November crude oil futures moved up on Monday, after commodities traders began to see a deal in the works over oil production limits this week.
Crude oil futures for November rose 3.3%, to $46 per barrel in the first trading session of the week, before a key OPEC meeting in Algeria on September 28, which will include non-OPEC Russia.
Oil traders are betting on a deal that would cap production, one that could hinge on two polarized, but key, Middle Eastern oil producers - Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two oil-producing powerhouses can't seem to agree on any production level cuts. Earlier in 2016, Saudi Arabia indicated it would cut production -- but only if Iran agreed to curb its own production to 3.6 million barrels per day. Iran said it was unlikely it would comply, as President Hassan Rouhani has said the country would stick to its minimal production levels of four million barrels per day.
That sentiment hasn't changed by either side, but the Algerian meeting, described as "informal" by participants, does represent a solid chance to find common ground on oil production limits, even if that does come in a roundabout way.
"The informal gathering was proposed as a move to having an extraordinary meeting with the aim of taking decisions to stabilize the market," notes Mohammed Barkindo, OPEC Secretary General. Futures traders are apparently taking the "extraordinary" comment as a sign that, if progress is made early in the Algerian talks, oil producers might agree to extend the meeting, in hopes of reading a deal on oil production caps.
"The trading picture is mixed headed into the meetings, given headlines last Friday from the Saudis stating not to expect a formal deal," states Chris Kettenmann, chief energy strategist at Macro Risk Advisors. "However, we believe the near-term tail risk is to the upside as member countries discuss coordinated efforts to manage output in today's oversupplied markets."
Kettenmann says the risk of positive OPEC headlines flowing from Algiers talks will be enough to drive near-term short covering, a situation where "we do not want to be caught offside."
"We would look at cheap October call options in USO or XOP to hedge cash short positions in the energy sector," he says.
Overall, Macro Risk Advisors remains "bearish" on oil prices and continues to see very few policy methods that will provide long-term structural support to the oil price.
"The range of oil policy options being discussed this week include a broad OPEC member output freeze and a tangential deal between the Saudis and Iran, where Saudi's will cut production up to one million barrels per day, should Iran freeze output at August levels," Kettenmann adds. "However, with peripheral OPEC members such as Libya ramping production and targeting pre-Qaddafi-era production levels, we see few possible outcomes short of a material Saudi production to sustainably support current futures prices."
Consequently, the biggest risk to the oil market is Saudi Arabia physically cutting production and oil prices not going up, Kettenmann concludes. "The Saudis have this key move left in their playbook," he states. "Should a production cut prove ineffective, it will likely confirm demand issues embedded in global oil markets and prices are likely to stay lower for much longer. We continue to forecast a $39-$45 per-barrel price range through 2018."
Any potential production deal at the OPEC meeting may not amount to much, anyway, other industry experts say - not if non-OPEC countries keep upping production.
"We don't think it's very likely that OPEC will actually push for a freeze on oil output at its informal meeting in Algeria this week, but it's wise to be prepared for the possibility," says Ed Baddour, president of Argo Consulting. "Several non-OPEC countries, including the U.S., Russia, Kazakhstan, Norway and Great Britain - have announced they will increase output, which would offset an OPEC freeze. That means that an immediate balance of the oil market is unlikely at this point."
Even if an OPEC deal was sealed, any freeze on oil output would likely not produce long-term effects, Baddour says.
"There might be a short-term stabilization of the market for several months or so before the next imbalance hits," he says. "The oil market is very volatile. What we know for certain is that there are ups and downs, but we don't know when exactly they will happen."
"At this point, I expect prices to stay at the current level for quite some time - with some minor fluctuations - but it would be a while before they might return to previous high levels, if ever," Baddour adds.