Nothing To See Here, It’s Just Everything

The politics of oil are complicated, to say the least. There’s any number of important players, from OPEC to North American shale to sanctions. Relating to that last one, the US government has sought to impose serious restrictions upon the Iranian regime. Choking off a major piece of that country’s revenue, and source for dollars has been a stated US goal.

In May, the Trump administration formally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known otherwise as President Obama’s “Iran deal.” It was widely expected that pulling out would lead to harsh sanctions against any country continuing to trade using Iranian crude oil.

At the beginning of November, the US government formally re-instated those sanctions. In a surprising compromise, it did issue a number of waivers to countries like South Korea, Greece, Japan, and even China (among several others). That meant a good bit of Iran supply would remain available on global markets as a substitute source.

It is becoming 2018’s version of the 2014 “supply glut”, a benign or nearly so excuse for oil’s otherwise shocking crash. From Bloomberg only last week:

Just in late September, some traders were predicting that global oil prices would hit $100 a barrel over the following months. Their forecasts were based on the prospect of a supply crunch due to U.S. sanctions on Iran that went into effect in November. However, America’s surprise decision to grant waivers from its restrictions to some nations sparked a collapse in crude.

On the surface, the story does seem to check out; the US government did, in fact, keep Iran open for a little while longer. That additional future supply would have to have been factored into the ongoing oil price, further pressure to the downside.

But did it “spark a collapse in crude?” Nope, a demonstrable fallacy.

Oil prices peaked on October 3 and by the end of that month, the curve was already weeks in contango. You could argue that global oil traders were counting on waivers and already factoring Iran into the equation, but again they were a “surprise decision.”

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