Oil Continues To Move Higher On Middle East Fears

Oil futures in New York settled at their highest since December 2014. U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate climbed 0.35% to close at $68.88 a barrel. International benchmark Brent crude rose 0.88% to $74.71 a barrel.

The gains were unusual in that the U.S. dollar strengthened today. (Since oil is priced in dollars, a stronger dollar usually means lower oil prices since it takes fewer of those stronger dollars to buy a barrel of oil.)

But the markets had news of another missile attack on Saudi Arabia–again unsuccessful–by Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis are backed by Iran and Yemen has become a proxy war for power in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and by extension, Russia and the United States.)

This most recent unsuccessful attack–the Saudi’s have been pretty good at shooting down missiles aimed at Riyadh–probably wouldn’t have rattled financial and commodity markets this much except for the looming May 12 deadline for President Donald Trump to extend or end U.S. participation in the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama Administration, Russia, China, and U.S. European allies. If President Trump decides that Iran is not in compliance with the deal, he is likely to reimposed sanctions on Iran’s economy and financial system. The fear is that Iran won’t take those sanctions with a gentle shrug (even if they are likely to be relatively ineffective since the other signatories to the deal aren’t likely to go along with the reimposition of sanctions.)

Iran would have lots of potential paths for expressing its ire–ramping up the conflict with Saudi Arabia, sending more arms to the Hezbollah and other groups hostile to Israel, making trouble in Iraq and making more trouble in Syria.  Some of these steps would risk disruption of Middle Eastern oil supplies either by an Iranian attack or by some one else–Saudi Arabia or Israel–attacking Iranian oil facilities.

If you’re going to hedge this geopolitical mess do it now rather than later. The long trade on oil is starting to get crowded and hedge funds are increasingly betting on $80 oil. When those bets are in place, you have to ask yourself, who would be buying on the prospects of $90 a barrel oil?

I’ve added a number of stocks and options on those stocks to my portfolios in recent weeks and months. In my Jubak Picks, 50 Stocks, Dividend, and Volatility Portfolios you can find picks on Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD), Diamondback Energy (FANG), YPF (YPF), Statoil Oil (STO), Schlumberger (SLB), and Helmerich & Payne (HP.) I continue to hold all of those picks.