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Oil prices tumble as economies show signs of strain

By David Goldman, CNN Business

Oil prices may have met their match — for now, at least.

Crude futures are tumbling yet again, sinking nearly 3%. After nearing $140 a barrel in early March and topping $120 as recently as two weeks ago, Brent futures have fallen in nearly a straight line and now sit just a hair above $100. US oil hasn’t sniffed $100 a barrel for nearly a week.

What happened? The global economy is catching up to high prices, and investors are getting a case of the butterflies.

Shanghai and other Chinese cities remain on lockdown, as Covid cases surge. That means millions of people aren’t driving or flying in the world’s second-largest oil-consuming country.

Not helping matters: China’s consumer prices rose 1.5% in March, led higher by (what else) fuel and food prices.

“A surge in Covid cases … and rise in oil prices amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict dimmed the overall growth outlook for China,” said Gargi Rao, Economic Research Analyst at GlobalData.

Meanwhile, the risk of recession is rising in other major economies. The UK economy is in neutral, growing just 0.1% in February, as construction and manufacturing went into reverse, according to the Office for National Statistics. That was below economists’ expectations and a worrisome outcome: The post-Omicron return to normal life had been expected to give the UK economy a boost. Now, war in Ukraine and a spiraling cost-of-living crisis threaten to send it in the wrong direction.

Stagnant economic growth and rising inflation can be a toxic combination, hurting central banks’ abilities to get prices under control. If they raise rates too high or too fast, policymakers risk plunging the economy into a recession.

What else: So bad economic vibes are weighing on oil. But that’s not the only reason prices are falling.

Western countries have committed to unleash an unprecedented 240 million barrels of emergency oil on the market in the coming months. The Biden administration is releasing a million barrels a day from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the next six months. Other countries are contributing another 60 million barrels from their stockpiles as part of a drawdown coordinated by the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

The IEA said Russia could be forced to cut its production by 3 million barrels per day, starting this month, as it struggles to find buyers after invading Ukraine.

“The release of strategic government oil reserves should ease some market tightness over the coming months, reducing the need for oil prices to rise to trigger near-term demand destruction,” said Giovanni Staunovo, strategist at UBS, in a note to investors Monday morning. “Some of the market tightness caused by the self-sanctioning of Russian crude buyers — either in fear of future sanctions or for reputational reasons — should ease.”

Still, the market is finely balanced, and OPEC+ nations have so far refused to pump more oil. American oil companies, remembering the financial toll taken when prices collapsed during the early days of the pandemic, have also been reluctant to open the spigots again.

UBS slashed its near-term oil forecast by $10 a barrel, but it still predicts Brent will bounce back to $115 a barrel by June.

In other words: high oil prices are here to stay. Unless the bottom falls out of the economy.

Surging prices are tipping countries over the edge

Remember the 2011 Arab Spring? People across North Africa and the Middle East fought for freedom and social justice. But they also took to the streets because food prices were surging.

Inflation is back, and so is social unrest. Over the past week, protests erupted across the world, from Sri Lanka and Pakistan to Peru. Economists have long been concerned that surging prices in at-risk nations could lead to violence.

Pakistan’s parliament ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan from office Sunday after double-digit inflation eroded what little support he had left. At least six people have died in recent anti-government protests in Peru sparked by rising fuel prices.

Food prices rose sharply in the run-up to the Arab Spring protests. The Food Price Index from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization hit a then-record 131.9 in 2011. That index hit 159.3 in March, up almost 13% from February.

The war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia aren’t helping. Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat, corn and vegetable oils, and prices of those goods have surged over the past month as Russia’s invasion has prevented much of that supply from leaving the country.

That’s particularly hurting the countries that are already struggling with food insecurity and hunger issues. Forty percent of wheat and corn exports from Ukraine go to the Middle East and Africa, according to Gilbert Houngbo, head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Wall Street just can’t quit Russia

You’d think by this point Russia would be taboo for traders. But Russian bonds continue to trade furiously, my colleague Nicole Goodkind reports.

Russian bonds have quickly become junk-rated after the country invaded Ukraine and became a global pariah. Yet speculators have grown intrigued by their bargain-basement prices and high yields, according to Philip M. Nichols, an expert on Russia and social responsibility in business and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“There’s a lot of speculators that are buying up these bonds that have been severely downgraded,” Nichols said.

Buying Russian sovereign debt remains legal, Nichols said, if highly risky. There’s no guarantee Russia will pay its bondholders back, and the cost to insure Russian bonds is astronomically high.

Just in: S&P slapped Russia with a “selective default” rating on Friday.

Yet those risks haven’t stopped some Wall Street investors — nor has the fact that Russia has been committing atrocities in Ukraine. And even if investors want out of risky bets on Russia, they still have to sell to someone who does.

Who’s facilitating those trades? US financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase.

“This is Wall Street,” said Kathy Jones, chief fixed income strategist at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. “It doesn’t surprise me that they saw some sort of a loophole they could exploit to make money.”

JPMorgan representatives say they are acting as middlemen, simply looking to aid clients.

Up next

The US Consumer Price Index, a closely watched inflation report, will be released Tuesday morning.

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