Postmortem of the Infamous Day WTI Crude Oil Futures Went to Heck in a Straight Line

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by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:

The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) dissects the historic event.

“It’s not often that we’re served up a WTF moment like this,” I wrote on April 20, when the May contract for crude-oil benchmark-grade West Texas Intermediate (WTI) plunged to minus -$37.63 in a straight line, thus violating the WOLF STREET beer-mug dictum that “Nothing Goes to Heck in a Straight Line.” It was the first time in history that a US crude oil futures contract plunged into the negative. The peculiar dynamics that came together and caused this are expected to continue and some of them are expected to get worse over the next month or two. So here is the postmortem of this infamous day, by the US Energy Information Agency (EIA).

By the Energy Information Agency:

WTI crude oil futures prices fell below zero because of low liquidity and limited available storage.

On Monday, April 20, 2020, New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil front-month futures prices fell below zero dollars per barrel (b)—at one point, trading at -$40.32/b (Figure 1)—and remained below zero for part of the following trading day. Monday marked the first time the price for the WTI futures contract fell below zero since trading began in 1983.

Negative prices in commodity markets are very rare, but when they occur they typically indicate high transactions costs and significant infrastructure constraints.

In this case, the WTI front-month futures contract was for May 2020 delivery, and the contract was set to expire on April 21, 2020. Market participants that hold WTI futures contracts to expiration must take physical delivery of WTI crude oil in Cushing, Oklahoma.

Typically, most market participants close any futures contracts ahead of expiration through cash settlement in order to avoid taking physical delivery, and only about 1% of contracts are physically settled. The extreme market events of April 20 and April 21 were driven by several factors, including the inability of contract holders to find other market participants to sell the futures contracts. In addition, in this case, the scarcity of available crude oil storage meant several market participants could not take physical delivery at expiration and resorted to selling their futures contracts at negative prices, in effect paying a counterparty to take hold of the contracts.

Crude oil and other commodities are traded on futures markets, which are financial exchanges that market participants use to manage risk in a variety of businesses, including but not limited to, upstream crude oil production, refining, shipping, and wealth management. Because they can be delivered physically, prices for WTI futures contracts, for the most part, converge with spot market prices after expiration.

The spot market reflects cash transactions for physical buying and selling of the underlying commodity. For more information on the interaction between physical commodity markets and financial markets, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) provides explanations and updated material on its web page What Drives Crude Oil Prices?

The terms and conditions contained in the settlement procedures of the May 2020 WTI contract as stipulated by CME Group—which owns and operates the NYMEX on which the contract is traded—are key to understanding the recent price activity.

On expiration, the holder of a WTI contract has two options to meet the contract’s physical delivery requirement:

First, up until 2:00 p.m. on the business day following the expiration date, a contract holder can settle the position by entering into an Exchange for Physical (EFP) contract with a counterparty, which transfers the contract to a counterparty in exchange for cash or other futures contracts with later expirations.

Second, settlement can also occur if a contract holder takes physical delivery of the crude oil. As per the NYMEX contract’s specifications, delivery of the physical crude oil volumes must occur at a pipeline or storage facility in Cushing, Oklahoma, with pipeline access to Enterprise Product Partner’s crude oil terminal or Enbridge Inc.’s crude oil terminal. This delivery must also occur within a specific time, which is currently set no earlier than the first calendar day of the contract month and no later than the month’s last calendar day.

Under normal conditions, taking delivery of crude oil at Cushing is straightforward. Buyers can have the oil transferred into a storage facility or pipeline that they own or lease. Or, with the seller’s consent, they can transfer ownership of the crude oil somewhere else in the pipeline and storage system.

Normal physical settlement has been disrupted, however, by the recent decline in the availability of uncommitted crude oil storage capacity. Because of the impact of the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on economic activity and the consumption of petroleum products, U.S. consumption of crude oil and petroleum products has sharply declined. As of the week ending April 17, U.S. refinery runs fell to 12.8 million barrels per day (b/d), 4.1 million b/d (24%) lower than the same time last year.

As a result of this extreme demand shock, excess imported and domestically-produced crude oil volumes have been placed into storage. Crude oil storage facilities at Cushing have 76 million barrels of working storage capacity, of which 60 million barrels (76% after accounting for pipeline fill and stocks in transit) were filled as of April 17 (Figure 2). Although Cushing has physically unfilled storage available, some of this physically unfilled storage is likely to have already been leased or otherwise committed, limiting the uncommitted storage available for contract holders without pre-existing arrangements. In this case, these contract holders would likely have to pay much higher rates to storage operators that have uncommitted space available.

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