Oil at $120 Becomes Biggest Energy Bet as Futures Leave Forecasters Behind

The biggest bet in the oil market has become a 20 percent increase to $120 by the end of the year as global growth drives demand for raw materials.

The number of contracts held by traders in options to buy West Texas Intermediate crude at $120 a barrel in December totaled 45,502 lots on the New York Mercantile Exchange as of July 21, 4,226 lots more than the next-highest wager, which is for $125. Open interest in the two contracts jumped 29 percent in the past four weeks, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Traders anticipate this year’s gains will exceed forecasts of the most accurate strategists as economic expansion in emerging markets outweighs the debt crisis in Europe, slowing U.S. growth and efforts by Saudi Arabia and the International Energy Agency to curb prices. Bullish bets mark a turnaround from April, when $80 a barrel was the favorite wager and futures fell as much as 22 percent in the next two months.

“We’re in a sweet spot,” said Gordon Kwan, the Hong Kong- based head of regional energy research at Mirae Asset Securities Ltd. and the most accurate forecaster for New York oil among 26 analysts ranked by Bloomberg in the past eight quarters. “Oil prices are well supported,” he said in a July 20 interview. “It’s very profitable for the energy sector but not high enough to kill any economic growth.”

Oil for September delivery fell 67 cents, or 0.7 percent, to settle at $99.20 today on the Nymex. That follows four straight weekly advances and a 26 percent jump in the past year. Futures are 33 percent below the record $147.27 a barrel reached in July 2008. Prices have averaged $98.37 so far in 2011.

Oil Estimate

The median estimate of the five most accurate forecasters in Bloomberg rankings over the eight quarters through June 30 is for crude to rise 2.5 percent to $101.30 by year’s end. Kwan predicts WTI will trade from $90 to $110 the rest of 2011.

WTI has climbed 8.4 percent in 2011 as armed conflict in Libya halted about 1.6 million barrels a day of production, compared with the 11 percent gain for the Standard & Poor’s GSCI Total Return Index of 24 raw materials. The S&P 500 Index (SPX) has advanced 7 percent. Government bonds have returned 1.7 percent, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Global Sovereign Broad Market Plus Index.

Oil demand will rise to a record next year, driven by China, according to the IEA. The Paris-based adviser to 28 industrialized nations said last week it won’t provide more oil from its stockpiles, after announcing June 23 it would release supplies to help compensate for lost Libyan production.

Emergency Stocks

“Options markets are clearly projecting a larger probability of a rise in oil from now out to December than was the case at the end of June, when the IEA emergency stocks release was expected to damp upward price pressures,” Christin Tuxen, a senior analyst at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen who was second in the Bloomberg rankings, said in a July 20 interview.

Open interest in December $120 calls, bets that prices will rise above that level, was 14 percent higher than for $80 put options, wagers that prices would fall. One options contract covers 1,000 barrels of oil. The total of calls has outnumbered puts in Nymex trading since June 2010.

“This is the best way to see what commodity funds are doing,” James Cordier, who manages more than $100 million at OptionSellers.com in Tampa, Florida, said in a July 22 interview. “When you see the volume and open interest change from the $80 puts to the $120 calls, normally you see sentiment in the futures market shift right after that, and we have rallied dramatically.”

Two-Year High

Oil futures surged 37 percent from mid-February to a two- year intraday high of $114.83 on May 2 following the rebellion against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, revolts that overthrew governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and protests in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. As concern deepened in April that Greece, Spain and Portugal would default, open interest surged in $80 put options. Futures tumbled 22 percent.

Slower U.S. growth, Europe’s debt crisis and Chinese efforts to slow expansion and curb inflation may cause prices to average less than $90 in the fourth quarter as Saudi Arabia boosts production, according to analysts at Citi Global Markets and Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Every 10 percent gain in oil prices will reduce global economic growth by about 0.25 percentage point if sustained for a year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Slowing Growth

The U.S., the world’s largest consumer, probably expanded 1.8 percent in the second quarter, the slowest pace in a year, according to the median forecast of 69 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News.

Global gross domestic product will probably grow 4.3 percent in 2011, according to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook released June 17, down from an April forecast of 4.4 percent.

“Oil demand growth seems to have returned to its traditional relationship to global GDP growth, and the down revisions to expected economic expansion seem to be resulting in downward expectations of petroleum demand growth,” Edward Morse and Aakash Doshi at Citi Global Markets in New York said in a July 14 note to clients. They estimate Nymex crude will average $82 in the fourth quarter.

China, which has been driving global fuel consumption, has boosted lending rates five times since October as inflation rose to a 6.4 percent annual rate in June.

$88 Target

Nymex futures will average $88 in the fourth quarter amid the increase in Saudi Arabian output, Francisco Blanch at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York forecast last week. The nation’s production jumped 0.8 percent in May, figures from the Joint Organization Data Initiative showed this week.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter, announced the increase June 8 after failing to get other OPEC members to endorse a plan to boost output. The kingdom produced 9.21 million barrels a day in June, the highest level since October 2008, according to Bloomberg estimates.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ benchmark price, known as the OPEC basket, has traded above $100 a barrel since Feb. 21, its longest-ever run in triple digits. The price is calculated on the basis of one crude grade from each of the group’s 12 members.

Open interest in options contracts show aggregate calls outnumbered puts by 1.81 million to 1.72 million as of July 20. When the ratio increased in January, prices hit a two-year high.

Emergency Reserves

The IEA said July 21 that it won’t release more from emergency reserves because OPEC will “substantially cover” the loss of Libyan exports. OPEC output rose to 29.6 million barrels a day last month, a 1.8 percent increase from May, the group said July 12 in its monthly report. The 11 members bound by quotas produced 26.9 million barrels, the most since 2008.

The IEA estimates consumption will be a record 91 million barrels a day in 2012, driven by growth in China, India and the Middle East. Members will boost supplies if needed, it said.

Even after efforts to cool growth, China’s GDP rose 9.5 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics said July 13 in Beijing. Oil use in the world’s fastest-growing consumer will jump 6.9 percent this year and 4.9 percent in 2012, according to a forecast in the IEA’s monthly Oil Market report on July 13.

“The indicators that we’ve had in the last few weeks from China show that growth in those emerging Asian economies continues to be stable and we don’t, at least in the near term, see any big risks that are likely to evolve on the down side,” said Ben Westmore, a minerals and energy economist at National Australia Bank Ltd. in Melbourne.

Westmore’s Forecast

Westmore’s fourth-quarter price forecast of $116 “lines up reasonably well with where the options market is at the moment,” he said. His forecast was the highest among the five top analysts. He was fifth after Mirae’s Kwan, Danske Bank’s Tuxen, Helen Henton at Standard Chartered Bank in London and Michael Wittner at Societe General SA in New York. Henton had the lowest forecast at $95 a barrel.

Global demand will exceed supplies in 2011 and 2012 because of emerging markets, according to the July 12 Short-Term Energy Outlook by the U.S. Energy Department. The so-called stock draw is forecast to begin in the third quarter of this year and average 460,000 barrels in 2011 and 360,000 barrels in 2012.

“Anything close to a consensus fundamental forecast for the second half of this year is still showing big stock draws, even with the IEA release,” said Wittner, who forecasts prices will average $101.30 in the fourth quarter. “The macro issues may weigh on markets, but the bottom line is the fundamentals are still constructive.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Margot Habiby in Dallas at mhabiby@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dan Stets at dstets@bloomberg.net.

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