Thursday, June 23, 2011

SPR Release Catches Market Napping

I see that the administration has decided to release 30 million barrels of oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in coordination with a matched release from the strategic stocks of other OECD member countries of the International Energy Agency (IEA.) The release will be spaced over the next month, though it's not clear how soon it can begin, since it should take at least a few days to line up the requisite buyers, sign contracts, and schedule pipeline space. Politicians who have been calling for such a release to punish speculation in oil futures and alleviate pressure on consumers are crowing, and the oil markets have responded by dropping $5-6 dollars per barrel. As welcome as this will be for consumers, it is simultaneously a drop in the bucket and an unwelcome precedent for the future stewardship of these emergency reserves.

As I noted when I assessed the outcome of the recent OPEC meeting, oil inventories aren't unusually low, and the current shortfall in global production compared to demand will take a while to develop into a problem. I suspect the main concern behind the IEA's decision to release stocks now, rather than waiting for a true physical shortfall to materialize, is the mismatch between the quality of the Libyan and Middle Eastern oil that has been taken off the market as a result of the ongoing turmoil of the "Arab Spring" and that of the OPEC spare capacity available to fill in for it, mainly in Saudi Arabia. In this context, the US SPR release looks more like an expression of solidarity with its EU partners, for whom the Libyan shortfall is much more significant, than a direct assault on the market.

Nevertheless, the concerns I expressed in my posting of June 2nd regarding a smaller "operational" release from the SPR apply to this release, as well. The SPR doesn't exist to game the market, especially not for political purposes. It's there in case of a serious interruption in supply, the scenarios for which are numerous and unfortunately not very hard to imagine for either us or the potential perpetrators.

Perhaps an extra 2 million barrels per day will alter the psychology of the futures markets and catalyze a larger price drop than we've seen today. By itself, that seems unlikely. Because it's a temporary measure, the market will want to know what comes next, and that's the real problem. Unless the designers of this program have made a lucky choice and timed their release to coincide with a further easing of prices due to weakening demand, the calls for another release will start in a month, if prices remain at a level deemed high enough to threaten the economic recovery. Selling off 4% of the SPR in the absence of a real emergency--and with no clear plan for replacing it--might not be a big problem, but additional releases that added up to a substantial portion of the reserve would be. Let's hope we don't have cause to regret this.

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