Crude Reality

With war between Iran and the US no longer in the offing, the global peak of oil price hype has passed

As tensions between Iran and the US have subsided somewhat, it may be time to revisit the crude oil market that monopolized so many headlines in recent weeks. While we rejected outright the claim that $100-a-barrel oil was around the corner, the geopolitical risk pushed oil briefly up to the mid-70s per barrel. Things have cooled down and in our view may cool down further.

Even at the height of the Iran news, oil was showing technical signs of fatigue in its advance. This was confirmed by a retrenchment, not only in the price of oil, but of other commodities closely linked to oil such as copper and silver, which have dropped by nearly 25%.

This exhaustion of the oil and commodity trend demonstrates first, that oil speculators had gotten ahead of themselves, and second, that the global economy is slowing down.

Passing the oil debate peak

At the peak of the oil debate, speculators had rushed into the crude oil market. Most of the hedge funds involved were unequivocally positive on the black gold, a reliable sign of an imminent pullback.

There have also been signs of slowing in the two main engines of world growth: the US housing market and China and other emerging markets. The big drop in emerging markets clearly showed that their breakneck momentum had waned, and the correspondingly high levels of demand for oil were soon to fade. As the world economy slows down, oil will continue to correct downward.

It is also estimated that about $5 to $7 of the current oil price comes from a geopolitical risk premium. Since a full-blown conflict involving Iran no longer appears likely, thanks to that country’s new readiness to talk, this premium will probably be wiped out in fairly short order.

Checking the charts

As a technical analyst, I view charts as my guide. Let’s look at the chart of oil to get a feel for where things have been and where they may be heading.

Since 2003, oil has been in an upwardly sloping channel that contained prices in an almost textbook manner. Intensified demand pressures and political issues led to two attempts to break the upper boundary of the channel as the mainstream media speculated about $100-a-barrel oil. These two attemps failed, resulting in what is termed “false breaks,” and oil has resumed its orderly upward course.

The latest attempt on the chart to run away to the upside featured excessive positive sentiment (nearly 94% of market players saw nothing but upside), demonstrating just how crowded the oil trade was. Again, the market returned to the channel, and the technical view is that oil should be poised for more losses, down toward the $55-a-barrel area.

This is still a much higher price than the oil market saw throughout the last decade, so energy issues will remain on the forefront of the global debate. But a cooling-off in oil prices is welcome news, especially for struggling economies such as ours! This is not the time to bet against oil, since the overall trend is still up. But it does seem that predictions of oil-based Armageddon were at the very least premature.

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