Too Much Oil: How a Barrel Came to Be Worth Less Than Nothing

The huge drop in prices on Monday was exaggerated by the way oil prices are set.

When traders sell oil they guarantee delivery at a future time. Normally the price differences between oil for next month and the following one are relatively minor. But on Monday oil to be delivered next month, or May, was essentially deemed worthless. Oil set for delivery in June also fell but not nearly as much — more reflective of the market’s view on the current value of crude.

Brent crude, the oil price benchmark outside the United States used by much of the world, whose May contract has already expired, fell about 5 percent to a little under $27 a barrel.

The disparities showed a market “undergoing extreme stress,” said Antoine Halff, a founding partner of Kayrros, a research firm. “It’s a sign of the very real imbalance between supply and demand.”

A little over a week ago, there was some optimism in the oil industry. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and other producers said they would cut 9.7 million barrels a day of production, or about 10 percent of global oil output, the largest cut ever. It was a grim acknowledgment that global demand had collapsed.

But that record cut will not be nearly enough. Analysts expect daily oil consumption to fall by as much as 29 million barrels in April, about three times the cuts pledged by OPEC and its allies, and May isn’t expected to be much different.

“It’s relatively impressive in terms of the overall number, but it’s not enough to tighten the market between now and the fourth quarter of 2020,” David Fyfe, chief economist at Argus Media, a commodities pricing firm, said about the cut by OPEC and its partners.

U.S. oil producers are also reducing production, but not rapidly enough. At the current pace, American production will decline to less than 11 million barrels a day by the end of the year, from 13.3 million barrels a day at the end of 2019.

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