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Moves In Energy Futures Remain Relatively Muted
January trading is winding down with gasoline trying to lead the energy complex on another rally, while oil prices are resisting the pull higher. Both ULSD and RBOB futures are hovering near 11 month highs, with buyers pushing up crack spreads that are struggling to keep pace with surging RIN values that are threatening to be the straw that breaks the backs of some refiners struggling through the COVID demand destruction.
The moves in energy futures remain relatively muted, even as equity markets around the world are seeing a sharp increase in volatility this week.
Electric cars are all over the news this week after the President announced a plan to overhaul the federal fleet with electric vehicles, which caught many – who anticipated a push towards renewable fuels – off-guard. A Reuters report yesterday suggests that big oil lobbyists are reaching out to big ag in Washington to try and come up with a way to fight that plan. Meanwhile, GM announced plans to completely phase out internal combustion engine powered vehicles by 2035, joining California’s governor in the lofty electric vehicle goals that will be powered by _________ (they haven’t got that far yet). A recent study by California’s energy commission suggests to accomplish the goal, the state alone will need 1.5 million electric charging stations in the next 10 years, while the President’s plan lays out just 500,000 for the entire country.
Valero’s Q4 earnings release shed more light on the challenging operating environment for refiners. The company’s refining segment reported an operating loss of $476 million (excluding LIFO adjustments) during the quarter, compared to $1.4 billion in income during Q4 2019. The company’s renewable diesel and ethanol segments were profitable during the quarter, but also saw reduced earnings compared to the prior year. Perhaps most notable in the release is that Valero, via its Diamond Green joint venture, is planning to quadruple its renewable diesel production in the next couple of years with an expansion of their existing facility in St. Charles, and with a new plant at Valero’s Port Arthur refinery.
The EIA this morning published a closer look at the global demand destruction in Petroleum products last year, which shattered all records for the 40 some years the agency has been tracking this data.
Chaotic Trading Grips Pockets Of U.S. Equity Markets
Gasoline futures just broke above $1.60 for the first time since you first heard about COVID-19, after Reddit users decided to band together and punish those shorting the RBOB market. That’s not really why it happened. It just seemed fitting giving the headlines of the day. In reality, the chaotic trading that’s gripped pockets of U.S. equity markets this week hasn’t seemed to spill over into energy markets yet, which have been relatively quiet over the past few weeks during the steady climb higher.
After a slow overnight session there has been a bit of excitement just before 8 a.m. central, as refined products have rallied 2-3 cents off of small overnight losses, pushing which seems to be following a bounce in equities after the Q4 GPD estimate and initial jobless claims were released. If you’re wondering why equity and commodity markets might rally after a weaker than expected read on the economy, remember we’re back in the days of bad news can be good news as it will encourage more fiscal and monetary stimulus that props up prices.
RIN values continue to lend support to gasoline and diesel prices, as their steady march higher continued Wednesday. No word yet on if any hedge funds had been shorting RINs before this move, but as long as that rally continues it will put more pressure on refiners that don’t have their own blending capabilities. That seems to be a contributing factor for refined products setting new 11 month highs this morning while crude oil prices are still lingering just below technical resistance.
The DOE’s weekly status report showed the largest draw down in crude oil inventories in six months, which helped the entire complex wipe out the modest losses it had seen earlier Wednesday morning. The bounce was not able to sustain itself however as it became clear for those that could read beyond the headline numbers, that a one million barrel/day drop in imports, and a one million barrel/day increase in exports were the drivers of that big decline in inventories, not a surge in refinery runs and overall consumption. That suggests the drop is a short lived event and we should see a large bounce back in the next week or two as those trade flows stabilize.
Gasoline demand dipped and remains well below normal seasonal levels, roughly 1.1 million barrels/day (11%) below the prior five year average. Diesel demand meanwhile increased, and is holding near the five year average seasonal range, and impressive feat given the known reductions in diesel-consuming vehicles involved in mass transit. Refinery runs dipped slightly on the week, and are about 1.2 million barrels/day below where we’d expect them to be in late January most years.
