It has indeed been a cruel summer for crude. Oil prices have shed 13% since May 1 and nearly 8% in the last week despite spiking tensions in the Middle East, proving out a theory that RBC Capital Markets’ Helima Croft posited in April: that the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran could lead to a “cruel summer” for the commodity.
But, now, with Iran claiming it seized a foreign oil tanker in the hotly contested Gulf of Oman, oil prices haven’t responded as commodity watchers may have expected, and Croft says that’s a sign of more pain to come.
“I think that signals that this standoff over Iran is going to continue over the summer,” Croft, RBC’s global head of commodity strategy, said Thursday on CNBC’s “Futures Now.” “The problem for the oil market is there’s still these big concerns about demand.”
President Donald Trump said later on Thursday that the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian drone in a defensive move. Oil prices shed 2% by the end of the day.
To Croft, that “underscores the fact that the situation is far from over,” she told CNBC in a phone call Thursday. “The oil price in no way reflects the risk entailed in this crisis.”
It also makes things more complicated for investors, who are likely “taking a cautious approach” due to the fact that “they don’t know how this thing could escalate” and pricing in political risk is a difficult task, she said.
From these tensions to rising U.S. stockpiles to the U.S.-China trade war to West African crude cargoes “not finding a home” due to weakening demand, there are numerous drivers for worries around demand, Croft said — and, perhaps, not enough to calm them.
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“Geopolitics has been this pillar supporting oil prices, but that really seems to be the main pillar right now, and so there’s all these other big concerns about demand and economic malaise out there,” said Croft, who is also a managing director at her firm.
And if that pillar falls, it could mean trouble for crude prices.
“When we talk to our technicals team, they basically say, ‘Look, if we breach [$]54.60, then we will be looking potentially at the lows we saw earlier this year.’ So, I think that’s a key point to watch,” Croft said. “I think it’s going to be this struggle over the next couple weeks between the demand story and the geopolitical story, and we’re just going to have to see how both stories unfold.”
For now, Croft predicted that the White House would likely keep up its pressure on Iran given how little it has cost the Trump administration so far.
“I think what [Iran is] looking to do is to do these sort of one-off attacks in order to ... raise the cost of the U.S. continuing with the maximum-pressure policy,” she said. “They do not want to sit down at the negotiating table until they get sanctions relief from the United States. But the problem for the Iranians is all these one-off attacks on tankers are not moving the needle on oil prices.”
That makes for an easy win for the Trump administration, the strategist said.
“The fact that they’ve essentially taken two million barrels of Iranian exports off the market over the course of the year and oil is still struggling I think really shows that the U.S. has been able to pursue this policy against Iran without really pushing prices significantly higher,” Croft said. “It’s an amazing feat for the White House.”
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