A perfect storm is on track to force oil below $50 a barrel, driving a sudden drop in the stock market on Wednesday.
A lack of cohesion among OPEC members, oil ministers predicting a fall in prices at a conference last week, the sudden growth of U.S. crude oil stockpiles and production and seasonal maintenance on United States oil refineries that will limit activity have all contributed to the sudden drop, experts say.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell about 70 points, with Caterpillar and Chevron — both oil-related companies — experiencing the largest losses. The S&P 500 closed 0.2 percent lower, with energy as a whole falling more than 2.5 percent and suffering the biggest drop in all sectors.
The likely culprit: U.S. crude prices fell more than five percent to settle at slightly more than $50 per barrel, which is quickly becoming the economic standard. For traders, $50 a barrel is considered “the fail-safe” for the oil market, but — as this perfect storm brews and prices fall below that level — the new target could be $42 a barrel.
For the last three months, oil prices have ranged between $49.61 and $55.24 a barrel, but the resource is set to fall to a new low, John Kilduff, founding partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital, told CNBC.
Two of the largest drivers of the new price are the American growth of oil storage and production, frustrating the efforts of OPEC, Russia and 10 other nations to curb their own production to maintain or increase oil prices.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States’ crude oil storage jumped to 8.2 million barrels from the previous week — four times higher than expected. Meanwhile, U.S. oil production continues to grow closer to 9.1 million barrels a day, the highest level in more than a year.
The Middle Eastern trading alliance and Russia’s economies are closely tied to the resource, and the continued fall might cause OPEC to extend its decreased output.
President of Lipow Oil Associates Andy Lipow told CNBC that if oil prices goes below $50 a barrel, market watchers can expect more talk from oil ministers about extending the OPEC agreement another six months when producers meet in May.
"I think that OPEC is hoping they can wait it out so they don't have to make a decision in May to continue with production cuts, but they may be forced into that decision given the high inventories here in the U.S.," he said, adding that the inventory will continue to grow through the season of refinery maintenance.
Those inventory builds are likely to continue through the refinery maintenance season, according to Lipow.
Tom Kloza, the global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service, said that no one should panic yet.
"We may break below that range for about 90 days, but in the end I think we'll be above it come driving season," Kloza told CNBC.
"From now through — let's say — May, it may be stormy times,” he added.