Oil ends March with biggest monthly and quarterly losses ever

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Crude oil benchmarks ended a volatile quarter with their biggest losses in history, as both U.S. and Brent futures were hammered throughout March on the global economic freeze due to the coronavirus pandemic and the eruption of a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

FILE PHOTO: A pump jack operates in front of a drilling rig at sunset in an oil field in Midland, Texas U.S. August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo

Both benchmarks lost roughly two-thirds of their value in the quarter, with March’s declines of about 55% accounting for the lion’s share of the losses.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude salvaged the end of the month with a modest 2% gain on Tuesday, while Brent ended slightly lower.

Global fuel demand has been destroyed by travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Forecasters at major merchants and banks see demand slumping by 20% to 30% in April, and for weak consumption to linger as economic activity is severely curtailed for the next several months.

WTI CLc1 settled 39 cents higher at $20.48 per barrel. The U.S. benchmark plunged 54% during March and 66% for the first quarter, the worst declines since the contract's inception in 1983.

May Brent crude futures LCOc1 ended the session 2 cents lower at $22.74 a barrel ahead of expiration. The international benchmark fell 66% in the first quarter and 55% in March, the worst quarterly and monthly percentage declines on record.

The more-active June contract LCOM0 settled 7 cents lower at $26.35 a barrel.

Oil drew in some buyers after U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to talks on stabilizing energy markets. Markets have been in turmoil for more than three weeks after Saudi Arabia and Russia were unable to come to an agreement to curb supply to combat the growing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

That took prices down sharply earlier in the month, but markets dropped even more as the pandemic worsened. More than 800,000 people have been infected and more than 39,000 have died.

So far it is unclear if Trump and Putin’s efforts will come to fruition. Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries were unable to come to an agreement on Tuesday to meet in April.

Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of OPEC, and Russia, which had allied with OPEC to curb output for more than three years beginning in late 2016, remain at loggerheads. The Saudis plan to boost oil exports to 10.6 million barrels per day (bpd) from May on lower domestic consumption.

The weakness in futures markets has been surpassed by the physical markets, where cargoes are selling at single digits in key markets like Canada, Mexico and Europe, reflecting expectations for the coming collapse in demand that will strand barrels of oil.

“COVID has taken the oil market hostage,” said Michael Tran, managing director of energy strategy at RBC Capital Markets in New York.

“The unprecedented pace of demand destruction has forced the hand of refineries, on a global level, to issue run cuts, leaving barrels from the U.S. to the North Sea, to Asia searching, often unsuccessfully, for homes.”

Fuel demand is expected to fall sharply in coming months, with Trafigura’s chief economist predicting a 30% falloff in demand. Worldwide aviation is basically shut down, and motorists are staying off the roads.

“It’s just a matter of time before we see the producers be forced by the crude gatherers to cut as one cannot ‘gather’ crude when there are no buyers or tanks to store it in,” said Scott Shelton, energy specialist at United ICAP.

U.S. crude output fell to 12.7 million bpd in January from 12.8 million bpd in December, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in a monthly report on Tuesday.

That was the first time since July 2019 that U.S. crude output has declined two months in a row. Goldman Sachs anticipates that U.S. supply will fall by roughly 1.4 million bpd by the third quarter of 2021 to deal with falling demand.

A Reuters survey of 40 analysts forecast Brent crude prices LCOc1 would average $38.76 a barrel in 2020, 36% lower than the $60.63 forecast in a February survey.

Additional reporting by Ahmad Ghaddar in London, Jane Chung in Seoul and Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Editing by Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio