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Oil at lowest in months as new virus cases hurt recovery hopes

Oil pumping jacks in Russia - Bloomberg.jpg
Prices settled above session lows that took US benchmark crude futures below US$35 a barrel.

[NEW YORK] Oil futures fell to multi-month lows as record growth in coronavirus cases in the US and Europe raised the specter of more demand destruction from tighter lockdown measures.

Futures in New York fell to their lowest since June, while the global Brent benchmark slid to a five-month low.

The Covid-19 surge in the US Midwest rose to a record, and the seven-day average in the Northeast reached the most since May. Elsewhere, Italy reached another daily record in virus cases, potentially facing new restrictions on movement.

Still, prices settled above session lows that took US benchmark crude futures below US$35 a barrel.

A record, yet temporary, surge in US economic growth in the third quarter helped ease some of the demand concerns, while European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde signalled a new package of monetary stimulus in December.

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"The GDP numbers suggest that there is an end to this situation, that all the news is not going to be negative and at least to some degree we're seeing economic recovery," said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

On the other hand, "all the Covid news seems to be that we're shutting down, we're increasing restrictions on behavior."

The demand outlook is still bleak with the European Union's two biggest economies set to impose month-long movement restrictions as nations across the continent post record coronavirus cases.

A sorely needed boost to consumption in the form of US stimulus will likely have to wait until after Nov 3, with both sides at a standstill a week out from the election.

"The reasons for ebb and flow of risk appetite remain Covid-related, with the announcement of a return to stricter lock down measures in Europe, notably France and Germany," said Harry Tchilinguirian, oil strategist at BNP Paribas.

"Add to that the all-but-vanished prospect of a fourth round of US fiscal stimulus prior to the presidential election and you have a recipe for macro pessimism that is reverberating across various assets today."

The forward market structure is also flashing warning signs, with the WTI strip for 2021 closing at its weakest level since May.

"The market seems to be losing confidence in longer-term demand and is intent on creating an increased disincentive for investment in future capacity," Standard Chartered analysts Paul Horsnell and Emily Ashford wrote in a report.

Meanwhile, US Gulf operators are still dealing with the effects of Zeta, with Royal Dutch Shell shutting crude and natural gas production overnight in the Mars Corridor due to downstream impacts from the storm.

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