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What is behind the recent fall in US crude oil stocks?

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Commerzbank commodities research

Commerzbank commoditiesUS crude oil stocks have fallen significantly during the summer months. This was mainly attributable to an increase in crude oil processing. In this way US refineries reacted to robust demand for middle distillates, which is reflected in low US distillate stocks and record US distillate exports. As crude oil processing declines, US crude oil stocks will likely rise again in the fourth quarter. Robust US distillate exports are exerting pressure on refinery margins in Europe, which will probably increase Europe’s dependency on imports of oil products.

Commerzbank energy forecastUS crude oil stocks have fallen significantly during the summer months. Since the end of June they have declined by 38m barrels and in mid-September reached their lowest level for 18 months. Destocking has been concentrated on two regions: in the Midwest (PADD 2) stocks have fallen by more than 20m barrels, and on the US Gulf Coast (PADD 3) by more than 14m barrels (chart 1). The lion’s share of the destocking in the Midwest related to the storage hub in Cushing, where stocks have fallen by a total of 16.5m barrels for 13 weeks in succession. What is the reason for this surprising trend and will the destocking continue?

The trend in stock levels can be divided into three sub-components: on the supply side are US oil production and US oil imports, and on the demand side, crude oil processing by refineries. US oil production has increased until recently. In mid-September it reached its highest level since May 1989 of more than 7.4m barrels per day. This component cannot therefore explain the destocking of recent weeks. On the other hand, imports of crude oil have fallen sharply. In the summer months they were, on average, 1m barrels per day lower than in the previous year. However, this will not be sufficient to balance out the simultaneous increase in US oil production. Between the end of June and mid-September this was, on average, 1.4m barrels per day above the previous year’s level. The trend on the supply side would therefore have been an indication of stockbuilding. The main reason for the significant destocking this summer is therefore to be found on the demand side, i.e. from the higher volumes of crude oil processed at refineries.

Change in crude oil stocks

Crude oil processing in the USA was higher than usual this summer

US refineries stepped up crude oil processing much more significantly than usual this summer. Between the end of June and mid-September, an average of 16m barrels of crude oil was processed daily. This was 600,000 barrels per day more than in the corresponding period last year, and 900,000 barrels per day more than the long-term average level (chart 2). At the beginning of July, more crude oil was processed than at any time in the last eight years. It was also striking that refineries maintained processing rates at their high levels of July and August up to mid-September. Normally, refineries scale back their utilisation from the end of August as the summer driving season approaches an end. Refineries usually use the time in early autumn to carry out maintenance and to switch operations to the winter season. Hence, significantly more crude oil has been processed this summer than would otherwise be normal at this time of the year. This has only been possible by consistently dipping into crude oil stocks, although more crude oil has also been available as a result of the increased level of domestic oil production.

This cannot be explained with trends in the US gasoline market…

The fact that US refineries have increased their crude oil processing so strongly over an extended period this summer cannot be explained by trends in the US gasoline market, which is normally the most important driver of refinery activity in the summer months. Demand for gasoline in the US during the summer driving season showed virtually no increase compared to last year. US gasoline stocks have remained consistently 5 to 6 per cent above their long-term average for weeks with a few exceptions. US gasoline production was just slightly higher this summer than in the previous years. Moreover, the US exported less gasoline between March and July than one year ago, according to the EIA.

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…but is attributable to distillate production in particular

The reason for the unusually high level of refinery activity over a prolonged period is above all attributable to middle distillates. US refineries have significantly increased the production of middle distillates in particular. This increased to an average of 5m barrels per day in the summer months, which was 13% higher than average for the last five years. More than half of the increase in crude oil processing this summer is therefore attributable to the middle distillates segment. The varying trend in processing margins is likely to have played a part here. While margins for gasoline production have fallen to the lowest level since end of 2011, they are still relatively high for middle distillates (chart 3). The fact that margins for middle distillates have held up much better is attributable to low US distillate stocks, which have remained well below their long-term average levels despite robust production of middle distillates.

Strong demand for distillates in and outside the USA

This is mainly the result of higher domestic demand and robust demand for distillates from abroad. Distillate demand from US consumers was 10% higher than last year during the summer months and 6% above the average of the last five years. Moreover, the USA exported 1.276m barrels of middle distillates per day on balance in July after having reached a level nearly as high in June (chart 4, page 3). Daily net distillate exports were almost twice as high in June and July as in the first four months of the year and also 26% above the same period last year. Weekly estimates from the US Energy Information Administration also indicate that distillate exports remained at a similarly high level in August and September.

