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The price of oil dropped 13% on Friday (26/11/21), marking the commodities worst single day in 2021.

A drop in oil prices this large was last seen in January/February 2020, when WTI was making its way down to unprecedented negative per barrel territory. No one expects oil to veer this low again, but the comparison to 2020 is apt, with Coronavirus responsible for the commodity's downfall on both occasions.

price of oil

New Coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa

An effort to lower the price of oil had begun before the new Coronavirus strain, named the Omicron variant, appeared.

Led by the US, a strategic release of Oil reserves was being enacted or considered by members of the International Energy Alliance (IEA) in an attempt to lower the price of oil, which they saw as hampering their respective economic recoveries.

It has been claimed that the strategic release would have little effect on the oil price, as the quantity to be released is half of the world's daily consumption. Yet, oil has fallen from its 2021 highs of US ~$85 per barrel since the announcement.

In response, OPEC+ was said to be reconsidering its plan output increase to counter the strategic reserve release by the US and its IEA allies. The OPEC+ rumours helped plug some of the losses oil was experiencing, but not enough to stop consistent weekly losses in the commodity's price. By Friday, oil had rung up five weeks of straight price decreases.

Is the Omicron threat overshooting the fair price of oil?

The Omicron variant is possibly the worst coronavirus variant known, as reported by the BBC. However, uncertainty exists as to how vaccine resistant, virulent, and deadly the strain is compared to its predecessors. As such, countries quickly moved to restrict travel from South Africa, reminiscent of January/February 2020, when international travel came to a screeching halt, and the price of oil fell from US $63 per barrel to sub-zero.

Countries that have placed travel restrictions on South Africa (and other African nations) include the US, the UK, and Germany.

As of writing, WTI is trading at US $68.16 per barrel, as mentioned above, 13% lower than Thursday's price.

Two questions come to mind:

  1. Has the market reacted too severely to the threat posed by Omicron?
  2. Can the strategic release of oil by IEA nations now be halted or pared back?

Regarding the former, Goldman notes that Omicron should have only warranted a ~6.5% drop in the price of oil and that the commodity should quickly recoup some of Friday's dip.

Regarding the latter, it might not be too late to turn this tap off. IEA nations have pledged to release as much as 80 million barrels of oil, with 50 million of these barrels coming from the US. However, a genuine commitment from IEA members has yet to be agreed upon, with discussions still underway as of Friday.

Oil struggling to find momentum

For most of my investing life, I have been a part of the upwards bull run spanning nearly a decade. Growth stocks outperformed cyclical and value, interest rates were kept low, and oil was at favorable prices. However, this year I experienced two unprecedented events: The Pandemic and negative oil prices.

Brent Crude Oil

Both the pandemic and negative oil prices come hand in hand

Pandemic forced everyone in their houses, forcing a build up in oil inventories. So much so, that storage was filled to the brim, and oil producers were paying buyers (what a weird statement) to take their oil – hence, negative prices.

Since that historic day, oil prices have doubled, and Brent Crude has stabilized around the $40 - $45 range. However, it struggles to find momentum getting back to the glory days of $60 and $70 a barrel for oil.

If New Zealand is to be followed, higher prices for oil may be unlikely

We are all optimists at heart – no matter our opinion, we want things to be better than expected. Better than expected results for earnings means we get a boost in a stock price. Better than expected, Coronavirus vaccine results mean we can return to a life of normal quicker. However, in the words of Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, “Things will get worse before it gets better.”

Jacinda's statement was on the back of New Zealand recording more Community transmitted cases after 102 days of no community transmitted cases. Two things can be deduced from this:

Oil isn't just about supply

This is important because no matter how much suppliers restrict the supply of oil, there are two sides to the picture – the other side being demand. If New Zealand, after fully flattening the curve for 102 days, goes into another lockdown, can we assume that the rest of the world will follow a similar trajectory? Not to mention that countries like the United States and places like Victoria, Australia, have not been able to achieve what New Zealand has. Countries like Japan and Australia were initially praised for their low Coronavirus cases. However, they both have seen spikes due to community transmission.

That is a long-winded argument to back up the idea that Oil demand (and therefore oil prices) are inversely correlated to potential second lockdowns. And that may be the reason as to why we do not see oil push past $50 a barrel anytime soon.

Oil producers are hoping that that the Coronavirus doesn't force a second lockdown

The International Energy Association (IEA) reported they predict oil demand would average around 91.9 million barrels a day (BPD) in 2020. This is 8.1 Million barrels a day lower than the average of 100m BPD last year. Quick maths

That $15.4 Billion is assuming that oil prices stay at $45 and demand staying at an average of 91 Billion barrels a day this year. If a second lockdown occurs, we will see oil demand drop and the price of oil drop, causing a double blow to producers.

IEA noted that “Recent mobility data suggests the recovery has plateaued in many regions” and that the global oil supply was expected to be roughly steady in August. Assuming that demand is constant in August, we should see Brent Crude oil stay around the $45 mark. However, a second lockdown across the world as OPEC slowly increases its supply will lower oil prices.