Oil jumps nearly 90% in May to $35, registering best month on record

Key Points
  • West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. oil benchmark, registered its best month on record after gaining more than 80% in May. An uptick in demand as well as record supply cuts have pushed prices higher.
  • Still, WTI is about 46% below its recent January high of $65.65 per barrel.
  • "It certainly doesn't feel like it was oil's best month ever," said Regina Mayor, KPMG's global head of energy. "Low $30s for WTI is clearly better than where we were at the end of April, but it's not sufficient enough to bring the bulk of production back online."

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Oil jumped more than 5% on Friday, the last trading day of the month, capping off its best month in history as an uptick in demand as well as record supply cuts pushed prices higher. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. oil benchmark, finished May with a gain of 88%. To put the number in context, WTI's second best month on record was Sept. 1990, when it gained 44.6%.

But experts are quick to note that the surge in prices follows the steepest downturn on record, and that oil still has a ways to go before it regains old highs. In other words, WTI at $35 per barrel is hardly something to celebrate.

"It certainly doesn't feel like it was oil's best month ever," said Regina Mayor, KPMG's global head of energy. "Low $30s for WTI is clearly better than where we were at the end of April, but it's not sufficient enough to bring the bulk of production back online," she added.

In April, with billions of people around the world under some sort of lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19, demand for oil fell off a cliff, which sent prices plunging. WTI dropped below zero and into negative territory for the first time on record. Part of the move was due to the contract's imminent expiration, but it also reflected the very real fact that no one wanted to take the physical delivery of crude while demand was expected to remain depressed.

Since then, things have started to improve. Data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration on Thursday showed that for the week ending May 22 gasoline demand rose to 7.3 million barrels per day from the prior week. This marked an improvement, although was still below 2019's number ahead of Memorial Day weekend, which was 9.4 million bpd. Storage in Cushing, Oklahoma — the main delivery point for WTI — decreased by 3.4 million barrels, and refinery utilization also rose to 71% from 69%. Overall inventory rose by 7.928 million barrels, compared with the 1.3 million barrel draw analysts had been expecting, according to FactSet.

On the other side of the equation, producers have scaled back output at a record pace as plunging prices made operation uneconomical. OPEC and its oil-producing allies agreed to the steepest production cut in history during an extraordinary, multi-day meeting in April. Then, earlier in May, Saudi Arabia said that, beginning June 1, it would voluntarily cut an additional 1 million bpd, on top of its portion of the cuts agreed to by OPEC+. Kuwait and UAE were among the other cartel members that followed suit and said they would also exercise additional cuts. 

In the U.S., production has dropped to 11.4 million bpd, 1.9 million bpd below March's record high of 13.1 million bpd. Norway and Canada are among the other nations that have scaled back output.

The OPEC+ production cuts as they stand now will begin to taper on July 1, and the group is expected to decide on whether or not to extend the deeper cuts at its June 9-10 meeting.

Doubts over whether or not the the deeper cuts will be extended sent some jitters through the oil market this week, although WTI still on track for its fifth straight week of gains. On Friday the contract gained $1.78, or 5.28%, to settle at $35.49 per barrel. Earlier in the session it traded as low as $32.36 per barrel as geopolitical tensions weighed on sentiment. International benchmark Brent crude gained 4 cents, or 0.11%, to settle at $35.33 per barrel. For the month Brent gained 39.81%, for its best month since 1999.

Of course, crude's record month is partially due to the fact that after falling to such low levels, a smaller price move now accounts for a much larger percentage move. WTI is still 4% below its recent high of $65.65 from January. Additionally, oil contracts roll on a monthly basis, but the roll doesn't align with the standard calendar meaning that evaluating price on a standard monthly basis — rather than the duration of the month-long contract — can be somewhat arbitrary. 

Mayor, who is based in Houston, said the market is more positive than those who are on the ground in oil country feel. "I think it's too early for the level of optimism we're seeing in the market, and to be frank, I think it's a bit inexplicable," she said. "I don't think demand fundamentals are the key driver of the optimism. I think it's more quick on supply, which means to me that there's downside risk to the current elevated price."

Still, others are more positive on oil's outlook. In a recent note to clients, Morgan Stanley said that the rally looks like it can continue in the coming months, while also acknowledging that many unknowns remain in the market.

Meanwhile, Rystad Energy said that wild price swings are now in the rearview mirror. "Supply developments and other geopolitical tensions that could affect demand are priced in...Now, waiting for the next OPEC+ meeting, the market is also comfortable in a relative calmness," said Bjornar Tonhaugen, Rystad's head of oil markets.

- CNBC's Michael Bloom and Patti Domm contributed reporting.