On the 20th of April of 2020, at around 2pm, something historic happened: WTI, short for West Texas Intermediate, crude oil futures traded at negative prices for the first time ever. From there, everything went downhill, and oil prices reached the impressive mark of negative $37.63 a barrel, which translates to a 300% crash. For perspective, this means that if you had bought the oil contract which traded at that price, you would have been paid $37,630, as the contract entailed the sale of a thousand barrels of crude. However, as expert Neil Irwin pointed out, “that is about five tanker trucks’ worth, so any joke about storing the oil in your basement will have to remain just that”.
The immediate reaction by many economics commentators to this bizarre event was to simply shrug it off as price adjustments to the collapsed demand for oil. Some also blamed it on lack of storage at the Cushing, Oklahoma delivery point. While this certainly isn’t false, it is a very simplistic way of looking at a complex market with many strong players. American and Saudi elites, in particular, have very significant stakes in oil production and market manipulation has become, over the years, a normal practice. In fact, meddling by powerful oil players is probably why most media outlets have not been very helpful in their reporting of the oil price crash. So, let’s take a serious look at what’s been happening in the oil market for the past few months, shall we?