This almost forgotten metric is suddenly driving the oil market

Bloomberg News, By Lynn Doan & Dan Murtaugh, February 18

San Francisco & Houston – It was like clockwork.

Every week since 1944, Baker Hughes Inc. would release its survey of how many rigs were out drilling for U.S. oil and gas. And every week, oil and gas traders would, for the most part, overlook it.

What a difference a slide in oil of $50 (U.S.) a barrel makes. This past Friday, traders were bent over their desks, staring at their screens, waiting for 1 p.m. ET to see whether drillers extended their biggest-ever retreat from U.S. oil fields. (They did.) Oil futures spiked within minutes of the count, closing at the highest level in four days.

“I don’t think I’ve heard ‘Baker Hughes’ more in my life than I have in the past month,” Dan Flynn, a trader at Price Futures Group in Chicago, said by phone recently. “It’s like I’m saying it in my sleep.”

The sudden interest in Houston-based Baker Hughes’s rig counts shows how desperate traders have become to find the bottom of the oil market after the biggest collapse since 2008. The company, which was Hughes Tool Co. 71 years ago when it first released the weekly count, is the third-biggest oil field service provider in the world.

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This is the brutal irony: drillers are hoping that rising production achieved with greater efficiencies allows them to meet their interest costs; but rising production pressures the price of oil to a level that may not be survivable long-term for many of them. They can lose money, burn through cash, and keep themselves above water through asset sales for only so long. And this is the terrible fracking treadmill they’ve all gotten on and now can’t get off.

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