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U.S. Oil Prices Turned Negative for the First Time Ever. Here’s What You Need to Know

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  • U.S. oil prices fell to negative numbers for the first time in history, plummeting by more than $50 per barrel to negative $37.
  • That means oil traders now have to pay people to buy oil.
  • The drop was caused by the fact that oil-rich countries have kept producing the same amount of oil even though demand has been slowing for months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Saudi Arabia even increased its production.
  • High supply and low demand resulted in a lack of storage space that made buyers not want to buy, which in turn caused panic among traders.

Oil Prices See Historic Drop

The price of oil in the U.S. turned negative for the first time in history on Monday, when prices fell by more than $50 per barrel to negative $37.

So if you’ve always wanted to get a barrel of oil for whatever reason, now is the time to do it because oil sellers are paying people to take their supply.

The negative prices basically mean that anyone trying to sell a barrel of oil has to pay their buyer $37 per barrel, instead of the other way around.

Here’s what you need to know about this historic drop, why it happened, and what it means for the economy, the oil industry, and you.

High Supply, Low Demand

There are a couple of different reasons that oil prices fell to an all-time low.

The first is fairly straightforward: demand for oil is low because of the pandemic. People are driving less, planes are flying less— the demand is just not there.

According to the Washington Post, demand is now around 25% to 30% below what it was when the economy gradually began to shut down starting in January.

But while demand was steadily falling, oil-producing countries still kept producing oil even up until early April. This was, in large part, due to a dispute among the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Last month, members of OPEC attempted to strike a deal to cut production to address lower demand, but Russia refused. Long story short, that led to a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, and Saudi Arabia responded by flooding the market with even more oil.

Eventually, OPEC reached an agreement on April 12 to cut oil production by 10%, but the damage was already done. By then, most places in the U.S. were shut down, and air travel was a moot point. 

In other words, demand was dropping while supply was pretty much staying the same— even increasing on the Saudi-side of things.

Storage Problems

In general, when supply is greater than demand, prices fall, but that alone does not explain Monday’s drastic drop. The high supply also created another problem.

Excess supply means there are literal tons and tons of oil barrels with no one to buy them and nowhere to go. That might not sound like that big of a deal, but it is.

Think about it this way: if the demand for milk is low, and farmers have a milk supply that’s too big, they can just dump the milk. But turns out, when you do that with oil, it’s considered an environmental disaster.

Normally, any extra oil is put in storage, but with way more extra oil than the market is used to, that storage starts running out real quick.

According to energy experts, the world as a whole has an estimated storage capacity for 6.8 billion barrels— and nearly 60% is filled.

While this is a global issue, it is an especially big problem in the U.S. For example, one of the most critical storage facilities in the U.S. is in Cushing, Oklahoma, where oil traded on the market is delivered.

According to the New York Times, that facility, which can house 80 million barrels, only has room for 21 million more— meaning closer to 75% of that storage is full.

That is significant because analysts believe that the lack of storage at that key facility is what set off the panic among oil traders that eventually resulted in the negative prices.

Hate the Player and the Game

That brings us to reason number three for the drop in prices: the way oil is traded.

For those of you who are not commodities specialists on Wall Street, it’s important to know that oil is traded in the market based on its future price.

What that means is when traders sell oil on the market to buyers like oil refineries, what they are actually selling is a contract that says they will sell the oil for a set price at a set future date. That’s known as a futures contract.

So when someone, probably wearing a top hat, says “oil prices,” they are not talking about a physical barrel filled with oil— they’re actually talking about the price of the futures contract. 

When you buy a futures contract, you’re agreeing to buy 1,000 barrels of oil, and the price of that contract depends on supply, demand, and quality. Each contract trades for a month, and when it expires, the buyer either needs to take physical possession of their oil or store it. 

But no one wanted that oil because there is no demand and no place to store it. And because Tuesday is the last day to buy those May contracts, Monday’s events were the result of a massive rush to sell. 

What Now?

That’s how we got here, but what does this mean now for the economy and for you?

If you’re thinking it means you’ll get paid to pump gas at the gas station, think again. That said, in general, cheap oil means cheaper gas prices— a trend we have already been seeing— so it is likely you’ll see prices fall at the pump.

As for the oil industry, the future is mixed. Regarding the negative prices, experts generally think that is a short-term thing, with some even describing it as a technicality. Already, futures contracts for June are still trading for around $22 a barrel, which experts say is more reflective of the market than the May prices.

