Oil was my 2016 “trade of the lustrum” – but should you keep holding on?

A couple of years ago, Dominic Frisby picked oil as the best five-year trade you could make. Now it’s in the doldrums, he revisits his trade to ask: what next?

Today we take a look at oil. It may be the most important fuel in the world, but, as far as the price is concerned, gravity has taken hold. It has, this past month or so, fallen off a cliff, as they say. And it continues to fall. From just shy of $87 a barrel at the beginning of October, Brent touched $58 on Friday, meaning it lost about a third of its value. It is currently sitting at $61. West Texas Intermediate (WTIC) did something similar, falling from $77 to $50 a barrel. It's currently sitting at $51.

One always likes to know why these kind of moves take place I often think the reason gets tacked on afterwards to make sense of the narrative. Nevertheless, the generally accepted reason for this current move boils down to perceived excess supply. A month ago there were fears that US sanctions on Iranian oil exports would mean a loss of something like a million barrels a day (bpd) to global supply. $100 oil was coming, they said. Then the US issued sanction waivers for eight countries importing Iranian crude. US production hit record highs the US now produces more oil than both Saudi Arabia and Russia. And, with stockmarkets, and thus economies, generally perceived to be weak, the forecast was that demand is going to tail off as well. In short, global markets are amply supplied.

US president Donald Trump, meanwhile, has taken the credit for the move, which is most unlike him, proclaiming: "So great that oil prices are falling (thank you President T). Add that, which is like a big Tax Cut, to our other good Economic news." To be fair, he had been having a go at oil cartel Opec over high oil prices for many months, and the sanction waiver does appear to have been a major trigger for the change in direction of the oil price. Lower prices were what he was gunning for. He is now urging Saudi Arabia not to cut its production, but it seems Saudi Arabia will, nevertheless, in an effort to stabilise prices, cut its own output by around 500,000 bpd, and urge other Opec nations to do the same.

How far will oil fall this time?

Oil seems to experience these violent sell-offs every few years. I still remember 2008 like it was yesterday. Oil had been in a bull market for nearly ten years that took it to almost $150 a barrel. Within six months, it gave back five years of gains and touched $36. 2014 saw another epic sell-off, now known as the Great Oil Bust. Brent had traded for around three and a half years, mostly in the $100 to $125 range. These kind of levels looked like the new normal. Then, not unlike now, president Barack Obama lifted US sanctions against Iran, US shale production surged and there was lower-than-expected global demand. Oil went from $115 to $45, bounced and eventually hit $27 a barrel in early 2016, an extraordinarily cheap number. Here are 15 years of Brent, so you can see the action.

MM181128-oil

In early 2016, I called buying oil "the trade of the lustrum" (a lustrum is a five-year period. It's an almost criminally underused word). Oil was $33 and our advice was to buy, hold and forget. Prices would go a lot higher, and they did. Our main vehicle for buying oil was not the usual suspects BP (LSE: BP) and Shell (LSE: RDSB), but BHP Billiton (LSE: BLT). Even though BHP is known for mining, oil is its biggest product and it tracks the oil price well better, bizarrely, than BP, Shell or the iShares oil and gas exploration and production ETF, (LSE: SPOG). BHP has actually held up very well in the face of this sell-off, currently sitting above 1,500p (we recommended it at 700p). BP, Shell and SPOG our other suggestions are now in downtrends.So the question now is, how far is the oil price going to fall?

I rather suspect this sell-off is going to be more like those of 2004, 2006 or 2012, rather than the monsters that were 2008 and 2014-15. That is just a feeling, by the way, a hunch it's not based on any detailed analysis of oil supply-and-demand statistics. But you do get a feel for the way a particular market trades the more you watch the price. I'm projecting Brent to make a low in the $45-$55 range. Thus I'm not sure this sell-off is quite done yet, although a bounce is probable. If Brent goes to $45 I think there is a real opportunity there and I'll almost certainly be looking to load up. Shell, at this point, is the one I really have my eye on, as well as BP. Dividends and all that. If they carry on declining and BHP holds, that is where the greater value might be. Short-term traders might even be eying BHP as a short, given the fact it has held up where others have fallen. Not for me that one, but I can see the argument.

As for the trade of the lustrum. This was a long-term trade with a five-year horizon. We are two and half years into it. Given oil went from $33 to over $80 there was a good argument to be taking profits up there. But if you sell now, will you be sure to buy back at lower prices? Will we even see lower prices? Questions, questions, questions. Buy, hold, forget was the strategy. So we stick with it.

Recommended

How to cut your energy bill this winter
Personal finance

How to cut your energy bill this winter

Gas and electricity prices have risen by more than 250% so far this year. And they’re likely to go higher still Saloni Sardana looks at what can you …
24 Sep 2021
What's behind Britain’s looming energy crisis
Energy

What's behind Britain’s looming energy crisis

Global natural gas prices have soared as resurgent demand collides with supply disruptions. The UK is especially vulnerable and could be heading for a…
24 Sep 2021
The uranium price is soaring – here’s the best way to play it now
Energy

The uranium price is soaring – here’s the best way to play it now

Uranium, the key ingredient to nuclear power, has been ignored since the bubble of 2006, but now the uranium price is rising again. Dominic Frisby exp…
22 Sep 2021
What to invest in to beat soaring energy prices
Investment strategy

What to invest in to beat soaring energy prices

As gas and electricity prices hit the roof, John Stepek explains how to invest to offset higher energy bills.
21 Sep 2021

Most Popular

Should investors be worried about stagflation?
US Economy

Should investors be worried about stagflation?

The latest US employment data has raised the ugly spectre of “stagflation” – weak growth and high inflation. John Stepek looks at what’s going on and …
6 Sep 2021
Two shipping funds to buy for steady income
Investment trusts

Two shipping funds to buy for steady income

Returns from owning ships are volatile, but these two investment trusts are trying to make the sector less risky.
7 Sep 2021
The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest
Small cap stocks

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest

We are living in strange times. But the basics of investing remain the same: buy fairly-priced stocks that can provide an income. And there are few be…
13 Sep 2021