Looking ahead, there is little doubt that until a decision to raise production is made, the global energy market will remain tight, and during this time the risk of a major correction still is relatively low, something that is being reflected in the current positions held by hedge funds and CTA’s, more on that later. However, at the same time the US yield curve is increasingly sending a signal of distress, as recession risks continue to gather momentum, not only in the US but also in Europe where German economic institutes forecast a 0.6% GDP contraction already this year.
What do recent movements in the US yield curve signal?
There has been a lot of talk recently about the US yield and the so-called bear-steepening move, and what it signals. Since early July, the US 2-10 yield curve spread has steepened, halving from around -110 basis points to the current -55 basis points. The latest steepening has been driven by a faster increase in the 10-year yield while the 2-year yield held steady amid doubts about how much higher the FOMC will be able to raise rates without damaging the economy.
Bear steepening does not only raise red flags for stock market investors but also the wider economy. Rising long-dated yields has a large and rapid tightening effect on the real economy given the impact on private mortgage rates and corporate borrowing rates. In a situation where the economy is running hot, rising interest rates pose limited risks as rising yields are a normal reaction to robust growth. However, in the current situation where sticky inflation drives long-end yields higher it may pose a threat as the economic outlook looks increasingly challenged and could deteriorate faster.
Back to the oil market where the current tightness is increasingly being expressed at the front end of the curve, where the premium for near-term barrels of WTI trades compared to the next month has almost reached 2 dollars a barrel, the highest level in more than a year. Looking further out the curve we find the 12-month spread between December 2023 and December 2024 has jumped to more than 11 dollars a barrel from around 2 dollars back in July. The chart below shows the rising backwardation - higher prices now followed by lower prices later – and the mentioned bear steepening of the US yield curve.
It's often said the oil curve never lies, and it is currently telling us that prices will remain high in the short term before recession risks begin to weigh on demand into 2024. A situation, if realized, that may force OPEC to accept lower prices or forcing an extended period of production cuts.