Oil falls toward $47 with virus mutation raising lockdown risks

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Oil fell toward $47 a barrel - after posting a seventh weekly gain - on concern a mutation of Covid-19 discovered in the UK could speed transmission of the virus and lead to more lockdowns.

Futures in New York dropped around 3% after closing at the highest in almost 10 months on Friday. More than 16 million Britons are now required to stay at home as a full lockdown came into force in London and the southeast of England, with some European countries limiting travel with the UK A stronger dollar also reduced the appeal of commodities like oil that are priced in the currency, while a stimulus deal in the U.S. couldn’t stem the slide.

Physical oil prices are also falling as Asian refiners ease purchases after an earlier-than-usual buying spree. Abu Dhabi’s Murban crude was sold last week on the spot market below its official selling price for the first time since August, while differentials for Russia’s ESPO have fallen from a six-month high.

Crude has rallied around 33% since the end of October on a series of vaccine breakthroughs that have created expectations for a recovery in energy demand next year. In the short term, however, prices are being buffeted by the fast-spreading virus leading to more stay-at-home orders.

“We have quite a bit of speculative money in oil at the moment, attracted by the more constructive outlook for 2021,” said Warren Patterson, head of commodities strategy at ING Groep NV. “However, if we start seeing the virus mutating, I imagine some of these speculators will become a bit more skittish.”

Prices

• West Texas Intermediate for January delivery fell 3.4% to $47.44 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange as of 7:40 a.m. in London.

• The January contract expires on Monday. The more active February contract declined 3.2% to $47.65.

• Brent for February settlement dropped 3.3% to $50.55 on the ICE Futures Europe exchange after closing up 1.5% on Friday.

Oil is a vaccine trade right now with robust demand seen in the second half of 2021 as more people resume flying, Jeff Currie, the head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs, said in a Bloomberg television interview on Friday. That’s when OPEC+ can return more supplies to the market, he said.

The alliance will react faster to changes and take a more hands-on approach with the oil market, thanks to its accelerated schedule of monthly meetings, Russia and Saudi Arabia, the group’s leaders, said over the weekend.

Oil’s futures curve is reflecting the conflicting long- and short-term signals. Brent’s prompt timespread is 4 cents a barrel in contango, a bearish signal where near-dated contracts are cheaper than later-dated ones. The spread was as much as 13 cents in backwardation earlier this month.

“Rising infection rates and the institution of lockdown measures are starting to have an impact on sentiment,” said Michael McCarthy, chief markets strategist at CMC Markets Asia Pacific. He said he was a “little surprised” the market was so negative given the progress on the US stimulus plan.

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