Irrational Oil Optimists About To Experience Some Panic Selling Pain

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Includes: BNO, DBO, DNO, DTO, DWTI, OIL, OLEM, OLO, SCO, SZO, UCO, USL, USO, UWTI
by: Gary Bourgeault

Summary

Short-term positions in oil getting more risky.

U.S. production will outperform estimates as shale producers add supply to the market.

Inventory will come under more strain as key U.S. storage facilities approach full capacity.

Dollar weakness isn't enough to maintain oil price momentum.

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source: Stock Photo

The longer the price of oil has upward momentum, and the higher it goes, the more risky it becomes for investors because there is nothing outside of a weakening U.S. dollar to justify any kind of move we've seen the price of oil make recently.

The falling dollar isn't enough to keep the oil price from falling to where it belongs, and that means when the selloff begins, it's likely to gravitate into full-panic mode, with sellers running for the exits before they get burned.

This is especially risky for those looking to make a quick windfall from the upward movement of oil. I'm not concerned about those taking long-term positions in quality energy companies with significant oil exposure, since they've probably enjoyed some great entry points. There is, of course, dividend risk, along with the strong probability of further share erosion before there is a real recovery that has legs to stand on because it's based on fundamentals.

For that reason, investors should seriously consider taking profits off the table and wait for better conditions to re-enter.

Oil has become a fear play. Not the fear of losing money, but the fear of not getting in on the fast-moving action associated with the quick-rising price of oil. Whenever there is a fear play, it is ruled by emotion, and no amount of data will convince investors to abandon their giddy profits until they lose much, if not all, of what they gained. Don't be one of them.

Having been a financial adviser in the past, I know what a lot of people are thinking at this time in response to what I just said. I've heard it many times before. It usually goes something like this: "What if the price of oil continues to rise and I lose a lot of money because of leaving the market too soon?" That's a question arising from a fear mentality. The better question is this: "What if the oil price plunges and panic selling sets in?"

Oil is quickly becoming a casino play on the upside, and the longer investors stay in, the higher the probability they'll lose the gains they've enjoyed. Worse, too much optimism could result in losses if preventative action isn't taken quickly enough.

What needs to be considered is why one should stay in this market. What is so convincing it warrants this type of increasing risk, which offers much less in the way of reward than even a week ago? What fundamentals are in place that suggest a sustainable upward movement in the price of oil? The answer to those questions will determine how oil investors fare in the near future.

U.S. shale production

The more I think on the estimates associated with U.S. shale production in 2016, measured against the statements made by stronger producers that they're going to boost supply from premium wells this year, the more I'm convinced it isn't going to fall as much as expected. New supply will offset a lot of the less productive and higher cost wells being shuttered. I do believe there will be some loss of production from that, but not as much as is being suggested.

There are various predictions on how much production is going to be lost, but the general consensus is from 300,000 bpd to 600,000 bpd. It could come in on the lower side of that estimate, but I don't think it'll be close to the upper end of the estimate.

What is unknown because we don't have an historical guideline to go by is, the amount of oil these premium wells will add to supply. We also don't know if the stated goals will be followed up on. I think they will, but we won't know for certain until the next couple of earnings reports give a clearer picture.

When combined with the added supply coming from Iran, and the ongoing high levels of production from Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iraq, I don't see how the current support for the price of oil can continue on for any length of time.

There is no way of knowing exactly when the price of oil will once again collapse, but the longer it stays high without a change in the fundamentals, the higher the risk becomes, and the more chance it could swing the other way on momentum, even if it isn't warranted. It could easily test the $30 mark again under those conditions.

Inventory challenges

What many investors don't understand about storage and inventory is it definitely matters where the challenges are located. That's why Cushing being over 90 percent capacity and Gulf storage only a little under 90 percent capacity means more than if other facilities were under similar pressure. Together, they account for over 60 percent of U.S. storage.

With the imbalance of supply and demand driving storage capacity levels, the idea of oil staying above $40 per barrel for any period of time is highly unlikely. A lower U.S. dollar and the highly irrelevant proposed production freeze talks can't balance it off.

Once the market digests this, which could happen at any time, we'll quickly enter bear mode again. The problem is the price of oil is straining against its upper limits, and if momentum starts to deflate, the race to sell positions will become a sprint and not a marathon.

Uncertainty about shale is the wild card

As already mentioned, U.S. shale production continues to be the major catalyst to watch. The problem is we have no way of knowing what has already been unfolding in the first quarter. If investors start to abandon their positions, and we find shale supply is stronger than projected, it'll put further downward pressure on oil after it has already corrected.

What I mean by that is we should experience some fleeing from oil before the next earnings reports from shale producers are released. If the industry continues to surprise on the upside of supply, it'll cause the price of oil to further deteriorate, making the outlook over the next couple of months potentially ominous.

This isn't just something that has a small chance of happening; it's something that has a very strong probability of happening. Agencies like IEA have already upwardly revised their outlook for shale supply in 2016, and if that's how it plays out, the entire expected performance for the year will have to be adjusted.

Conclusion

Taking into account the more important variables surrounding what will move the price of oil, shale production remains the most important information to follow. Not much else will matter if supply continues to exceed expectations. It will obliterate all the models and force analysts to admit this has little to do with prior supply cycles and everything to do with a complete market disruption. Many are still in denial of this. They'll learn the reality soon enough.

That doesn't mean there won't eventually be a time when demand finally catches up with supply, but within the parameters of this weak global economy and oil supply that continues to grow, it's going to take a lot longer to realize than many thought.

For several months, it has been understood that the market underestimated the expertise and efficiency of U.S. shale producers, and to this day they continue to do so. We will find out if that remains in play in the first half of 2016, and by then, whether it'll extend further into 2017.

As for how it will impact the price of oil now, if we start to have some panic selling before the earnings reports, and the earnings reports of the important shale producers exceed expectations on the supply side, with it being reflected in an increase in the overall output estimates for the year, it will put more downward pressure on oil.

The other scenario is oil lingers around $40 per barrel until the earnings reports come out. There will still be a decline in the price of oil, the level of which would depend on how much more supply shale producers brought to the market in the first quarter than expected.

My thought is we're going to experience a drop in the price of oil before earnings reports, which then could trigger a secondary exodus from investors in it for short-term gains.

For those having already generated some decent returns, it may be time to take it off the table. I don't see how the shrinking reward can justify the growing risk.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.