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For the first time since late 2014, US oil prices are back above $80 per barrel — a boon for the energy industry, which was battered during the pandemic, but bad news for the economic recovery as winter approaches.
What’s happening: West Texas Intermediate futures, the US crude benchmark, finished Monday at $80.52 per barrel. The price for November delivery is up again Tuesday, putting the commodity on track for its fourth straight trading session of gains.
The recent rally in oil prices has boosted energy stocks. The iShares US Energy ETF, an exchange-traded fund that tracks the sector, is up 51% year-to-date, and has risen nearly 8% in October alone. The S&P 500 is up 16% in 2021 and has climbed just 1.3% this month.
The conditions are in place for oil prices to stay elevated for some time, UBS analyst Giovanni Staunovo told me.
Demand for energy is poised to get a boost from increased travel, as some destinations in Asia ease restrictions and the United States prepares to welcome vaccinated foreign visitors starting in November.
At the same time, a spike in the price of natural gas and coal is encouraging some energy suppliers to turn to oil for power generation.
“In large parts of Asia and Europe, it is [now] cheaper to burn crude than natural gas,” Staunovo said.
In China, thermal coal futures surged 11% Tuesday to a record high as mining hubs grapple with heavy rains and deadly accidents. Coal stocks at most of India’s power plants have dropped to critically low levels.
Staunovo predicts that US oil will trade around $77 per barrel over the next 12 months, while Brent futures, the global benchmark, could stick around $80 per barrel.
But some forecasts are even more bullish. Citigroup on Monday hiked its Brent oil outlook to $85 a barrel for the fourth quarter and said crude will likely hit $90 at times. Bank of America has warned that a cold winter could lift Brent crude to $100 per barrel for the first time since 2014.
Reality check: Analysts warn that higher oil prices won’t change the long-term picture for the industry, as the energy transition eats away at demand for fossil fuels. On Monday, Chevron announced that it would try to cut emissions from its operations to net zero by 2050 as shareholders push the company to do more to address the climate crisis.
“The sector’s long-term downtrend remains very much in place,” Bespoke Investment Group recently told clients.
And the spike in energy prices makes it harder to determine the trajectory of the global economy in the coming months, as some economists and investors highlight fears of “stagflation,” the toxic combination of high inflation and stagnant growth. Higher energy costs could weigh on businesses as factories are forced to stall production, while households facing higher energy bills may reduce spending in other areas.
“There is a fairly strong bias that stagflation of some kind is more likely than not over the next 12 months,” Deutsche Bank said in a research note this week following a survey of more than 600 global market professionals.
Is China’s real estate sector about to buckle?
The trickle of news from Evergrande in recent weeks may not seem like it amounts to much. A missed bond payment here. Another there.
But the failing Chinese real estate conglomerate still has the capacity to generate market and economic shockwaves.
This just in: Evergrande stayed silent about its fate Tuesday after reportedly failing to make interest payments on another international bond — the third such deadline it appears to have missed in recent weeks, my CNN Business colleague Michelle Toh reports.
The question is whether Evergrande will be bailed out or restructured by Beijing, and whether that will be enough to prevent contagion.
Other Chinese real estate firms with large debt loads are coming under pressure, too. On Monday, developer Sinic Holdings said that it would “likely” default on some of its bond payments due this year, while Modern Land asked investors for more time to repay a $250 million bond. Two independent directors at Fantasia Holdings, a Shenzhen-based developer of luxury apartments that defaulted on some bond payments last week, announced they were stepping down.
Remember: The real estate sector is extremely important to China’s economy. UBS estimates that it drives a quarter of the country’s economic growth, though some believe the contribution is even higher. It also generates significant revenue for local governments and is a key driver of household wealth. That puts pressure on the government to intervene if it looks like the situation could spiral out of control.
UBS sees debt restructuring for Evergrande as “unavoidable.” But there are also risks to the broader sector. While the bank is already penciling in a “modest property downturn” where new housing projects drop 10% in the second half of the year, it also is warning of a worst-case scenario in which new projects plunge by more than 20% and real estate investment falls by 10%.
That would create a sizable drag on the Chinese economy, hurting output just as factory production slows.
Thousands of flight cancellations ding Southwest’s stock
It’s not a great time to be flying Southwest (LUV) — or, for that matter, to own the company’s stock.
Shares fell more than 4% on Monday after the company canceled thousands of flights over the weekend. Disruptions continued Monday, when the company had to call off about 10% of its schedule, according to aviation tracking website FlightAware.
Driving the problem: The company blamed the cancellations on air traffic control problems and limited staffing in Florida, as well as bad weather, my CNN Business colleague Ramishah Maruf reports. It said that getting operations back to normal was “more difficult and prolonged” because of schedule and staffing reductions made during the pandemic.
“We’ve continued diligent work throughout the weekend to reset our operation with a focus on getting aircraft and crews repositioned to take care of our customers,” the airline said.
It pushed back on speculation that the meltdown was the result of employee concerns about its vaccine mandate, which was announced last week to comply with federal rules.
Step back: Southwest is having a difficult year. The airline had the worst on-time performance and the greatest percentage of canceled flights of any of the nation’s four major airlines in June and July, according to flight tracking service Cirium. And passengers aren’t the only ones who are upset. Unions for pilots, flight attendants and mechanics have all complained about Southwest’s operations.
Its shares are still up almost 11% this year, outperforming rivals Delta Air Lines and JetBlue. But American Airlines and United appear to be taking better advantage of the rebound in travel, sending their stocks up roughly 28% and 14%, respectively.
The International Monetary Fund’s latest update on the world economy is due later Tuesday.
Also today: Data on US job openings for August arrives at 10 a.m. ET.