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Oil’s Contango, and How It Could Impact Traders and Investors

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Contango and oil prices

On April 25, 2017, June 2017 crude oil (DBO) (OIIL) (USL) futures were trading at a discount of $1.53 to June 2018 futures contracts. The situation, which is referred to as “contango” in the crude oil futures market, is represented by an upward sloping shape on the futures forward curve.

This structure indicates that there’s market sentiment toward weak crude oil demand right now. Historically, periods of weak crude oil prices have coincided with this contango structure. The crude oil forward curve switched to a contango structure in November 2014. Since then, crude oil active futures have fallen ~37.1%.

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Backwardation and oil prices

On the other hand, when there’s immediate demand for crude oil, active crude oil futures trade at higher prices than the futures contracts for the months ahead. This causes the crude oil futures forward curve to slope downward, and such a situation in the crude oil futures market is referred to as “backwardation.”

Historically, periods of strong crude oil prices have coincided with a backwardation structure. Crude oil (SCO) (UCO) (DWTI) active futures closed at a historic high of $145.29 per barrel on July 3, 2008, after an almost one-year period of backwardation in the oil market.

Active crude oil futures traded at a premium of $9.77 to futures contracts 12 months ahead at their peak on November 2, 2007. As the forward curve switched to contango over the course of the following year—with active futures hitting a discount of $24.45 to futures contracts 12 months ahead in January 2009—crude oil prices fell 75.6%.

For this reason, the shape of and changes in the futures forward curve in the oil market could be hinting at coming changes in oil prices.

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Crude oil forward curve dynamics

After OPEC’s (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) historic deal in November 2016, the contango structure in the oil market started to flatten. On February 23, 2017, WTI (West Texas Intermediate) crude oil active futures were at their highest levels since July 6, 2015.

Due to rising US oil production and record oil inventory levels, the spread again started to widen on February 23, 2017. Since then, crude oil has fallen ~9%. In the past week, crude oil prices have fallen 6.2% as the spread rose from $1.15 to $1.53. The rise in the contango spread could point to rising concerns about crude oil’s demand-supply imbalance. It could also mean that the market sees lower prices coming in the spot crude oil market.

The crude oil forward curve’s dynamics can also have implications on oil storage MLPs (master limited partnerships) (AMLP). The dynamics can meanwhile impact upstream oil producers’ (XOP) hedging decisions, and the curve’s dynamics also have important implications for the performance of commodity tracking ETFs such as the United States Oil ETF (USO).

Due to the current contango structure in the oil market, USO has underperformed crude oil prices. However, that could change if the oil market switches to backwardation.

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