the expiring May US oil futures contract in a frenzy on Monday with no place to put the crude, but the June WTI contract settled at a much higher level of $20.43 a barrel.

"Normally this would be stimulative to the economy around the world," said John Kilduff, partner at hedge fund Again Capital LLC in New York. "It normally would be good for an extra 2 percent on the GDP. You're not seeing the savings because no one is spending on the fuels."

The May US WTI contract fell $55.90, or 306 percent, to settle at a discount of $37.63 a barrel after touching an all-time low of -$40.32 a barrel. Brent was down $2.51, or 9 percent, to settle at $25.57 a barrel.

"It's like trying to explain something that is unprecedented and seemingly unreal," said Louise Dickson, oil markets analyst at Rystad Energy. "Pricey shut-ins or even bankruptcies could now be cheaper for some operators, instead of paying tens of dollars to get rid of what they produce."

Refiners are processing much less crude than normal, so hundreds of millions of barrels have gushed into storage facilities worldwide. Traders have hired vessels just to anchor them and fill them with the excess oil. A record 160 million barrels is sitting in tankers around the world.

US crude stockpiles at Cushing rose 9 percent in the week to April 17, totaling around 61 million barrels, market analysts said, citing a Monday report from Genscape.

The spread between May and June at one point widened to $60.76, the widest in history for the two nearest monthly contracts.

Investors bailed out of the May contract ahead of expiry later on Monday because of lack of demand for the actual oil. When a futures contract expires, traders must decide whether to take delivery of the oil or roll their positions into another futures contract for a later month.

Usually this process is relatively uncomplicated, but this time there are very few counterparties that will buy from investors and take delivery of the oil. Storage is filling quickly at Cushing in Oklahoma, which is where the crude is delivered.

"The storage is too full for speculators to buy this contract, and the refiners are running at low levels because we haven't lifted stay-at-home orders in most states," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago. "There's not a lot of hope that things are going to change in 24 hours."

Prices have been pressured for weeks with the coronavirus outbreak hammering demand while Saudi Arabia and Russia fought a price war and pumped more. The two sides agreed more than a week ago to cut supply by 9.7 million barrels per day (bpd), but that will not quickly reduce the global glut.

Saudi Arabia is considering applying oil cuts as soon as possible, rather than starting from May, a Wall Street Journal reporter said on Twitter, citing sources.

Brent oil prices have collapsed around 60 percent since the start of the year, while US crude futures have fallen around 130 percent to levels well below break-even costs necessary for many shale drillers. This has led to drilling halts and drastic spending cuts.

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Weak global economic data also pressured prices. The German economy is in severe recession and recovery is unlikely to be quick as coronavirus-related restrictions could stay in place for an extended period, the Bundesbank said.

Japanese exports declined the most in nearly four years in March as US-bound shipments, including cars, fell at their fastest rate since 2011.

US oilfield services giant Halliburton Co on Monday reported a $1 billion first-quarter loss on charges and outlined the largest budget cut yet among top energy companies.