Tuesday, October 19, 2010

French Strikes and US Gas Prices

My reaction to the ongoing refinery strikes and fuel depot blockades in France was probably best described as bewilderment, until it occurred to me that they could have a significant effect on what consumers elsewhere pay for gasoline and diesel, including here in the US. That's clearly a much smaller inconvenience than French consumers are having to endure, but it at least provides a good reason for Americans to pay closer attention than we usually do to what happens on the other side of the Atlantic. You can't shut down a dozen refineries anywhere in the world without affecting global fuel markets, let alone in one of the main regions on which the US relies for its considerable gasoline imports.

I don't pretend to understand the intricacies of the pension reforms apparently motivating the strikes by French refinery, transport and other workers' unions. Like many European countries, France faces serious demographic and fiscal challenges, and an editorial in today's New York Times suggests that raising the retirement age is a necessity, whatever the politics involved. Either way, that is something for the French to work out. However, by selecting the nation's fuel infrastructure as the focus of their "industrial action" French unions have chosen a strategy with both regional and trans-Atlantic implications. That's because European and US fuel markets are connected by significant trade flows in both directions. The ripples caused by these strikes are likely to affect the economics of petroleum products on both sides of the pond in the weeks ahead.

Much of this connection is due to the complementary overlap between the US appetite for gasoline and our long-term shortage of refinery capacity, and Europe's strong preference for diesel-powered cars, despite a refining system that was built to accommodate much higher gasoline demand. Last year the US imported an average of 940,000 barrels per day of finished and unfinished gasoline, and about 40% of that came from Northwest Europe and Spain--though little of it directly from France. In return, a similar fraction of the 587,000 bbl/day of diesel the US exported last year went to these same countries, about half of it in the form of ultra-low-sulfur road diesel. But while some of this product flows day in and day out on long-term contracts, a significant portion is in the form of "spot" cargoes, which depend on transitory price differentials between markets opening wide enough to cover freight costs plus a bit of profit. I haven't looked at freight rates recently, but I doubt these costs are much less than the $0.06-0.08/gal. that was typical when I executed transactions like this from Texaco's London trading room twenty years ago.

According to the International Energy Agency's statistics, France consumes about 1.5 million bbl/day of petroleum products, mainly supplied by the country's dozen refineries, with some help from imports. It's not clear from the news stories I've read whether all of these refineries are now shut down or operating at reduced rates, but it seems clear that even with many of its service stations running out of product, France is consuming much more petroleum product than it is now producing or importing, with the shortfall being made up from "compulsory stocks"--their equivalent of our Strategic Petroleum Reserve, with the key difference that it's mostly held in the form of refined products in the storage tanks of companies that are required to maintain a 90-day inventory cushion for eventualities such as the current one. After the strikes end and the refineries are back to normal operations--and assuming no accidents occur during all these start-ups--these stocks will have to be replenished. That seems likely to affect the US market in two ways.

The most obvious one is that if re-stocking French fuel inventories causes prices there to spike, as you'd expect, then France will absorb many of the cargoes that would otherwise have made their way across the Atlantic, particularly from the UK and the enormous refinery hub at ARA (Amsterdam/Rotterdam/Antwerp). And if the differential gets wide enough, we could see gasoline cargoes and additional diesel cargoes leaving the US for France, motivated by the arbitrage opportunity, or "arb." The combination of these mechanisms would feed into fuel prices on the US east coast and Gulf Coast, supporting the recent upward trend. And because French consumption is skewed so heavily towards "gasoil" (diesel), that's where we should see the biggest impact.

Although some reports suggest it has helped to prop up crude oil above $80/bbl, this effect isn't yet apparent in the futures prices of refined products. This morning November diesel was trading on the NYMEX at $2.23/gal, while November gasoil on London's ICE was at $703.50/ton, equating to about $2.26/gal. That's not wide enough to constitute an arb, but then this shift probably won't kick into gear until traders at least know that French ports will be open to receive and unload their cargoes. The bottom line is that if you were hoping for some relief at the gas or diesel pump in the next few weeks, you shouldn't be surprised to see prices going even higher for a while, instead, thanks to the current mess in France.

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