But $22 is still much lower than normal. If prices stay low, smaller oil producers are likely to go bankrupt, and there could be some long-term damage. As more oil facilities are forced to close and stop production, more and more people will lose their jobs. Many may be forced to go bankrupt, which could lead to more long-term unemployment.

Moreover, experts say that this is part of a much, much bigger trend. This oil situation, combined with closing factories and businesses and raising unemployment points to what is known as a deflationary collapse where there is a huge supply of goods and services that demand cannot meet, causing prices to fall.

This is something that happens, but some experts say this will be unlike anything most people have seen before.

There are a few things that can be done to help from the U.S. perspective. According to the Financial Times, this includes, “urging deeper cuts from Opec; tariffs on foreign oil imports; freeing up more storage capacity, including in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR); paying producers to keep oil in the ground; or extending financial support to oil companies.” 

President Donald Trump, for his part, said Monday that he is looking at putting as much as 75 million barrels in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is used to store oil during crises.

But there is already 635 million barrels of oil in the reserve, and 75 million more would put it at max capacity.

In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump seemed to indicate he would bail out the oil industry.

But bailouts to oil companies could be controversial. When the administration recently proposed spending $3 billion to fill the reserve as part of the stimulus package, Congressional Democrats refused.

And with more people unemployed, funds for small business loans already run dry, and hospitals continuing to struggle, it is hard to imagine that Democrats will want to prioritize the oil industry.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Financial Times)

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As Unemployment Claims Rise, CA Officials Report Inmates Collected Millions in Benefits

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  • Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
  • Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
  • Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

Unemployment Numbers Spike

Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.

According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.

As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.

Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.

Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.

That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.

But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year. 

However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.

Inmate Unemployment Fraud

Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.

On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”

According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.

In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.

In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.

In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.

As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.

However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.

Looking Forward

In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so. 

Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.

However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.

The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.

Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.” 

California, of course, is not the only state having these issues with unemployment insurance fraud. There have also been similar reports of fraud in Massachusetts, Illinois, Kansas, and other states.

These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.

As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today

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COVID-19 Cases Expected To Surge After Thanksgiving

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  • With coronavirus cases already on a steep rise in the U.S, experts are warning that Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will likely make things worse. Canada, for example, saw a jump in cases after its citizens celebrated the holiday last month.
  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that Americans should hold out for a vaccine, which is on the horizon, and be safe this Thanksgiving.
  • A family in Texas is also waring against gathering, saying they learned how dangerous it is the hard way. After celebrating a birthday together, all 15 people who attended the party tested positive for the virus.
  • On top of this experts are also warning against thinking a negative test clears you for socialization. In reality, you can test negative for the virus and still have and transmit it.

Warning From Surgeon General 

As Thanksgiving looms closer, warnings against family gatherings are being echoed by experts and everyday people alike. 

Health officials have been vocal about the threat the Thanksgiving holiday poses when it comes to the coronavirus. The U.S. has seen 12.4 million cases and lost 257,000 lives to the virus, and cases have been on a steep increase this month. The CDC has already warned against travel and experts have said that based on the spike Canada saw after its October Thanksgiving, America is set to go down a similar, or even worse path. 

“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus by any measure,”  U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Monday on Good Morning America.Cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths. We’re seeing more Americans negatively impacted than ever before.” 

Adams said that with a vaccine on the horizon, Americans should just wait out this homestretch and stay put for the holiday.

“I’m asking Americans, begging you, hold on just a little bit longer,” he said. “Keep Thanksgiving and the celebration small and smart this year.” 

Family in Texas Urges Caution

Health officials are not the only ones preaching this advice. In Arlington, Texas, a family that has lived the consequences of gathering without regard for public health is urging people to not make the same mistake as them. The Aragonez family celebrated a birthday earlier this month indoors without masks or distancing. Now, all 15 people who attended tested positive for the virus. 

“We feel guilty for gathering,” members of the family said in a video encouraging caution. “All this pain that my family is feeling, this loneliness, this sickness, this longing to be healthy could have been prevented.” 

“Please don’t be like my family and ignore the CDC guidelines,” one person said. “By staying apart we can fight this virus together.” 

While most cases in the family were mild, one person was hospitalized for over a week.

“One moment of carelessness has cost us a month of peace, has cost us sleep, has cost us laughs, has cost us a lot of money,” one family member told the Washington Post. 

