CAT versus crude: Why nothing can save oil

CAT versus crude: Why nothing can save oil

Call it a tale of two signals.

On the upside, equipment-maker Caterpillar reported strong third-quarter earnings, helping to boost the Dow Jones Industrial Average of which it is a component. But on the downside, crude prices have plummeted 23 percent in the last four months.

The problem is that both are considered by some to be indicators of economic activity. Now the question is whether the economy is humming along or if a global slowdown is ahead.

So with Caterpillar rallying, could crude, which was closely correlated with the price of Caterpillar stock, soon follow?

"Caterpillar's earnings and commentary about positive signs in North American construction supports what we are seeing in other leading economic data," said Andrew Burkly, head of portfolio strategy at Oppenheimer & Co. "Yet they continue to signal weakness in mining, which suggests still-sluggish emerging market growth. At the same time, we got better preliminary manufacturing PMI data out of Europe and China which helps global sentiment."

(Read: Oil rises above $86 on Saudi supply cut, strong data)

On the other hand, Burkly sees a long-term pullback in oil having more to do with its supply. "The estimated marginal cost of supply is well below $80 a barrel given the improvements in unconventional drilling technology and transportation," he said. "It's hard to sustain a price significantly above that for a continued period of time without a massive increase in demand or supply shock."

Gina Sanchez, founder of Chantico Global, agrees with Burkly's view. "You are seeing price competition out of OPEC countries because we are having a shale boom in the U.S.," she said. "That is causing some OPEC countries like Saudi to consider price wars, lowering prices in order to maintain presence in North America. That has been pushing crude oil down and I think that we're going to continue to see pressure on crude oil."

(On Thursday, oil prices rose on news Saudi Arabia cut its supply to the market in September, even though its overall production grew month on month.)

The charts are also bearish on oil prices, according to technical strategist Richard Ross, a "Talking Numbers" contributor.

"We've had a very strong bounce recently in the equity markets after a very rocky correction, but crude surprisingly really hasn't gotten much of a bounce," Ross said. After breaking what he sees as short-term support at around the $91 per barrel mark about a month ago, oil made a double bottom near the $80 level.

(See: CNBC's Energy coverage)

The significance of the $80 level is reinforced in oil's five-year chart, said Ross. Crude has been trading in a range of roughly between $85 and $115 since 2010.

"Now we're sitting at the low end of that trading range right at that $80 level," he said. "If we were to break below this trading range, you could easily see a test of $75, perhaps even $70."

But it could go down further from there.

"If we want to get extremely pessimistic on crude oil, you could actually see a test of $45," said Ross. "That's a low-probability move but it is potentially in the cards. That could coincide with a bigger correction in the equity market. So we're not out of the woods in crude and we're not out of the woods in equities, either."

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