Picture: BLOOMBERG/DANIEL ACKER
Picture: BLOOMBERG/DANIEL ACKER

SINGAPORE — Brent crude futures fell to a fresh 11-year low on Thursday as a sliding yuan and an emergency halt in China’s stock trading left Asian markets in a turmoil, while a huge supply overhang and near-record output levels also continued to drag on oil prices.

China accelerated the devaluation of the yuan on Thursday, sending currencies across the region reeling and domestic stock markets tumbling, as investors feared the Asian giant was kicking off a virtual trade war against its competitors.

Trading on its stock markets was suspended for the rest of the day, the second time this week, and China’s securities regulator intervened heavily by issuing rules to restrict share sales by listed companies’ major shareholders.

Tracking the weakness across financial markets, the global benchmark Brent fell to $33.09 a barrel, the weakest since 2004 and below the previous 11-year low from Wednesday.

Prices, however, edged back to $33.42 by 4.40am GMT.

"With oil markets producing 1-million barrels a day in excess (of demand) and very little sign of any rational response from the supply side, it’s little wonder we’re seeing pressure again," CMC Markets chief market strategist Michael McCarthy said in Sydney.

Global oil prices have lost 70% since mid-2014 as near-record output from major producers such as the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), Russia and North America has left storage tanks brimming with supplies.

Compounding the oil market woes is a weakening demand, especially in Asia, home to the world’s number-two oil consumer, China, that is seeing the slowest economic growth in a generation.

"The Chinese economy actually contracted in December and that’s adding fire to the fear of a more rapid slowdown in the world’s second biggest economy," Mr McCarthy said.

Financial markets fear the yuan’s rapid depreciation may accelerate, which would mean China’s economy is even weaker than had been imagined. Offshore yuan fell to a fresh record low on Thursday since trading started in 2010.

With the global economy looking shaky due to China’s slowdown, analysts said the outlook for oil remained for cheap prices for much of this year.

"We think low $30s (a barrel) is a floor, but once positioning gets so biased anything can happen," Energy Aspects analyst Virendra Chauhan said in Singapore.

In the US, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures set fresh 2009 lows of $32.77 a barrel, with prices crawling back to $33.17 by 4.40am GMT.

Analysts said a build-up in US stockpiles was the main reason for the drop in WTI prices.

"The US inventory numbers showed a 16-million increase in distillates and other products, so it’s clear they’re still producing at rates that are unsustainable," Mr McCarthy said.

The huge storage overhang means that even if US production falls this year as drillers succumb to low prices, it will take many months to work down excess supply.

Reuters