Energy Futures Ticking Modestly Lower
Energy futures are ticking modestly lower to start Wednesday’s trade, following equity markets into the red without yet threatening the upward trend. The correlation of daily price moves between the S&P 500 and petroleum futures remains strong (close to 90%), even as the relationship between moves in the U.S. Dollar and energy contracts has fallen apart in recent weeks.
Gasoline is leading the move lower this morning, pulling back from the 11 month highs set Tuesday, after the API reported an increase of three million barrels of gasoline inventory last week. That report also showed a build of 1.4 million barrels in distillate inventories, while crude stocks dropped by 5.3 million barrels. The EIA’s weekly report is due out at its normal time today.
The Fed’s Open Market Committee wraps up its first meeting of the year today. The market is pricing in zero percent probability of an interest rate change at this meeting, and in fact, is not expecting a change until September at the earliest, according to the CME’s Fedwatch tool based on assurances from the Fed leaders. With so much focus on fiscal stimulus in Washington, it’s hard to imagine the FED saying anything today that would suggest a pullback in Monetary stimulus, and reassurance of that stance seems to be what the bulls need to hear today.
The CME Group (parent company of the NYMEX, CBOT AND CBOE exchanges) is jumping on the carbon credit trading bandwagon, with plans to launch an emissions offset futures contract in March. The move by the CME adds yet another to a long list of various emission program contracts, and comes at a time when the exchange’s most popular offering – WTI crude oil futures – are coming under pressure from competing contracts based in Houston.
A new way for refiners to cut emissions (and costs?): Flint Hills is reportedly analyzing adding a large solar farm to its MN refinery complex to help power the plant’s operations.
Aggressive Goals For Vaccine Rollouts
Gasoline prices rallied to fresh 11 month highs overnight, heading for a sixth straight day of gains, after the energy complex bounced off of trend support and erased early losses Monday. Relaxing COVID restrictions in New York and California, and aggressive goals for vaccine rollouts are all getting some credit for the rally. U.S. equity markets saw a similar bounce after some heavy early selling Monday, with markets choosing to focus on the potential for growth to come, rather than some weaker manufacturing data reported yesterday.
Oil and diesel prices are also moving modestly higher after Monday’s recovery, and the bullish trend lines are still intact, but so far those contracts lack the enthusiasm seen in gasoline. WTI is just $1/barrel, and ULSD just $.02/gallon away from reaching their own 11 month highs, which would open up the charts to another 15-20 cents of upside. If they fail to break that ceiling however, they’re about to get squeezed by that rising trendline which could end up sparking a large selloff that should bring diesel prices back to the mid $1.40 range.
Good news for many U.S. refiners, the rally over the past several weeks has helped crack spreads recover to their best levels in nearly a year in some markets, after a brutal fourth quarter, which offers hope for the numerous companies struggling to make ends meet. The bad news is that RIN prices continue to rally, which is offsetting a large portion of those gains in processing margins for many of those plants, amid rising crop prices and expectations for a tougher stance by the EPA on renewable fuels.
One curveball to ethanol advocates who cheer for higher RIN prices: The President’s new plan reduce carbon emissions includes transitioning the federal fleet to electric vehicles, not those that run on corn and soybeans.
Looking for a fundamental reason why the rally could eventually run out of steam? Remember that refiners are still running well below capacity, and the Limetree Bay facility (formerly known as Hovensa) that’s been trying to start up for more than a year is finally producing finished products again, adding more supply to the Atlantic basin that really doesn’t need any more.
Busy Week For Earnings Releases
It looks like we might be in for a bit of sideways trading after Friday’s attempt as selling off fizzled out, and then Sunday night rally attempt did the same. It will be a busy week for earnings releases that should keep equity markets on their toes, and there will no doubt be plenty of news from Washington that could influence prices, but the charts suggest we may be consolidating as short term indicators move to neutral territory.
