Volatility has been rising in the crude oil and feedstocks markets. This is because individual players have completely different strategies. In turn, this makes it difficult for chemical companies to forecast short-term feedstock costs. It also makes it difficult to maintain margins.

Last Monday, crude reached a new high of $111/bbl. Then, as the scale of the Bear Stearns collapse became apparent, it fell over $10/bbl. Currently, it is trading around $100/bbl. A number of different rationales have been put forward to explain this sudden fall:

• Many commentators have taken it as a sign that the US recession will reduce demand, causing prices to weaken. Latest EIA figures show a rare, if minor, 0.1% decline in gasoline demand over the past month.
• Other analysts have pointed out that last week’s wild swings in equity markets caused major losses for many investors, requiring them to meet margin calls by selling out their positions in commodities.
• They have also added that Bear Stearns’ Proprietary Trading Group had been very active in crude oil futures, and it was likely that its positions had been sold quickly once its collapse had been confirmed.
• Equally, others have argued that crude’s recent strength was due to US $ weakness, as investors used commodities as a ‘store of value’. They now expect the US $ to strengthen, reducing their attractiveness.

All of these analyses probably have some element of truth in them. Over the longer-term, prices will be set by the fundamentals of supply and demand, which in turn will be influenced by geo-politics. But last week’s ‘perfect storm’ of events illustrates just how complex it has become to forecast day-to-day market action in crude oil markets.

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