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The Essex Boys: How Nine Traders Hit a Gusher With Negative Oil

Over the course of a few hours on April 20, a guy called Cuddles and eight of his pals from the freewheeling world of London’s commodities markets rode oil’s crash to a $660 million profit. 

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Illustration: Sophy Hollington for Bloomberg Businessweek

Among the many previously unthinkable moments of 2020, one of the strangest occurred on April 20, when the price of crude oil fell below zero. West Texas Intermediate futures, the most popular instrument used to trade the commodity, had started the day at $18 a barrel. That was already low, but prices kept tumbling until, at 2:08 p.m. New York time, they went negative.

Amazingly, that meant anyone selling oil had to pay someone else to take it off their hands. Then the crude market collapsed completely, falling almost $40 in 20 minutes, to close at –$38. It was the lowest price for oil in the 138-year history of the New York Mercantile Exchange—and in all likelihood the lowest price in the millennia since humans first began burning the stuff for heat and light.