How to deal with the volatility in the oil markets

Written by Frederic Grillet

These last few months we’ve seen oil prices bouncing up and down. Intraday movements between 5 and 10% were not uncommon. Current price levels, which are approximately 70% lower than their peak levels in june 2014 and are the lowest that we have seen in 10 years, seem to cause investors to overreact to every rumour in the market.

Brent front-month prices started January at a price level of 37.28 $/barrel and dropped 34% to 27,88 $/barrel on 20 January, only to rebound 25% by the end of the month. The main causes of the price surge were a vague statement by ECB-President Mario Draghi hinting on potential monetary measures to boost the EU economy and a rumour that OPEC & Russia were discussing a potential production cut.

Despite the fact that oil markets have always been quite susceptible to speculation, which amplifies any trend in financial markets, this volatility seems to edge on irrationality. The oil market has a structural problem of oversupply, with production having exceeded demand with 1 to 2 million barrels per day (depending on the source) over the past years. The US Energy Information Agency has indicated that it expects an average oversupply of 1.75 million barrels/day for the first half of 2016 as well, while crude inventories in the US are at record highs above 500 million barrels. An agreement amongst global oil producers, which is looking very difficult due to a variety of reasons, could of course address the issue from the supply side, but the demand outlook remains weak with major economies, including China, showing signs of a slowdown.

Although the downward trend in oil prices was strong in the past months and has reached historically low levels, the fundamental issues in the markets have not yet been resolved and no solution seems to be in the making for now. The very strong upward and downward movements despite the lack of changing fundamentals shows that price levels have entered a territory in which trends are mainly caused by speculators hedging their long and short positions.

Impact on other commodities

EU gas & electricity markets are generally shaped by a variety of factors, though for January, the trends showed that the main driver for prices were the oil prices. Markets in all countries have therefore seen a very rocky start of the year. The main question here from a procurement point of view is whether this volatility marks the start of a structural trend change after last year’s general downward trend and whether it is necessary to start taking bigger positions.

So when do you hedge?

Volatile times like these prove the value of the combination of market analysis and a strong purchasing strategy. The market analysis allows us to identify the opportunity moments, i.e. when markets start turning around. However, as the last months have shown, it is never a sure bet whether that is only a temporary or a fundamental turn of the trend. Hence the importance of spreading your hedging decisions and fix in small incremental amounts. In the end, how much you hedge and how far into the future should depend on your strategy. If your main risk is budget variability over the long term, than you can take large positions for many years into the future, although you should always do that in small incremental amounts. If your main risk is having an uncompetitive energy price, you should be much more prudent and make only small opportunistic fixings.

A long downward trend, as we have seen in the EU energy markets, tends to spark an urge to take bigger bets in the markets, e.g. by opting for fixed energy prices for years ahead, Although a bet can sometimes turn positive afterwards, it remains a bet and should have no place in a professional business. Therefore, although it would be a good idea to check whether the current movements in the markets make it necessary to take a position in your portfolio, it remains very important not to be seduced to overreact to an overreacting market.

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