Oil prices have sold off sharply over the past month. Despite a series of bullish events – the US airstrike targetting Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s retaliation attack on US troops in Iraq, the shutdown of almost the entire Libyan production and the US’ tightening the screws on Venezuela by sanctioning Rosneft and potentially refusing to renew waivers to US companies stating in April – oil prices are now substantially lower than before these events. Brent front month prices peaked at $72/bbl in early January and are now at below $50/bbl (See Exhibit 1).
Moreover, by mid-January, the geopolitical tensions and supply losses had pushed the Brent curve into severe backwardation. June-December 2020 time-spreads for example traded as high as $4.50/bbl just one month ago, reflecting prolonged physical tightness. Those time-spreads are now in contango (see Exhibit 2).
This massive change in sentiment happened as the Coronavirus situation in China unfolded. Importantly, while we do expect a significant impact on Chinese oil demand from the massive travel restrictions in China, that alone would not warrant such a move in the curve in our view. Instead, we think the recent moves in oil prices is reflecting expectations for a significant slowdown in global economic growth. In fact, we think the oil price move is now pricing in a significant probability for a global recession in 2020.
Commodity markets are the only markets which currently reflecting this view. Equity markets, despite the recent sell-off, do not. Importantly, we believe commodity markets are still underpricing the risks to aggregate demand. The question is not longer whether the economic impact from the Coronavirus outbreak will be short-lived or whether it will be more pronounced. The question is whether the economic impact will be pronounced or catastrophic. In our view, energy markets are currently pricing in a pronounced impact with substantial fiscal and monetary stimulus down the road. There is substantial downside risk if that view turns out to be too optimistic.
That said, in either case we expect central banks to return to the 2008 playbook soon. Nominal interest rates will only decline from here and we are likely going to see a reacceleration in quantitative easing. However, in the catastrophic scenario, we believe central banks will quickly realize that the tools they have been using since 2008 will not get them very far this time. Hence, we would expect central banks to become more creative, by deploying something like “helicopter money”. This is not far-fetched. Hong Kong announced a few days ago that it would give every adult citizen HK$10’000, around $1300, in order to combat the economic fallout Coronavirus-crisis. We believe this would push gold prices sharply higher medium term.