Oil futures barely budged from their recent $50 per barrel-plus tight range on Tuesday (28 January), yet the latest data suggests speculators are betting on a major price uptick.
At 1:14pm GMT, the Brent front month futures contract was down 0.73% or 41 cents at $55.52 per barrel, while the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) was 0.74% or 40 cents lower at $53.63 per barrel.
Both Brent and WTI have traded above the $50 mark since the start of the year, but are showing little sign of an uptick to $60, as the upside risk of Opec production cuts and the downside risk of rising US production continue to cancel each other out.
However, the Commitment of Traders (CoT) data, indicative of which way money managers are betting, points to growing confidence among hedge funds either side of the Atlantic about the oil price eventually rallying.
CoT data stateside for the previous trading week suggests net-long positions in WTI (bets that the price would rise), rose by 23,299 futures and options to 413,637 – the highest on record since 2006. Concurrently, net-long positions in Brent rose by 26,210 contracts to 507,609. By some counts, the net bullish build-up has left the long-to-short ratio (pitting of bets to the upside versus those in favour of a price drop) at 10:1.
Much of the money managers' belief is predicated on Opec extending its production cut beyond May, something Qatari energy minister Mohammed Saleh Al-Sada hinted the cartel could contemplate when it meets in the summer.
Analysts at JBC Energy, Citigroup, Commerzbank and FXTM urged caution against a belief in many quarters about market tightening in the near future, which could push prices higher, despite not much having happened in terms of price movement since the turn of the year.
"Given that speculative net long positions in Brent and WTI are already at a record-high level, the correction potential is therefore growing all the time... This high degree of speculative interest is hanging over oil prices like the sword of Damocles. If financial investors were to unwind their positions, a sharp fall in prices would be on the cards," Commerzbank analysts wrote in a client note.
Precious metal market awaits Trump soundbites
Away from the oil market, precious metal trading was on a mixed footing. At 1:55pm BST, the Comex gold futures contract for April delivery was down 0.16% or $2.01 at $1,256.80 an ounce, while spot gold was up 0.26% or $3.27 at $1,256.00 an ounce.
Fawad Razaqzada, market analyst at Forex.com, said there was a degree of hesitation in the gold markets ahead of US President Donald Trump's much anticipated speech on tax cuts. "Despite this week's hesitation, gold remains in a strong upward trend and probably in the watch list of many potential buyers. The metal's recent strength in the face of a generally strong dollar and rapidly rising US equity prices is remarkable and unambiguously bullish.
"A rising stock market usually suggests investors are seeking racier assets over perceived safe-haven gold and silver. So, it does make you wonder what is really going on. Is gold about tank or the stock markets? Of course both could go up together as they have in recent times, but typically they have a negative correlation."
Razaqzada said as far as gold is concerned and given its recent positive relationship with US stock markets, it may not respond to the equity markets in the usual negative way in response to Trump's speech. "But it could nevertheless move sharply if there is a correspondingly big move in the dollar."
Elsewhere, Comex silver was up 0.10% or 2 cents at $18.44 an ounce, while spot platinum was broadly flat at $1,029.60 an ounce.