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Hedge fund oil trades are becoming crowded

Climbing oil prices continue to attract fresh buying interest from hedge funds while piling pressure on bearish portfolio managers, but the trade is becoming crowded and at risk of a sudden reversal.

Hedge funds and other money managers purchased the equivalent of 24 million barrels in the six most important petroleum-related futures and options contracts in the week to Oct. 5, regulatory records show.

Purchases over the past six weeks have totalled 194 million barrels, reversing more than two thirds of the 268 million barrels sold over the previous 10 weeks when the market was gripped by fear about rising coronavirus cases.

In the most recent week there was broad-based buying of NYMEX and ICE WTI (+9 million barrels), U.S. gasoline (+9 million), Brent (+4 million) and U.S. diesel (+3 million), with minor sales in European gas oil (-1 million).

The number of short positions across all six contracts has fallen to only 151 million barrels, the lowest for 124 weeks, as continued price escalation forces bearish fund managers to close out positions.

Portfolio managers now have a strongly bullish position across the six contracts, with a net long of 871 million barrels (78th percentile for all weeks since 2013), up from 677 million barrels (59th percentile) on Aug. 24.

Positions have become relatively stretched, with bullish longs outnumbering bearish shorts by a ratio of 6.76:1 (84th percentile), up from 4.25:1 (57th percentile) six weeks ago .

Fund managers are especially bullish towards middle distillates, which are the most highly geared to the economic cycle and will also benefit from any gas-to-oil switching this winter as a result of soaring global gas prices.

The combined net long position across U.S. diesel and European gas oil has reached 152 million barrels (87th percentile), with longs outnumbering shorts by more than 12:1 (98th percentile).

Fund managers expect global manufacturing and freight business to continue growing strongly, supporting oil and distillate demand, with winter heating demand and high gas prices providing an extra boost.

But the increasingly lopsided positioning is creating a source of fragility and raises the probability of a sharp sell-off and retreating prices if economic growth or fuel switching disappoints expectations.

Extremely stretched long-short ratios have previously preceded a sharp reversal in the price trend when fund managers try to realize some of their paper profits. And the current lack of hedge fund short positions means there may be few speculative buyers to absorb such selling, raising the risk of sharp pull back in prices.
Source: Reuters (Editing by David Goodman)

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