Market Insider

OPEC seen boosting oil price volatility

Commodities tomorrow: Oil stabilizes
Commodities tomorrow: Oil stabilizes

Speculation is growing that OPEC may have no choice but to cut production when it meets on Thanksgiving Day.

That talk helped drive oil futures higher Thursday and is likely to keep the market volatile Friday, ahead of the weekend, and into next week. Iran is also a factor for the market, as the Nov. 24 deadline for a deal on its nuclear program approaches.

"You're going to see book squaring ahead of the determination of the Iran nuclear talks. It's a big week for oil next week. The talks are expected to conclude on Monday and then OPEC meets Thursday," said John Kilduff of Again Capital. "I think you're going to see this market be volatile as everybody gets squared and lays their bets down. There are well-articulated views on each side."

West Texas Intermediate futures for December rose 1.3 percent to $75.78 per barrel, while futures rose 1.6 percent to $79.33 per barrel.

Stocks on Thursday were also higher, with the Dow and S&P 500 closing at record highs. The market shook off weaker global data and focused instead on better-than-expected U.S. reports, including a 1.5 percent increase in existing home sales. The S&P 500, up 4 points at 2,052 on Thursday, is on track for a fifth week of gains, rising 8.8 percent in that period, the best five-week run since April 2009.

There is no major U.S. data Friday, but traders will be watching early-morning comments from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. There is also 10 a.m. ET testimony from New York Fed President William Dudley, who speaks on financial institution supervision at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

There are also a earnings expected from Foot Locker, Ann and MOL Global ahead of the opening bell.

Read MorePrivate equity bets on energy revolution

Oil drill

OPEC and Iran could keep the focus on oil markets though. Energy was the best-performing major S&P industry sector Thursday, gaining more than 1 percent.

Read MoreWTI settles higher

Bank of America Merrill Lynch on Thursday said it expects OPEC to agree on a 500,000 barrel a day cut next week, and it expects that should support prices before oil heads back up to $90 over the next several months.

"They're running around like chickens without a head, but they're going to do something," said Francisco Blanch, Bank of America Merrill Lynch head of global commodities and derivatives research. OPEC has a production ceiling set at 30 million and output is around 30.6 million barrels a day.

"We're calling for a half-million barrels a day in the ceiling. That hopefully is enough to get prices back up again, but we'll see," Blanch said.

Read MoreBonds shrug off better data, as Alibaba debuts

OPEC members, including Saudi Arabia, have budgetary break-evens near or above current prices and that should be a factor in their decision-making.

But street views vary on whether the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries can agree among themselves on a production cut since Saudi Arabia has been signaling it will protect its market share and that it won't be the only country to shoulder production cuts.

Kilduff said part of the volatility stems from the various views, with some firms seeing no cut at all. He is in that camp.

"If they don't cut, prices will fall precipitously, straight down through $70 in rocket fashion," he said. "There's a lot evidence out there with people buying the straddles ... that means people don't know which way it's going to go but it's going to go a long way in either direction."

One popular call has been to buy the March $75 straddle, he said. "You're buying the March 75 put (options on WTI futures) and buying the March 75 call with the idea that prices are going to go a long way from $75—one way or the other," he said.

Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS, does not expect OPEC to cut production at this meeting.

"I don't think any of the members of OPEC are going to be giving thanks on Thanksgiving Day because to them what happened in the oil market is a real shock," he said.

While oil prices had been higher than supported by fundamentals before the $30 decline, he said OPEC members have been surprised by how far crude has fallen. "They're worried it will fall further, so I think this OPEC meeting is just a first stage in terms of them adjusting to what is a new reality in the world oil market."

The surge in U.S. oil production has added more crude to world markets at a time when demand growth has slowed. Yergin said the signals so far are that there will not be an agreement at this meeting, unless something very dramatic happens.

Yergin said OPEC is a fractured organization, with some members, like Venezuela, more desperate for higher prices. "I think the Saudi position is different than the other countries because what they want to do is defend their market share," he said, noting the Saudis want to see real cut backs from the other producers.

Whether it's now or later, production cuts will only come when there's a real panic among members.

"I think at this point there are a lot of barbs going back and forth," Yergin said.

"I think the recognition is really there now that this boom in the United States is not going away," he said. U.S. production reached 9 million barrels a day this month, a level last seen in 1986 and a million barrels more than a year ago.

Blanch said OPEC's strategy will be to keep markets volatile, and by doing that they will be hurting some U.S. shale production.

He said Saudi Arabia needs oil prices above $90 to meet its budget, though some estimates are lower.

"Part of the strategy is going to be creating volatility in the market and being confusing, and obscure what they're going to do," he said.

Blanch said the shale boom was driven by credit, and some marginal players are already being sidelined.

"By keeping prices more volatile, you slow down fixed income investment into the energy sector," he said. Saudi Arabia is also more nimble than the diverse group of producers that drove the U.S. oil boom.

"They can respond faster to price fluctuations and demand fluctuations than shale producers. A shale producer needs six months to a year, and in two to three months, the Saudis can respond ... they have the upper hand," said Blanch.

Other recent periods when OPEC cut production were in 2008-2009 during the financial crisis, in 2001 and in 1998-99.

"I don't think they need to cut a lot. I think they only need to cut a little to change market direction, get all the shorts out of the holes," Blanch said.

U.S. production growth at current levels of around $76 per barrel would be 500,000 barrels a day next year, half of this year's growth, according to BofA. A drop to $60 would leave production flat.

Read More

Oil traders talked about OPEC on Thursday but also news of a previously unscheduled meeting in Moscow on Friday between the Saudi and Russian foreign ministers, Kilduff said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal met Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was meeting allies on Iran negotiations.

Read More

Blanch said the Iran situation may continue as it has been. Iran has been crippled by sanctions during the stalemate with the West over its nuclear program.

He said even if it does settle, and oil production increases, Iran does not have that much more capacity because of a lack of investment in its operations.