US crude plunges 7.3% to $46.24, lowest settle since August 2017, on oversupply concerns

Key Points
  • Oil prices sink to a more than 15-month low below $46 a barrel, extending the previous session's selling.
  • Crude output from U.S. shale fields is set to rise above 8 million barrels per day for the first time ever, while Russia is reportedly pumping at a record 11.42 million bpd this month.
  • Fears of slowing global growth and weakening oil demand are also gripping the market, analysts say.
Oil demand remains a bigger concern than supply, says analyst

Oil prices plunged about 7 percent to a more than 15-month low on Tuesday as the United States and Russia continue to pump at record levels even as analysts warn that signs of faltering demand are emerging.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude ended the session down $3.64, or 7.3 percent, at $46.24. Losses accelerated ahead of WTI's settlement, with the contract closing at its lowest level since Aug. 30, 2017. U.S. crude fell 8 percent after the settle to a low of $45.79 a barrel.

Brent crude, the international benchmark for oil prices, fell $3.35, or 5.6 percent, to $56.26, a 14-month closing low. It fell to a low of $55.89 after the close.

Oil prices are now trading in a zone that could trigger a plunge towards U.S. crude's 2017 low near $42 a barrel, according to John Kilduff, founding partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital.

"There's not a lot of support on the chart between $48 and $42," he said. "Getting the close under $50 was very important on a technical basis. It just fed the negativity."

From peak to trough, WTI has lost 40 percent of its value since hitting a roughly four-year high in early October. The slump has brought WTI's year-to-date losses to more than 23 percent. Brent has fallen as much as 35 percent since its October high and is down about 16 percent in 2018.

U.S. crude futures fell sharply lower on Monday after energy data firm Genscape reported that crude stockpiles at a closely watched storage hub in the Cushing, Oklahoma rose by more than 1 million barrels.

Industry data from the American Petroleum Institute suggests total U.S. crude stockpiles rose by 3.5 million barrels last week, Dow Jones reported. More comprehensive government data will be released on Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m. ET.

This month, oil output from U.S. shale fields is set to rise above 8 million barrels per day for the first time ever, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported on Monday. Production from the seven key regions is forecast to rise by nearly 134,000 bpd in January, the biggest increase since September.

Meanwhile, sources tell Reuters Russia is pumping at 11.42 million bpd this month, a level that would mark an all-time high if confirmed.

Russia is the largest producer in an alliance of 10 oil-exporting countries that reached an agreement with OPEC to cut output earlier this month. The roughly two dozen producers began limiting their output last year in order to drain a global crude glut.

Low oil demand means weak global economy: Goldman's head of commodity research

The alliance eased off those caps earlier this year, but now that crude stockpiles are once again on the rise, the producers are launching another round of supply cuts that aim to take 1.2 million bpd off the market.

However, the cutbacks do not go into effect until January, and Russia has warned that it will only gradually taper off output.

Some market-watchers believe that signs of weakening global growth are now driving the oil price lower. Paul Sankey, lead oil analyst at Mizuho, says OPEC's conservative forecast that oil demand will grow by 1.3 million bpd next year may be too high.

"Oil is weak because many demand signals are blinking red, and supply cuts won't matter if the bottom falls out of demand," Sankey said in a research note on Tuesday.

"Downward global GDP revisions keep coming, the risk of recession is rising, equity markets reflect it, flight-to-safety pushes the dollar higher, and those factors lead oil lower on demand worry."

Goldman Sachs believes Brent crude will rebound and average $70 a barrel in 2019, but the investment bank's head of commodities research, Jeff Currie, says that won't happen tomorrow.

Discussing the outlook for Saudi Arabia in the next year

"The market is not going to buy forward expectations of supply cuts. It's not going to buy promises from China for policy stimulus. It needs to see real physical tightness," he told CNBC's "Power Lunch" on Monday.

Oil was also dragged lower by a tumble in U.S. stock markets on Monday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and are now on pace for their worst December performance since the Great Depression in 1931.

The weakness across assets is causing investors to question whether there is something "bigger and more sinister" happening in the global economy, according to Currie.

"We're not just seeing it in oil and commodities. It's happening across the asset space," he said. "It's very rare that you see stocks, bonds and commodities all down together."

Oil futures had pared overnight losses on Tuesday as U.S. stocks rebounded, but fell to new session lows in late morning trading.