Oil prices fell again on Monday after last week’s rout following the Brexit vote, deepening the losses and killing off a multi-month oil price rally.
There is quite a bit of debate around how lasting the negative effects of the Brexit result will be for crude oil. On the one hand, there has been no change to the physical oil market. The global economy continues to hum along, albeit at an unimpressive pace. Billions of people continue to fuel up their cars, factories continue to operate. In other words, not much has changed.
Although the UK ranks as a top five global economy, a Brexit won’t materially affect the supply/demand balance for crude oil, even if a withdrawal from Europe turns out to be hugely negative for economic growth. Goldman Sachs looks at the numbers: “If we assume a 2 percent drop in UK GDP in response to the exit vote, which is on the high end of our economists’ estimates, then UK oil demand would likely be reduced by 1 percent or 16,000 barrels per day, which is a 0.016 percent hit to global demand. This is extremely small on any measure,” the investment bank wrote following the vote.
In that sense, the crash in oil prices seems unjustified. But the Brexit is much more significant for the financial and currency markets than it is for oil supply and demand. And these effects can be just as important for price movements of WTI and Brent.
The surprise exit from Europe sparked a global sell off when the voting results were announced, and while the markets regained some lost ground at the end of last week, stock indices opened up again on Monday with heavy losses. Financial instability tends to force oil prices down – at one point on Friday WTI and Brent were down by nearly 7 percent, although the two oil benchmarks retraced some of those losses. But as of midday trading on Monday, oil was down by more than 2 percent again.
Moreover, price movements are also largely dictated by the interaction between global currencies. Since oil is priced in U.S. dollars, any strengthening of the dollar relative to other currencies makes crude more expensive, cutting into demand and pushing prices down. The crash of the British pound over the past two trading days is having this effect. The pound is now down 10 percent from the pre-Bexit vote last week; the euro is down 3 percent. The U.S. dollar index, which measures the currency’s strength against a basket of six major currencies, is up. The dollar jumped by another 1 percent on Monday, to a three-month high.
It is no coincidence that oil prices plunged at the same time as the dollar surged. “We all got it wrong,” Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “This is strengthening the dollar, which is bad for commodities.”
British Pound plunged after Brexit vote. GBP:USD exchange rate
The big question is whether these financial and currency effects will persist, or if they will be momentary phenomena, after which oil traders will turn back to the fundamentals. The jury is still out on this question.
Several top commodities analysts are not so sure that the markets should ignore the Brexit. “We were calling for $44 oil in 2016 on average, now we expect it in the low $40s, roughly $41,” Michael D. Cohen, an analyst at Barclays Plc, told Bloomberg. The gloomier assessment continues into next year. “The 2017 forecast has been reduced by $3, from $60 to $57.”
Bank of America Merrill Lynch agrees. “A vote for Brexit is a vote against globalization, against the free mobility of people and goods,” Francisco Blanch, head of commodities research at BofA Merrill Lynch, told Bloomberg. “Any reversal in the growth of trade and mobility is bad for the commodities, except gold.”
But the events over the past few days are not all bad for oil. “On a positive note, the vote could delay producers’ investment plans, making them hesitant to bring back investment even with a bounce in prices, especially in the U.S.,” Morgan Stanley concluded in a research note, desperately looking for some reason to be optimistic.
Still, there are good reasons to think that even while the fallout from the Brexit could linger, especially because of the market uncertainty that it creates, the usual oil market factors are much more important for crude prices. “For near-term oil, we remain most concerned about product oversupply, China demand, the macro outlook, and the likely return of production,” Morgan Stanley concluded.
Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com