Column: Oil prices lose momentum as funds cut positions

LONDON, May 24 (Reuters) - Portfolio managers trimmed their bullish positions in petroleum last week for the second week running, after prices again failed to break through the recent ceiling around $70 per barrel.

Hedge funds and other money managers sold the equivalent of 35 million barrels in the six most important petroleum futures and options contracts in the week to May 18, according to exchange and regulatory data.

Sales were concentrated in Brent (-25 million barrels) and NYMEX and ICE WTI (-16 million), with small-scale buying in U.S. diesel (+2 million) and European gas oil (+4 million), and no change in U.S. gasoline.

Most adjustments came from selling previous bullish long positions (-28 million barrels), with only a small number of new bearish short ones initiated (+7 million), which suggests most changes were due to profit-taking.

Fund managers now hold a combined net long position across all six contracts of 836 million barrels, up by almost half a billion barrels since the start of November, before successful vaccine trials were announced.

Managers remain bullish overall, with the combined position in the 77th percentile for all weeks since the start of 2013, and long positions outnumbering shorts by a ratio of 5:1, in the 68th percentile.

But the combined position has been basically stable at 850 million barrels +/- 50 million for nine weeks since the middle of March, indicating the previous position-building has run out of momentum.

Front-month Brent futures have also been essentially flat at $65 per barrel +/- $5 since the start of March, as the price rally too has run out of steam (

For now, the market seems to have settled into an equilibrium around $65, with support from OPEC+ and U.S. shale production restraint offset by the epidemic's persisting impact on international jet fuel consumption.

Related columns:

- Oil prices capped by hedge fund profit-taking (Reuters, May 17) read more

- U.S. petroleum stockpiles normalise after pandemic surge (Reuters, May 6) read more

Editing by David Evans

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John Kemp is a senior market analyst specializing in oil and energy systems. Before joining Reuters in 2008, he was a trading analyst at Sempra Commodities, now part of JPMorgan, and an economic analyst at Oxford Analytica. His interests include all aspects of energy technology, history, diplomacy, derivative markets, risk management, policy and transitions.