Defying forecasts, crude oil prices have wiped out most of this year’s gains and could head lower

Tom Kaye of Plymouth, Pennsylvania tops off his neighbor’s gas tank for them on at a gas station in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, U.S. October 19, 2022.

Aimee Dilger | Reuters

Oil prices are defying expectations and are barely higher on the year, as the outlook for oil demand continues to deteriorate for now.

West Texas Intermediate crude futures for January settled higher Monday at $77.24 per barrel, following a drop to $73.60 per barrel, the lowest price since last December. WTI was up 2.2% for the year, after briefly turning negative earlier Monday.

Gasoline prices at the pump have also been falling dramatically and could be cheaper than last year for many Americans by Christmas, according to an outlook from the Oil Price Information Service. On Monday, the national average was $3.546 per gallon of regular unleaded fuel, down from $3.662 a week ago but still higher than the $3.394 a year ago, according to AAA.

‘Macro headwinds rather than tailwinds’

China’s lockdowns and the rare protests against Beijing this weekend have raised more doubt about the outlook for the country’s already weakened economy.

“We think the recessionary [forces] around the world, particularly in the three largest economies, are dominating the macro environment for the year as a whole, and we think that the issues we’ve been identifying as relatively bumpy in the period ahead are going to remain,” said Ed Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup. “Right now, we are looking at macro headwinds rather than tailwinds.”

Morse was one of the more bearish strategists on Wall Street in 2022, but he said the latest market developments and the hit to major economies made even his forecast too bullish. He had revised his outlook higher at the end of the third quarter, based on the shift by OPEC+ to focus on prices and the pending ban of Russian crude by Europe.

The oil market has been focused on those two potential catalysts for higher prices, but the impact on demand from the slowdown in China and new lockdowns has outweighed concerns about supply for now. The European Union’s ban on purchases of seaborne Russian oil takes place Dec. 5. The EU is also expected to announce price caps for Russian crude.

OPEC+ is also a factor. The group includes OPEC, plus other producers, including Russia. The group surprised the market in October when it approved a production cut of 2 million barrels a day.

“We’re waiting to see if they signal even deeper cuts. There were rumors in the market about that happening,” said John Kilduff, partner with Again Capital. After dipping to the day’s lows, oil rebounded on Monday as speculation circulated about new OPEC+ cuts, he said.

Brent futures, the international benchmark, was lower Monday afternoon at $83.19 per barrel, recovering from $80.61 per barrel, the lowest price since January.

“Right now the target is below $60 [for WTI]. That’s what the chart is indicating… this is a new low for the move because previously the low for the year was late September and now we’ve broken that,” said Kilduff. “It all depends on what happens in China. China is as important on the demand side, as OPEC+ is on the supply side.”

weather pattern has also affected prices, with warmer weather in North America. He and other analysts say it could continue to impact the market.

“We keep getting cold outlooks, and then it falters. This is La Niña. You will get cold days, but then you get balmy stretches,” Kilduff said. He said concerns about winter heating fuel supplies have abated with a build in supplies in Europe.

The result for consumers could be a windfall at the pump during the holiday season. OPIS expects prices to keep falling into January before turning higher again.

“If you combine the Chinese demonstrations with the warm weather in the northern hemisphere, that’s kind of a double-barreled assault on the energy price at the moment,” said Tom Kloza, global energy analyst at OPIS. He said he expects gasoline to average between $3 and $3.25 per gallon at its low, but it will be below $3 in many parts of the country.

Kloza said by Christmas, the U.S. national average should be slightly below the $3.28 level it was at last year.

Diesel prices have also been falling. According to AAA, diesel averaged $5.215 per gallon nationally Monday, off by about 8 cents per gallon from a week ago.

“We’ve been counter-seasonally building distillate fuel supply so that’s been easing things. If the weather stays relatively benign here, we’re going to lose that upside catalyst and grind lower still,” said Again’s Kilduff.

–Michael Bloom contributed to this story.

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