The time when oil was (more than) free

Although Covid might be a thing of the past, it is never too late to draw lessons from the unique natural economic experiment it has provided us with. While most might have missed it in the middle of all the drama, April 2020 will be forever recorded in the annals of economic history as the month when the unprecedented occurred in the oil markets: crude oil prices dipped into negative territory. Such events however do not happen without a set of good reasons. This article provides a short description of the peculiar confluence of economic conditions that led to this unique situation and discusses its short and long term consequences. 


The year 2020 began with the world’s economy already on precarious footing, buffeted by trade wars and geopolitical tensions. However, the situation took a dramatic turn with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments worldwide imposed lockdowns and travel restrictions attempting to curb the spread of the virus, leading to a steep decline in economic activity. This sudden halt affected various sectors, with the oil industry being particularly hard-hit due to its dependence on global industrial and transportation activities.

What exactly happened

On April 20, 2020, the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil fell to an unprecedented negative $37.63 per barrel. This phenomenon was not just a historical curiosity but a signal of deep distress in oil markets. The negative price meant that sellers were paying buyers to take oil off their hands. This was a direct result of oil storage facilities reaching their capacities; with nowhere to store the incoming oil, the cost of holding oil exceeded the price it could fetch on the market.


The plunge into negative prices can be primarily attributed to a stark imbalance between supply and demand. On the supply side two main forces were at play. Firstly, major oil plants do not have a ‘switch off’ button. Due to a number of interesting, yet irrelevant factors, at least for the purpose of this story, shutting down or significantly reducing the production will have an effect with a significant delay, causing the short-term supply to be highly inelastic. Secondly, to add insult to injury, the sudden crisis caused a major tension between oil suppliers who usually have to coordinate within an oligarchical structure. Uncertain about the future of their businesses and even more so about the reactions of their competitors, the decision of immediately reducing all production was nothing but obvious. On the demand side, the situation was equally serious. Lockdowns imposed all over the world, caused industrial production and vehicular movement - two main sources of global oil demand - to shut down on a scale unprecedented in recent history. 

Moreover, with oil kept being pumped and no one there willing to buy it, the only alternative was storing it with the hope of future returns. The infrastructure however was never meant to sustain such a major shock and the prices of the limited remaining storage space skyrocketed. Soon every cubic metre suitable for storing oil was occupied and every ship capable of floating was waiting somewhere along the shore filled to the brim with the black gold. On top of that, futures contracts for May delivery came due around the time storage capacity was peaking. These contracts are typically settled physically, and with storage at a premium, the cost dynamics inverted, turning oil into a liability.

The consequences

The immediate economic consequence of negative oil prices was financial distress for oil producers, particularly those engaged in shale oil extraction in the United States, which has higher production costs. Many of these producers faced bankruptcy or severe financial strain, as reflected in a spike in credit spreads within the sector. From a macroeconomic perspective, the negative prices temporarily lowered the input costs for industries reliant on oil, although this benefit was muted by the concurrent demand contraction in most sectors. 


The event of negative oil prices in April 2020 serves as a critical case study for econometricians and policymakers. It underscores the vulnerability of global markets to sudden, extreme shocks like pandemics and highlights the interconnectedness of supply chains and global financial systems. While the negative prices were a short-lived phenomenon, the event has had lasting implications on the strategic decisions of oil-producing nations and companies, particularly concerning production levels and storage capacities.

In conclusion, the 2020 oil price plunge into negative territory was a confluence of extraordinary supply and demand shocks exacerbated by logistical challenges in oil storage. This event has prompted a reevaluation of risk management frameworks in commodity markets and has provided a unique dataset for econometric analysis, enriching our understanding of market dynamics under extreme conditions. The lessons learned will likely influence both market practices and regulatory frameworks in the future, aiming to mitigate such anomalies and stabilise market operations under crisis scenarios.


About this article

Written by:
  • Oliwer Wirkus
| Published on: May 18, 2024