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January 21, 2021 4:00 PM, EST

Oil Slips With Global Viral Resurgence Highlighting Demand Risks

An oil pumping jack operates in an oilfield in Russia in November 2020.An oil pumping jack operates in an oilfield in Russia in November 2020. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)

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Oil ended a choppy session lower with worsening global coronavirus outbreaks accentuating concerns over a demand rebound.

Futures closed 0.3% lower in New York on Jan. 21. The U.S. dollar declined for a fourth straight session, boosting the appeal of commodities priced in the currency and providing support to prices that had fallen as much as 1.1% during the session. Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase & Co. cut demand estimates for China as lockdowns spread, and in the U.S., a vaccine supply shortage has led New York City to reschedule more than 20,000 appointments.

Still, U.S. benchmark crude’s nearest contract settled at a premium to the following month for the first time since May. Brent’s so-called prompt spread is also in a backwardation structure, indicating tighter supply.

“At these price levels, many people in the market are considering the downside risk,” said Bart Melek, head of global commodity strategy at TD Securities. “We continue to have concerns the oil market may have gone a little too high given where demand is likely to go” in the near term.

Nearest crude timespreads are in bullish backwardation structure.

Despite an uncertain short-term consumption outlook, crude is still trading near the highest level in almost a year as investors pile into commodities and global inventories are seen depleting as the year goes on. There’s been a boost to energy use from cold weather, while Saudi Arabia’s unilateral output cuts and a weak dollar have also buoyed the market.

“Long-term oriented investors have used setbacks to add exposure to assets [that] benefit in a post-COVID world,” said Giovanni Staunovo, an analyst at UBS Group AG. “Despite still rising cases and new mobility restrictions, petroleum inventories have kept falling, indicating that the oil market remains undersupplied.”

In the U.S., while the industry-funded American Petroleum Institute reported that crude, gasoline and distillate inventories rose last week, it also showed a decline in inventories of more than 4 million barrels at the nation’s largest storage hub at Cushing, Okla.

Meanwhile, the recovery in oil refining margins won’t likely persist, JBC Energy said in a note. While margins are still “barely workable,” crude runs worldwide have been trending above what would be needed to meet demand, according to the note.

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