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Oil prices plunge below zero as demand collapses

States ask federal government for testing help

Oil prices plunged below zero on Monday as demand for energy collapses amid the coronavirus pandemic. Traders, meanwhile, are worried they could get stuck owning crude with nowhere to store it. 

Stocks also slipped on Wall Street, with the S&P 500 down 1.8%, but the market's most dramatic action was by far in oil, where benchmark U.S. crude for May delivery plummeted to negative $35.20, as of 2:30 pm. Eastern time. It was nearly $60 at the start of the year, before business-shutdown orders swept the world and idled factories, offices and automobiles.

Much of the drop into negative territory was chalked up to technical reasons — the May delivery contract is close to expiring so it was seeing less trading volume, which can exacerbate swings. But prices for deliveries even further into the future, which were seeing larger trading volumes, also plunged. Demand for oil has collapsed so much due to the coronavirus pandemic that facilities for storing crude are nearly full.

"The collapse, however, is mostly a reflection of traders rolling contracts to June as no one wants to take delivery because storage capacity is getting close to being reached," noted Edward Moya, senior market analyst at OANDA, in a client note on Monday. "An eye dropping discount of $12 between the May and June contracts reflect all the bearish supply and demand drivers that remain permanently in place."

Tanks could hit their limits within three weeks, according to Chris Midgley, head of analytics at S&P Global Platts.

"Bears are out for blood"

Benchmark U.S. crude oil for June delivery, which shows a more "normal" price, fell 16.5% to $20.90 per barrel. Big oil producers have announced cutbacks in production in hopes of better balancing supplies with demand, but many analysts say it's not enough.

"Basically, bears are out for blood," analyst Naeem Aslam of Avatrade said in a report. "The steep fall in the price is because of the lack of sufficient demand and lack of storage place given the fact that the production cut has failed to address the supply glut."

Halliburton swung between gains and sharp losses, even though it reported stronger results for the first three months of 2020 than analysts expected. The oilfield engineering company said that the pandemic has created so much turmoil in the industry that it "cannot reasonably estimate" how long the hit will last. It expects a further decline in revenue and profitability for the rest of 2020, particularly in North America.

Brent crude, the international standard, was down $1.78 to $26.30 per barrel.

Dow decline

In the stock market, the mild drops ate into some of the big gains made since late March, driven lately by investors looking ahead to parts of the economy possibly reopening as infections level off in hard-hit areas. Pessimists have called the rally overdone, pointing to the severe economic pain sweeping the world and continued uncertainty about how long it will last.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 592, or 2.4%, to 23,650. The Nasdaq was down 1%.

More gains from companies that are winners in the new stay-at-home economy helped limit the market's losses Amazon rose 1.4%, and Netflix jumped 3.8% as people shut in at home buy staples and look to fill their time. Clorox likewise rose toward a new record and was up 1% as households and businesses that remain open look to stay clean.

Stocks have been on a generally upward swing recently, and the S&P 500 just closed out its first back-to-back weekly gain since the market began selling off in February. Promises of massive aid for the economy and markets by the Federal Reserve and U.S. government ignited the rally, which sent the S&P 500 up as much as 28.5% since a low on March 23.

More recently, countries around the world have tentatively eased up on business-shutdown restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the virus.

But health experts warn the pandemic is far from over and new flareups could ignite if governments rush to allow "normal" life to return prematurely.

The S&P 500 remains about 15% below its record high in February as millions more U.S. workers file for unemployment every week amid the shutdowns.

V- or U-shaped recovery?

Many analysts also warn that a significant part of the recent recovery in stocks is due to the expectation among some investors that the economy will rebound sharply once economic quarantines are lifted. They're essentially predicting that a line chart of the economy will ultimately resemble the letter "V," with a wild ride down but then a quick pivot to a vigorous recovery.

That may be to optimistic. "We caution that a U-shaped recovery is also quite likely," where the economy bottoms out and stays at that low level for a while before recovering, strategists at Barclays warned in a recent report.

Without strong testing programs for COVID-19, businesses likely won't feel comfortable bringing back their full workforces for a while.

"With risk assets now overbought, the chance for a correction has increased," Morgan Stanley strategists wrote in a report.

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