COLUMN-Funds sell oil as economic fears trump supply threats: Kemp

(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)

* Chartbook:

LONDON, May 20 (Reuters) - Hedge funds continued to liquidate some of their bullish position in oil last week as concerns about the economy and the outlook for consumption outweighed escalating tensions and the threat to supplies in the Middle East.

Hedge funds and other money managers cut their combined net long position in the six major petroleum futures and options contracts by 19 million barrels in the week to May 14.

Fund managers have now cut their net long position for three weeks running, by a total of 61 million barrels, after raising it 609 million barrels over the previous 15 weeks since Jan. 8 (

Selling was concentrated in crude (-22 million barrels) and for the first time spread to Brent (-9 million) as well as NYMEX and ICE WTI (-13 million), according to position records published by regulators and exchanges.

By contrast, funds made only small changes in fuels: net purchases of U.S. gasoline (+1 million barrels), sales of U.S. heating oil (-2 million barrels) and purchases of European gasoil (+4 million barrels).

Portfolio managers are likely to be liquidating some of their bullish crude positions after the market appeared to become overextended and amid concern about the deteriorating economic outlook.

The concentration of long positions had become a major source of downside price risk, if and when managers attempted to realise some of their profits after the rally since the start of the year.

Fund managers have now reduced their ratio of long to short positions in crude to 7:1, down from a recent peak of more than 10:1 on April 23 (and to 4:1 from 8:1 in the case of WTI).

In fuels, however, the relatively low level of inventories has encouraged funds to remain very bullish, at least in the case of U.S. gasoline and European gasoil.

Gasoline consumption is expected to accelerate during the U.S. summer driving season while the introduction of new marine fuel regulations should give a boost to gasoil consumption towards the end of the year.

Overall, however, hedge fund managers are realising profits after a big run up in prices during the first four months of the year as uncertainty grows about the consumption outlook for the remainder of the year.

Related columns:

- Oil prices trapped by grim news from emerging markets (Reuters, May 15)

- Hedge funds cautious on oil as economic outlook darkens (Reuters, May 13)

- Oil prices correct lower on hedge fund sales (Reuters, May 7)

- Hedge funds’ oil positions start to look stretched (Reuters, April 15) (Editing by David Goodman)