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Surging Physical Oil Market Brings $100 Crude Back in Sight

Surging Physical Oil Market Brings $100 Crude Back in Sight
Chimneys at the TotalEnergies SE Grandpuits oil refinery in Grandpuits-Bailly-Carrois,, France, on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. European Union states are coalescing around a plan to cap the price of Russian crude oil at $60 a barrel, their latest attempt to clinch an agreement before a Monday deadline, according to people familiar with the matter.

As crude futures leap higher, traders and analysts are increasingly talking about when — not if — prices return to $100 a barrel.

Across the world, premiums for physical barrels are surging. Supplies from the Middle East, Azerbaijan and even Russia are commanding premiums as refiners clamber to make enough diesel ahead of a seasonal ramp up in demand.

Bullish analysts argue that even with crude now in the mid-$90s, many funds remain underinvested in oil, creating the potential for higher prices yet to come. Chevron Corp. Chief Executive Officer Mike Wirth sees oil reaching $100 a barrel, he said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.

Benchmark Brent has risen more than 30% since its nadir in March. Production cuts by Saudi Arabia and Russia have steadily tightened supplies at a time when consumption has surged to a record. That’s eating into stockpiles and forcing refiners to snap up barrels to make enough of the right type of fuels.

“Fundamentals are very, very strong right now,” Amrita Sen, head of research at consultant Energy Aspects, said on Bloomberg Television. “At this point it’s a short-term thing. I’m not saying it’s going to average above $100, but could it go to $100 for a bit? Absolutely yes.”

Crude Oil's March Higher | Futures were last above $100 in August last year

The strength is being led by the physical markets. One of the clearest examples is Azerbaijan’s flagship Azeri Light crude, which was trading close to $100 a barrel Friday as strong profits for turning crude into diesel mean processors are paying bumper premiums for grades that produce a lot of the fuel.

Those same margins also see once-maligned Russian barrels trading above their benchmark in Asia again, traders said. They were at a discount for much of the time after the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

The strength shows up in the shape of the oil futures curve, too. On Monday, the nearest Brent futures contract was at a premium of more than $1 a barrel to the next month. The structure, known as backwardation and indicating scarce supply, was the biggest since November, excluding expiry days.

It’s against that backdrop that even some of the market’s most bearish analysts are starting to concede that $100 looks more likely, particularly given longstanding political risks in producers such as Libya and Nigeria.

Geopolitics, alongside technical trading, “could push oil over $100 for a short while,” Citigroup Inc. analysts, including Ed Morse, wrote Monday. “However, we continue to see progressive loosening on the horizon.”

Part of that decline, Citi argues, will be driven by a growth in supply from outside the OPEC+ alliance. It cites countries  — including the US, Guyana and Brazil — that can all add barrels to the market in coming months and derail the current tightness.

For now, though, revenue in producing nations is surging. On Friday, Murban oil from the United Arab Emirates was trading at the strongest level since February and rose further on Monday. Barrels from Qatar to West Africa also are soaring, and Saudi Arabia’s flagship grade is near $100.

Those spikes are shifting the focus to demand and the impact on consuming nations. The Reserve Bank of India said Monday that crude oil above $90 a barrel poses a new risk to global financial stability.

While Brent is yet to hit triple digits this year, refined fuels such as gasoline and diesel have been trading above that level for months.

“We are highly likely to see Dated Brent moving above $100 a barrel,” said Bjarne Schieldrop chief commodities analyst at SEB AB. “But oil product demand is likely to hurt more if Brent crude rises to $110-$120 a barrel, and such a price level looks excessive.”

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