(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)
* Chartbook: tmsnrt.rs/2LhKO1S
By John Kemp
LONDON, July 23 (Reuters) – Hedge fund managers have slashed bullish long positions in petroleum at the fastest rate in more than a year, as the gentle profit-taking in previous weeks turned into a rush for the exit.
Hedge funds and other money managers cut their combined net long position in the six most important futures and options contracts linked to petroleum prices by 178 million barrels in the week to July 17.
Net long positions were reduced by the third-largest number of barrels on record, according to an analysis of data published by regulators and exchanges going back to the first quarter of 2013.
The net long position in petroleum was cut below 1 billion barrels for the first time since the middle of September 2017 (tmsnrt.rs/2LhKO1S).
The reduction was concentrated on the long side of the market, where positions were slashed by 170 million barrels, as managers took profits after the year-long rally in oil prices.
Short positions rose by just 8 million barrels and remain close to multi-year lows, confirming the shift in net positioning is being driven by profit-taking rather than any newfound bearishness.
Long liquidation was concentrated in Brent, with net long positions in the North Sea benchmark cut by 95 million barrels, the largest one-week reduction since the series began in 2013.
But portfolio managers also cut net long positions in NYMEX and ICE WTI (-34 million barrels), U.S. gasoline (-8 million barrels), U.S. heating oil (-17 million barrels) and European gasoil (-25 million barrels).
Hedge fund managers hold most of their positions in futures and options with a relatively short duration to expiry since these tend to offer the most liquidity, so the sell-off has hit near-dated contracts especially hard.
Brent liquidation has therefore crushed the calendar spreads, with contracts nearest to expiry now trading in contango, and the whole of the first six months in a backwardation of less than 40 cents per barrel.
The accelerating sell-off in petroleum futures and options is not entirely surprising and conforms to a common pattern in financial markets.
The sharpest liquidation and price falls come not straight after prices peak, but when prices have been under gentle pressure for some time, and the initial trickle of selling finally turns into a torrent.
Benchmark Brent prices have repeatedly failed to break up through the peak of just over $80 per barrel set in May.
Fund managers are still essentially bullish towards the outlook for oil prices, but the extremely stretched positioning during the first quarter has been partially corrected.
Portfolio managers hold more than eight bullish long positions for every short bearish position in the petroleum complex, but the ratio is down from almost 14:1 in the middle of April.
In Brent, the ratio of hedge fund longs to shorts is down to 8:1, from 20:1 in late April; in European gasoil, the ratio is down to 13:1, from 129:1 in late May.
For most market analysts and traders, the oil market outlook remains fundamentally tight, with strong growth in consumption, while production continues to be disrupted by problems in Venezuela and Libya.
Pipeline capacity shortages in the United States may limit further growth in production from the prolific Permian Basin later in 2018 and early 2019.
On top of all this, U.S. sanctions on Iran threaten to remove millions more barrels from the market from the start of November, though how many remains unclear.
But the sharp rise in output and exports from Saudi Arabia in June and July has increased the availability of crude in the near term, contributing to the sell-off in Brent calendar spreads.
And there are growing concerns about the combined impact of high oil prices, a strengthening dollar and trade tensions on the health of the global economy and oil consumption in the rest of 2018 and 2019.
In the circumstances, many fund managers have chosen to reduce their long exposure to oil, without choosing to go short (yet) in a classic long liquidation cycle.