Friday, March 20, 2009

Rebound or Dead Cat?

US light sweet crude oil closed above $50 per barrel yesterday for the first time since late November. The financial press appears to attribute this mainly to the weakening of the dollar and inflationary expectations triggered by the Federal Reserve's decision to purchase over a trillion dollars of securities, in a bid to reduce longer-term interest rates. Although I don't discount these concerns, a review of oil's fundamentals suggests there are other factors at work, as well. The recovery in oil prices from the mid-$30s has involved more than a one-day rally, nearly a dollar of which had abated as of this morning. It is hardly the kind of rebound we might expect once the recession eases, but if it is sustained it should remind consumers that the current price relief on petroleum products is temporary, while sending producers a positive signal on the need for continued resource development.

Yesterday's weekly statistics from the Energy Information Agency showed that US inventories of crude oil and its two main fuel products, gasoline and distillate (diesel/heating oil), continue to build. But while distillate demand remains very weak, reflecting the decline in goods movement that accompanies a slowdown in economic activity, calculated gasoline demand has returned to within a percent or so of its year-ago level. Gasoline imports are running at a million barrels per day. All of this provides refiners some welcome headroom for their traditional spring-time switch into maximum-gasoline mode, after having optimized on distillate production during the winter. If demand were still as weak as it was a few months ago with gasoline inventories this high, any rally in oil prices would quickly extinguish itself.

Weakness in the dollar relative to other key currencies can also drive crude prices higher. This effect contributed to the extraordinary spike in oil prices from mid-2007 to mid-2008. But many of the factors that fed the resulting "oil-dollar price loop" look too anemic now to create a sustaining pattern of this type, amid the global recession and credit crunch. A slight decline in the Euro or Yen price of oil seems unlikely to stimulate much demand. Unless the dollar continued to weaken progressively, turning its recent 8% slide against the Euro into something more serious, it's hard to see this sustaining higher oil prices against the fundamentals.

The notion of oil as an inflation hedge is another matter. Traders aren't the only ones who get the jitters at the thought of the US government printing money to buy its way out of our current problems. However, inflation worries seem premature when deflation remains a serious risk. The latest report on seasonally-adjusted US consumer prices showed "core inflation"--excluding food and energy--rising at a sub-2% clip, while the three-month and twelve-month averages for the prices of all items are still in negative territory. The whole point of the stimulus bill was to soak up the enormous slack capacity in the economy, and until that begins to bite, the idea of too much money chasing too few goods seems a remote prospect. Nor did oil work out very well as an inflation hedge last summer, when the CPI was growing at more than 5% per year.

And that brings me back to oil's fundamentals. The fact that the market didn't swoon when OPEC met and decided to defer further cuts suggests that they have reduced output sufficiently--and are living up to their lower quotas well enough--to create an environment in which events such as the Fed's move can be seen as bullish. It wasn't long ago that it seemed nothing could drive up oil prices for more than a day or two. At the same time, oil's recent moves haven't flattened out the remarkable degree of "contango" that I observed in December. Oil futures for delivery twelve months from now are $10/bbl higher than the front-month price. That suggests the market is still weighed down by high inventories and tight credit, impeding the obvious arbitrage opportunity such wide spreads create. A more dramatic rebound in oil prices must still wait for the global economy to begin to turn around and draw down that overhang. In the meantime, though, the 50% appreciation of oil from its low on February 12th looks like rather more than the proverbial bounce of a dead cat.

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