U.S. Oil Falls Into Bear Market Amid Worries Over Supply Glut

By Timothy Puko, Neanda Salvaterra and Jenny W. Hsu Features Dow Jones Newswires

U.S. oil prices suffered another day of big losses, entering a bear market and setting new lows dating back to August as oversupply concerns continue to roil the market.

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Money managers are, yet again, pulling out from what had been a big bet that global exporters could ease oversupply through a historic agreement to cut output, analysts and a broker said. These types of big selloffs have become common in the oil markets since March. The market is now on pace for its eighth loss of more than 2% in just the past two months.

Rising production from the U.S. and Libya, and stubbornly high stockpiles are undermining predictions that cuts from other producers would send prices higher. Money managers had placed a record high number of bets that oil prices would rise even after they went beyond $50, but that has led to a strong momentum for prices to keep falling as those traders backtrack, analysts and a broker said.

"Bearish sentiment is pervasive in oil markets as bulls have been burned on several occasions this year and this has triggered an unwind," analysts at Citigroup Inc. said in a note.

U.S. crude for July delivery lost 97 cents, or 2.2%, to $43.23 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, trading at prices it hasn't settled below since Aug. 10. A settlement at $43.56 a barrel or lower put oil into a bear market, which means it has lost 20% or more since the recent high, a nearly one-year high on Feb. 23.

Many traders have been watching U.S. inventory levels, and that may be playing a role again Tuesday. With all the momentum pushing the market lower, even traders who believe output cuts are putting the market closer to a supply shortage aren't willing to place bets on that until after the U.S. government's influential weekly report on storage levels, due Wednesday morning, said Scott Shelton, broker at ICAP PLC.

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"Most of the bulls are waiting on statistics, and they're not going to stand in front of this thing until then," he said.

Analysts and traders surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expect crude stockpiles to fall by 2 million barrels, on average, in the week ended June 16. The U.S. Energy Information Administration report is scheduled for release at 10:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and big-producer allies did agree last month to extend an agreement through March that effectively holds back almost 2% of the global crude supply. But that didn't satisfy traders who think that may not be enough to end an oversupply that dates back to 2014, and prices have fallen 17% since OPEC announced the extension in late May.

The 14-nation cartel's aim is to draw down a glut of oil and raise prices, but oil in storage has remained at stubbornly high levels. OPEC's efforts are being undermined by its own members, some of whom have exemptions, and rising production in other countries, notably from shale-drillers in the U.S.

Inventories aren't on pace to fall into OPEC's target area any time in the next 18 months, Morgan Stanley analysts said in a note released Tuesday morning. Rising demand from drivers in the summer is likely to keep stockpiles falling through the end of this year, but it is enough to cut only a little more than half of a surplus currently in storage, compared with five-year-average levels, the bank said.

Its estimates show surging U.S. production and the eventual rebound of OPEC and Russian production will cause inventory levels to rise again starting in 2018. OPEC would need to extend its cuts through the end of 2018 or make deeper cuts to get inventories back down to historical averages, said the Morgan Stanley team, led by Martijn Rats.

"Recent data points are not encouraging," he said.

Libya, an OPEC member that was exempt from the supply cut, is ramping up its oil production and has almost achieved its short-term production goal of 900,000 barrels a day, said analysts for Commerzbank.

U.S. oil drillers continue to ramp up their production. The latest data from the oil-services firm Baker Hughes showed the rig count climbed by 6 to a 26-month peak of 747.

Identifiable oil inventories -- both oil and products in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, China and selected other non-OECD countries -- increased at a rate of around 1 million barrels a day in the first three months of 2017, according to Morgan Stanley.

Later on Tuesday, investors are looking forward to data from the American Petroleum Institute, which puts out estimates of crude supply and stocks.

Analysts surveyed by S&P Global Platts estimate U.S. oil inventories fell 2 million barrels last week, with gasoline supplies dropping 750,000. Stated inventories in the prior two weeks' government reports have been higher than analysts anticipated.

Write to Timothy Puko at tim.puko@wsj.com, Neanda Salvaterra at neanda.salvaterra@wsj.com and Jenny W. Hsu at jenny.hsu@wsj.com

U.S. oil prices tumbled into a bear market on Tuesday as the oversupply concerns that have roiled markets over the past few weeks put further pressure on investors.

Bets that global exporters could ease a supply glut through a historic agreement to cut output have been undermined as production has increased in the U.S., Libya and Nigeria. Global inventories of crude oil and oil products have remained high, compounding on worries that rebalancing the global oil market will be harder than previously thought.

Light, sweet crude for July delivery settled down 97 cents, or 2.2%, at $43.23 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, more than 20% below this year's high of $54.45 on Feb. 23. Brent, the global benchmark, settled down 89 cents, or 1.9%, to $46.02 a barrel.

Tuesday's close put oil in a bear market for the first time since August 2016, before the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other major oil-producing nations agreed to limit output by about 1.8 million barrels a day at the end of last year. In May, the group renewed the deal through March 2018.

The extended drop in oil prices is another worrying sign for OPEC, analysts said, which has struggled to put a dent in global inventories and keep oil prices supported.

"We're seeing this decline amid some major OPEC production restraints," said Jim Ritterbusch, president of energy-advisory firm Ritterbusch & Associates. "That's the huge difference" compared with previous bear markets.

U.S. companies have also ramped up shale production in response to higher prices this year, helping to offset impacts made by the OPEC cut, analysts said.

Traders have been watching U.S. inventory levels, which have added to the bearish sentiment in recent weeks. With momentum pushing the market lower, even traders who believe output cuts are putting the market closer to a supply shortage aren't willing to place bets on that until after the U.S. government's influential weekly report on storage levels, due Wednesday morning, said Scott Shelton, broker at ICAP PLC.

"Most of the bulls are waiting on statistics, and they're not going to stand in front of this thing until then," he said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration report is scheduled for release at 10:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday. Analysts and traders surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expect crude stockpiles to fall by 2 million barrels, on average, in the week ended June 16.

Even amid falling crude stockpiles in the U.S., oil prices have dropped as tepid stock draws have failed to impress investors. Tuesday's move marked oil's eighth loss of more than 2% in just the past two months.

"Barring a major draw that surprises people that's well over expectations, it's probably not going to provide much in the way of support," said John Saucer, vice president of research and analysis at Mobius Risk Group. "The market's definitely been very receptive to bearish news."

The American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, said late Tuesday that its own data for the week showed a 2.7-million-barrel decrease in crude supplies, a 346,000-barrel rise in gasoline stocks and a 1.8-million-barrel increase in distillate inventories, according to a market participant.

Gasoline futures fell 1.8% to $1.4240 a gallon and diesel futures lost 1.1% to $1.3949 a gallon.

Write to Stephanie Yang at stephanie.yang@wsj.com and Timothy Puko at tim.puko@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 20, 2017 17:03 ET (21:03 GMT)