A healthy bounce in gasoline demand estimates from the DOE helped RBOB futures claw back from heavy early losses to finish Friday’s session slightly higher. While that bounce helped keep the bullish trendlines intact for now, we’ll need to see futures push through their January highs in order to regain the upward momentum and avoid a larger sell-off. It’s not unusual to see gasoline prices rally 50% from the winter to spring, but since they’ve run up more than that during the winter, we may be due for a spring pullback instead of a rally unless demand can climb back closer to what we’ve seen in non-COVID years.
Money managers seemed cautious on oil and gasoline contracts, with small increases in net length in WTI and RBOB added last week while Brent saw small declines. The large speculators seem to be getting more bullish on distillates after months of neutral positioning as both ULSD and Gasoil contracts saw substantial increases in net length (bets on higher prices) last week. Those buyers are facing an immediate test as ULSD futures are trading right near the bullish trendline that’s held prices since early November, and if that line breaks there’s a good chance we see a 10-12 cent drop in the next couple of weeks.
Baker Hughes reported a net increase of two active oil rigs in the U.S. last week, marking a 9th straight week of gains. Unlike most weeks however, the Permian basin (which accounts for nearly 2/3 of all active oil rigs in the country) did not drive the increase, and in fact was down by one oil rig on the week. As last week’s DOE report showed, despite the pick up in drilling activity over recent months, actual U.S. oil output has remained flat during that stretch, holding steady around 11 million barrels/day, compared to 13 million barrels/day this time last year.
A Pivotal Week On The Charts
Energy prices faced their biggest selloff since the first trading day of January overnight as rising COVID case counts in China and spreading lockdowns across Europe appear to be hitting demand, dampening the bullish enthusiasm that’s gripped the market since early November. This next week looks like it will be pivotal on the charts, as we’re seeing a rounding top for most of the petroleum contracts that have not yet broken below the bullish trend lines. If prices can manage to recover today, there’s still a case to be made that the bulls are in control. If they dip much further, the charts will favor another 10 cents of downside for products in short order.
The charts below show the dramatic change in the forward curves for oil and diesel prices over the past month as the price rally has pushed prices into backwardation. That change could be a double-edged sword for flat prices, as it takes the storage buyers out of the market, which also helps to encourage reductions in inventory levels. That strength in the curve also seems contradictory to the demand patterns playing out across Europe, Asia and the U.S., as new lockdown measures are hampering demand all over. The Saudi’s decision to cut one million barrels/day of oil production was enough to override that demand drop in January, but it’s looking like something else will be necessary to prevent a larger selloff now.
The DOE’s weekly inventory report is due out at 11 a.m. Eastern today, after the rare two-day delay this week caused by the inauguration. In normal years, we expect to see demand increasing sharply in the back-half of January as the country shakes off the holiday hangover effect and gets back to work. This year it seems like that bounce may have to wait until the vaccine rollout starts outpacing the impacts of lockdowns.
Oddly enough, California’s energy commission didn’t take Wednesday off like the DOE did, and reported that the state’s production of gasoline and diesel plummeted to multi-month lows (see charts below). The sharp decrease in refinery output appears to be in response to swelling inventory levels over the previous two weeks as the demand has dropped sharply due to the ongoing COVID fallout.
More bad news from refiners: Irving Oil announced another layoff, this time for 60 employees at its St. John refinery, a major fuel supplier to the U.S. East Coast, due to “the collapse in demand for motor fuels.” Meanwhile, nearly 200 union workers at the Marathon refinery in St. Paul Park, MN walked off the job last night, apparently waiting for the coldest time of the year to start picketing. The refinery is reportedly continuing operations as normal, and even if it wasn’t, given its location and size isn’t likely to create much of an impact on either the Group 3 or Chicago basis markets this time of year.
The RIN market continues to rally, even as grain prices have pulled back this week, as last minute moves by the outgoing EPA administration regarding small refinery waivers, and emissions permitting, were postponed by federal court rulings, which should allow enough time for the new administration to nullify them.