By Brian L. Milne, Energy Editor, Schneider Electric
The final and holiday-shortened trade week in May brought about a great amount of volatility in US oil markets, which whipsawed in futures and spot trading on a multitude of concerns ranging from assessments of U.S. and global economies, Federal Reserve stimulus efforts, geopolitical tension in Africa and the Middle East, building crude supply and a jump in gasoline demand.
The week ended with heavy selling, with end-of-month book squaring seen accelerating the late week selloff. Wholesale terminal postings for gasoline are down in most major metropolitan markets for the week-ended June 3 as a result, with the exception of sharp double-digit gains in upper Midwest markets, including a more than 20 cents spike in Chicago.
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Key factors in triggering the late May selloff, which pressed New York Mercantile Exchange oil futures to one-month lows, was slowing economic growth in China and speculation the Federal Reserve would begin unwinding its $85 billion per month bond buying program.
The latest Economic Outlook by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecasts China’s economy would expand at a subpar 7.8% rate this year, matching the 2012 growth rate following years of double-digit growth. China is seen accounting for roughly half of the growth in global oil demand this year, while slower expansion by the world’s second largest economy could cut into that demand some speculate.
Since the Fed’s announcement of its bond buying program many analysts questioned what the reaction would be when the central bank ends the policy, with some expecting a massive selloff in equities and commodities. The program was seen running through 2014 at least, potentially longer, but supportive signs showing the US economy improving, growing at a 2.4% annual rate in the first quarter, have some thinking this would occur earlier. A Fed bank president in a speech last week suggested it could happen as early as the second half of this year, saying the central bank would likely avoid an abrupt change in policy, instead paring down these purchases.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported a 3.0 million barrel build in US crude stocks for the week-ended May 24, pushing supply to 397.6 million bbl—the highest supply level in EIA records which date back to 1982. On the supportive side, EIA said in the same report that implied demand leading up to the Memorial Day weekend jumped to 8.956 million barrels per day—the highest weekly demand rate since late August 2012.
The gain in gasoline demand did prompt buying after the data was published, but was gradually discounted as some saw the increase as simply a seasonal gain that wouldn’t otherwise alter a weakening trend in US gasoline demand, which has averaged 8.485 million bpd from Jan. 1 through May 24—flat with 2012. Some analysts also highlighted that some of this demand might have been supply positioning closer to retail outlets ahead of the Memorial Day holiday, believing weekly demand numbers might slip in the following week.
For the Midwest however, a region with historically low gasoline supply due to major refinery upgrades, planned refinery maintenance, and unexpected shutdowns, gasoline prices spiked. The market had anticipated three fluid catalytic crackers—gasoline producing units—shut in mid-May to have returned to service in late May. EIA data instead showed a drop in the region’s refinery runs to their lowest weekly rate in years at 78.8%. This compares with an 86.4% national run rate.
Hobbling into the 2013 peak demand period for gasoline, drivers in the Midwest could see their gasoline prices hold a premium to the rest of the country for weeks to come.
About the Author
Brian L. Milne is the Energy Editor for Schneider Electric—a leading business-to-business provider of real-time commodity information services among many other activities. Milne has been focused on the energy industry for 17 years as an analyst, journalist and editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.