Energy Markets Holding Up In Spite of Sell-Off

Energy markets held up fairly well Wednesday in spite of the largest sell-off in US stocks in months.  Overnight however some fear seemed to set in as crude oil prices fell $1/barrel and refined products were off 3-4 cents before taking back half of those losses this morning.

Ever since the huge overnight sell-off 2 weeks ago that was the springboard for the May rally, the pattern seems to be that overnight weakness turns into day time strength.  It’s hard to say if this means traders in Asia or Europe are long and having to liquidate, or if traders in the US are simply eager to buy any dips.  Today’s response in the face of a suddenly fearful market may go a long way in determining if this rally can continue, or if this week’s highs will act as a price ceiling this summer.

Yesterday’s DOE report was relatively benign in terms of inventory changes.  The estimate for US crude oil production dipped for the first time in 14 weeks according to yesterday’s report, and while that may have given the bulls some hope, will rig counts and production per well still increasing, don’t expect the decline to last for long.

Gasoline stocks are holding steady over the past 4 weeks while historically this is a time when stocks draw down as we approach the “driving season”.  The demand estimate isn’t bad at 9.4 million barrels/day, although it is 200,000 barrels/day below last year’s pace, but gasoline production is simply better, holding north of 10 million barrels/day.

Refinery runs returned to their record setting pace, with the PADD 3 setting an all-time high with throughput rates north of 9.3 million barrels/day.

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Signs of Uncertainty Appearing as Gasoline & Diesel Futures Trade Higher

Gasoline and diesel futures are trading higher for a 6th straight session, but signs of uncertainty in this rally are beginning to appear.  WTI and Brent crude finished lower yesterday, and all of the big 4 contracts have been unable to break through chart resistance that would allow another 5-10% of upside.  If this temporary ceiling continues to hold, the question will be whether we’re in for another period of sideways trading, or if a new test of the year’s lows is in store.  With the official vote from OPEC and friends on the proposed 9-month extension of supply cuts just a week away, my money would be on sideways trading near term.

There was a bit of selling overnight after the API report yesterday afternoon.  It’s said the industry group reported a build in crude oil stocks of .88 million barrels, while gasoline inventories dipped by 1.78 million and diesel stocks grew by 1.78 million.  Many forecasts were guessing that crude oil stocks would draw again this week, so it seems the build was enough to put a little bit of fear into the buyers, but it didn’t last long as prices have recovered this morning.  The DOE report is due out at 9:30am central.

Reports yesterday that an upcoming pipeline shutdown in Eastern Pennsylvania may cause some Philadelphia refiners to cut runs this summer seemed to underpin gasoline prices early on, but those gains failed to hold as subsequent reports suggested alternate options would be available.   Those refiners can’t seem to stay out of the news lately, whether it be the hotly contested reversal of the Laurel pipeline, or the debate over the renewable fuel standard, Philadelphia seems to be ground zero for refinery stories.

Speaking of the RFS, ethanol RINs are continuing their advance this week, breaking back above the 50 cent mark yesterday for the first time in nearly a month and are bid at 52 cents this morning.  There has been little news from Washington lately, so this latest rebound seems to be driven by refiners covering their obligations rather than a reaction to a potential change in the law.

Equity markets around the world are looking a bit shaky this morning, with markets in Asia and Europe trading lower and US futures following them into the red.  While US indices reached record highs earlier in the week, the S&P 500 volatility index, AKA the VIX, reached its lowest level.  It’s hard to say if this lack of fear means equity markets can continue with this slow and steady march higher, or if this simply the calm before the storm.  If it’s the latter, expect energy prices to be impacted if equity volatility returns, as correlations seem to be strongest when fear is driving the price action.

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Energy Prices Climbing for 5th Straight Session

Energy prices are climbing for a 5th straight session, although they remain below  yesterday’s highs print as the enthusiasm over a Saudi/Russian proposal to extend output cuts has been curbed.

The complex is at a pivotal level technically, with a push through $50 for WTI (which would breach several layers of nearby resistance on the charts) critical to keep the momentum going.  Refined products have both stalled out temporarily around their respective 50 day moving averages, and if they fail to keep moving higher from here, the rally is at risk of becoming nothing more than a corrective bounce during a larger move lower.

The IEA’s monthly oil market report said that in the first quarter of 2017, the global oil market was “almost balanced” with supply exceeding demand by only 100,000 barrels/day.  The agency seems to be trying to put a bullish spin on the outlook for supply/demand balances, still predicting inventory drawdowns that it’s been waiting on for months, even though its demand forecast for the year was cut slightly.  The agency also cautioned that production in Libya and Nigeria – 2 countries exempt from the production cut agreements – may be rising sustainably and could serve to negate the cuts elsewhere.

The S&P 500 & Nasdaq closed at record levels yesterday, with the climb in oil prices taking credit in the headlines.  The correlation between the asset classes has been weak for the better part of a year, and a month ago when oil prices were 8% higher and equities were selling off, no one was so eager to try and pair the two.

The Euro is trading at a 6 month high today, and while currencies have had a similar weak correlation to energy prices as equities have, don’t be surprised if it too takes credit for the push higher in oil.

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Rally Continues for Petroleum Prices

The rally continues for petroleum prices, after Saudi Arabia and Russia released a joint statement announcing plans to extend production cuts for 9 months.   Prices are up more than 3% for all of the major futures contracts, which now stand 12-13% above where they bottomed out during the wild overnight session May 5th.

With the majority of the April sell-off having been wiped out in the past 7 trading days, technical studies are quickly moving back into bullish territory.  One potentially pivotal level this week for will be the 61.8% retracement of the April drop that comes in just below $50.  If WTI can’t break that mark, it may act as an anchor on refined products and Brent, which appear to have more room to run higher on the charts.

The net long positions held by money managers in WTI and Brent was slashed for a third straight week, driven almost entirely by new short positions entering the market, rather than long liquidation.  Those new speculative bets on lower prices came just in time for the market to rally by 10%, meaning some of today’s surge higher may be forced short covering, and could continue to propel prices higher near term.

9 more oil rigs were put to work last week according to the Baker Hughes weekly rig count, which keeps pace with the increases we’ve seen just about every week so far this year.  It seems like a safe bet to say that the companies that have put 183 rigs back online in the past 19 weeks are just fine with today’s announcements that has sent prices 3% higher.

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