WTI crude oil prices fell to their lowest point since early February on Thursday, giving up virtually all gains since Russia invaded Ukraine. WTI crude for September delivery tumbled -1.5% to close at $89.26/bbl while Brent crude for October delivery fell -2.1% to $94.71/bbl. WTI crude has lost ~9.5% over the course of the week, marking the largest one-week percentage decline since April amid growing fears that oil demand will collapse when western nations descend into a full-blown recession.
While oil producers are certainly beginning to feel the heat, it’s refiners like Valero Energy (NYSE: VLO), Marathon Petroleum Corp.(NYSE: MPC), and Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX) who have been hardest hit by the pullback thanks to a sharp decline in their refining margins aka crack spreads.
For months, refiners have been enjoying historically high refining margins, with the profit from making a barrel of gasoil, the building block of diesel and jet kerosene, hitting a record $68.69 in June at a typical Singapore refinery. The margin later settled in the high 30s a few weeks later, a level still nearly four times higher than the $11.83 at the end of last year, and some 550% above the profit margin at the same time in 2021.
But crack spreads have now gone into full reverse: according to Refinitv data, Asian gasoline margins plunged more than 102% in July to a discount of 14 cents a barrel to Brent crude, a far cry from a premium of $38.05 a barrel they reached in June. Asian refining margins have now crashed to just 88 cents a barrel over Dubai crude, from a record $30.49 in June.
The effect: a sharp rise in inventories from the United States and Singapore to Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp.
Refiners are being forced to cut gasoline output to minimize losses and switch to producing more profitable fuels.
Indeed, Taiwan's Formosa Petrochemical Corp. (6505.T), Asia's top fuel exporter, is planning to reduce operating rates at its residue fluid catalytic cracking (RFCC) units by 5% in the coming weeks, with a Formosa spokesman telling Reuters that the company plans to sell more very low sulphur fuel oil (VLSFO) due to higher margins for those products.
The Big Conspiracy
The collapse in oil prices has been so epic and unexpected that some oil pundits are now accusing the Biden administration of fabricating low gas demand data in a bid to hammer oil prices.
To wit, in late June the EIA shut down reporting for several weeks, ostensibly due to a server malfunction. But as ForexLive has pointed out, gasoline demand data has been consistently bad ever since the EIA returned: "Maybe there's an issue with reporting or maybe it's a conspiracy", ForexLive has declared.
Even Wall Street has begun questioning the EIA data.
Bank of America energy strategist Doug Legate has published a note titled the "fall of gasoline demand appears grossly exaggerated.’’
"For the week ending July 22nd, implied gasoline demand rebounded to 9.2 million b/d - a 1 million b/d increase vs the last two week average, and the second highest level of 2022," BofA wrote in the note to clients. Curiously, the EIA reported a steep drop in gasoline demand shortly thereafter, prompting Piper Sandler global energy strategist to label the data "crooked", saying the methodology left “significant room for error”.
“We are supposed to believe that in July, in the middle of driving season we are only using 8.6 million barrels per day. That would be down half a million barrels a day from May of this year; that would be below the Covid low of 2020,” Sandler noted. “So we ask all the refiners, we ask all the retailers, we ask everybody that reported earnings this season. Every single one of them tells you that their sales are not down materially from even pre-covid days. Some report record high sales,” he added.
Piper Sandler’s allegations are buttressed by U.S. refining giant Valero. Asked about falling gasoline demand at the company’s earnings call last week, CEO Gary Simmons had this to say:
"I can tell you, through our wholesale channel there is really no indication of any demand destruction... In June, we actually set sales records. We read a lot about demand destruction and mobility data showing in that range of 3% to 5% demand destruction. Again, we're not seeing it in our system."
Further, alternate demand data from GasBuddy deviates considerably from EIA’s. GasBuddy tracks retail gasoline demand at the pumps in the U.S. According to GasBuddy, there was a 2% rise in gasoline demand last week, making it the strongest demand of the year. In sharp contrast, the EIA reported a 7.6% drop in demand for the same time period.
The Biden administration certainly is gunning for even lower fuel prices. In an interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday, Amos Hochstein, the White House’s senior adviser for global energy security, said that gas and oil prices need to go even lower while U.S. producers and OPEC+ need to raise output.
But as Adam Button, chief currency analyst at Forexlive, notes, it’s the Biden administration calling the shots now, and “at the end of the day, traders have to trade what’s in front of them”.
"Right now it's a crude chart that's breaking support after a major period of consolidation -- that's not good. The calls for a recession are growing louder crude demand has a long history of following global growth. There are supply factors that will eventually be bullish -- like the SPR releases ending in October -- but that's months away and OPEC is still adding some barrels,” he said.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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