(Reuters) - Hedge funds began the year by slashing their bullish wagers on U.S. crude oil to the lowest since 2010, bailing out of the market just as oil prices were tumbling toward 12-year lows, data showed on Friday.
Big speculators cut their net long positions to fewer than 50,000 contracts, or 50 million barrels, in the week to Tuesday, a weekly report from the U.S. government agency that tracks commodity markets activity showed on Friday.
Over the three following days, oil prices tumbled nearly 9.0 percent, more than $3 a barrel, ending the week down 11 percent on fears the global oil glut was getting more unmanageable, along with worries about a stock market crash and slowing growth in China. They hit $32.10 on January 7, the lowest since late 2003.
"Some hedge funds and money managers probably had the motivation to sell even before the market went way lower, although they remain net long," said David Thompson, executive vice-president at Powerhouse, a commodities broker in Washington.
Commodity Futures Trading Commission data showed the managed money net long position in U.S. crude contracts in both New York and London markets fell by 28,946 contracts to 49,180 in the week to Jan. 5, after WTI prices fell 5.0 percent that week to settle at $35.97 a barrel. For the New York Mercantile Exchange futures alone, net length was the lowest since 2010.
Longs are bets on higher prices, while shorts are wagers that the market will fall. The net position squares off the two.
Since the selloff in oil began 18 months ago, traders and investors have wondered how long and deep the slide would go as prices fell from above $100 a barrel to below $40, and looked poised to break below $30 now.
Goldman Sachs, which has said oil could hit $20, said in a note on Friday the market needs to see sustained low prices through the first quarter "so producers will move budgets down to reflect $40 a barrel oil for 2016.