Crude Oil Prices Recovering Lost Ground

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Since reaching a top of around $66 a barrel early this month, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil dipped nearly $7 a barrel before beginning a climb back out of that hole last week. On Monday morning, WTI for March delivery traded at just over $62 a barrel in electronic trading.

What’s changed is investors’ perceptions of how much risk they are willing to accept now that equity markets have stopped their plunge. Recent economic data likely means that the Federal Reserve will boost interest rates again next month, but most everyone expected that anyway.

What may have changed is how traders view the chances of additional interest rate hikes this year. New Fed Chair Jerome Powell is believed to be more hawkish on fighting inflation that his predecessor and may have been expected to raise rates at a faster clip. That expectation may have been weakened expectations for a quicker rate of interest rate hikes.

Tensions are rising again in the Middle East, especially along the border of Syria and Israel. Iranian and Syrian forces are reportedly being increased along the border and Israeli forces are responding. While neither Syria nor Israel plays much of a role in the oil business, history is littered with examples of how a threat to oil anywhere in the Middle East tends to drive up oil prices everywhere.

Finally, of course, there is the continued increase in U.S. production and the continuing rise in the number of new oil rigs being put back into the field. While this should work against rising prices — especially now that the United States is exporting more crude than ever — traders seem unconcerned about a production increase that is probably six months in the future.

That’s a function of the forward price curve. The current spot price for WTI is around $65 while the December price is around $62. Going out to the April 2019 contract, the price of a barrel falls below $61 a barrel.

One more influence on the price of crude is the strength of the U.S. dollar. Because oil market transactions are priced in dollars, a weaker dollar tends to raise the price while a strong dollar tends to lower it. The dollar has been weaker lately although it is posting a modest gain Monday morning.