Testing Negative is Not Enough

Many have still forged on with their gathering plans under the false idea that if everyone tests negative before attending, they are in the clear to socialize. However, experts warn this is far from the case.

Just because a person tests negative does not necessarily mean they do not have the virus. Tests are not 100% accurate and it can take days or even a week to test positive for the virus after exposure. Not to mention, people could come into contract with the virus between their test and the family event. 

“A negative result is a snapshot in time,”  Dr. Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago explaining to the New York Times. “It’s telling you that, at that exact second you are tested, the virus was not detected. It does not mean you’re not infected.”

While it might slightly minimize the risk of spread, it certainly does not eliminate it. More than anything, it gives people a false sense of security that they have a free pass to go wherever and see whoever they want, despite the fact that it still poses a large health threat.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Washington Post) (Associated Press)

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Over 1 Million People Traveled Through U.S. Airports Friday, Despite COVID-19 Warnings

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  • Over 1 million people traveled through U.S. airports on Friday, marking the second-highest single day of airport traffic since the coronavirus pandemic began.
  • The new record comes despite the fact that the CDC has issued a warning against travel for Thanksgiving, encouraging people to stay home instead because COVID-19 cases are already on a steep rise.
  • In Canada, cases spiked after the country celebrated their Thanksgiving holiday in October.
  • While cases were already increasing in the country, contact tracing has linked outbreaks to holiday gatherings, which likely accelerated the speed of spread.

Cases and Travel Both Increase

The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is expected to worsen the already increasing coronavirus outbreak in the United States. 

Currently, the country has seen over 12.3 million cases and lost more than 256,000 lives to this virus. On Friday, the U.S. broke its record for new cases in a single day, reporting 198,500 cases. The daily average has reached 171,462 cases a day and roughly one-quarter of all cases in the U.S. have come from just the month of November. 

These circumstances paint a grim picture of what could come after all of the traveling and large gatherings that are expected to happen over the holiday, even after repeated warning against doing so.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned against traveling and advised that “postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

The CDC told travelers to ask themselves questions, like if cases are high in their home or destination, if their method of travel makes social distancing difficult, and if there are travel restrictions in their area. If the answers to any of those questions are yes, people should “consider making other plans, such as hosting a virtual gathering or delaying your travel.”

Despite these warnings, air travel is on the rise in the country. On Friday, more than 1 million people passed through airports, marking the second-busiest day of air travel since the pandemic began. While this is 1.5 million people less than the same day last year, the travel surge troubles health officials who fear the virus could spread as people gather with their families. 

Case Spike After Canada’s Thanksgiving

All the U.S. has to do is look to its neighbor to the North in order to find out just what kind of impact Thanksgiving can have on coronavirus cases. Two weeks after Canada’s Thanksgiving in October, the country saw a spike in cases. While cases were already on the rise at the time, experts believe that holiday gatherings contributed to and accelerated the spread.

“Cases were indeed increasing already, but we definitely saw an increase in the rate of transmission after Thanksgiving. And we know that Thanksgiving is important for a couple of reasons. One is through contact tracing data,” Dr. Laura Rosella, an associate professor and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto told CBS News.

Contact tracing in the country showed a significant transmission from household gatherings stemming from Thanksgiving. 

“One local health unit that reported about 12 people being infected because of a Thanksgiving gathering,” Rosella explained. 

It’s not the only reason the cases are increasing, it’s not the only setting in which transmission is occurring, but definitely when people gathered indoors it did transmit COVID.”

Superspreading Events

Still, people are more likely to feel safe with their family, no matter how high the COVID-19 risk actually is. Superspreading weddings are among the strongest examples of this, as numerous have led to significant outbreaks because couples thought it was safe to gather with friends, family, and other people they trust.

“Many people don’t believe that you can actually catch it from your family and friends. They feel safe when they are around people that they know,” Karen Potts, the director of the Adams County Health Department in eastern Washington explained to NBC News. “And I think that’s why this sort of event happens. People just feel safe, and they go to the event, and it just spreads so rapidly.”

One August wedding in Maine, for instance, was liked to 177 coronavirus cases and 7 deaths. Many of those cases include people who did not attend the wedding. In fact, none of the deaths traced back to the wedding were attendees. 

An October wedding in Cincinnati led to 32 of the 83 guests getting COVID-19, including grandparents of the bride and groom. In Washington, a 300 person wedding earlier this month has led to 17 people getting the virus so far. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (NBC News) (Washington Post)

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