Crude oil and distillate

Refinery activity is unlikely to sustain these exceptionally high levels

US refineries have benefited from cheaper crude oil from the country’s interior until recently, which, thanks to new pipeline capacity, can be transported to the US Gulf Coast, where roughly half of US refinery capacity is situated. This also enables US refineries to avoid the continuing restrictions on crude oil exports from the USA, since these restrictions do not apply to the export of oil products. Despite everything, US refineries are unlikely to maintain their distinctly high levels of crude oil processing of recent months, given lower margins. The EIA expects average crude oil processing of 15.3m barrels per day in the fourth quarter. This would still be more than 500,000 barrels per day above the average of the last five years, but some 600,000 barrels per day less than in the third quarter. The lower demand for crude oil from refineries indicates higher stock levels, if US oil imports are not being reduced markedly, as US oil production is likely to increase further as a result of the surge in shale oil production in North Dakota and Texas. In fact, the decline in US crude oil stocks seems to have come to an end. In the second half of September stocks were already increasing by roughly 8m barrels, due to lower volume of crude oil processing and higher oil imports.

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Decline in crude oil stocks has recently also slowed at Cushing

The 13-week long decline in crude oil stocks at Cushing has also weakened visibly in recent weeks (chart 5). Whereas, between the beginning of July and the end of August, on balance an average of 1.36m barrels of crude oil per week were drained off Cushing, in September the figure had fallen to an average of less than 500,000 barrels per week. At the end of September, the decline in stocks at Cushing had almost come to an end. Should stocks be built up also at Cushing in the weeks ahead, this would not be attributable to a lack of transport or processing capacities. These are now sufficient – as the steady fall in Cushing stocks over the summer months despite rising shale oil production in the Midwest demonstrated. In fact, once the Southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline is completed, additional transport capacities of 700,000 barrels per day will be available by year-end. A stock build-up would instead be attributable to lower crude oil processing at refineries. This should exert pressure on the WTI price in particular.

Record US distillate exports creating problems for refineries in Europe

What are the implications of these trends for Europe? According to data from the EIA, the USA was already exporting record volumes of middle distillates to Europe in May and June. Based on shipping data, this trend has continued in September. The high levels of US distillate exports will exert pressure on refinery margins in Europe. Despite low gasoil stocks, the price differential between gasoil and Brent oil has been moving in a narrow range around USD 15 per barrel for some months, which is hardly sufficient to offset the very low margins in gasoline production. The situation has been compounded by the fact that the USA itself has now become a net gasoline exporter. As a result the US market – formerly the most important sales market for European refineries – has been lost. At the same time, the USA is also competing in gasoline on other sales markets such as South America, for instance. Further refinery closures in Europe are thus on the cards, which would further increase Europe’s dependency on imports of oil products.

US distillate exports and destocking at Cushing

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Analys

Crude oil comment: Lack of clear direction

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

This week, Brent crude prices have declined by USD 2.3 per barrel (2.8%) since Monday’s opening, driven by fundamental market factors. The current price is near its weekly low at USD 81.8 per barrel, down from Monday’s high of USD 84.5 per barrel.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

The price has fallen by nearly USD 1 per barrel since yesterday afternoon. This week’s downward trend can be attributed to three main factors:

1. Upcoming OPEC+ Meeting:

OPEC+ is scheduled to meet on June 1st for the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee (JMMC). Initially planned as a physical meeting in Vienna, it will now be fully digital, suggesting no major discussions or changes. We anticipate that the meeting will result in the extension of current production cuts into Q3 2024. OPEC+ aims to signal a tight yet well-supplied market, maintaining the status quo and minimizing significant market reactions.

2. U.S. Inventory Report:

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Wednesday’s U.S. inventory report had a bearish impact on the market, showing a build in commercial crude inventories (excl. SPR) by 1.8 million barrels, contrary to the expected 1.9-million-barrel draw. This was slightly more bullish than the American Petroleum Institute (API) forecast of a 2.5-million-barrel increase released on Tuesday.

Commercial crude inventories now stand at 458.8 million barrels, about 3% below the five-year average for this time of year. This build is counter-seasonal, as we usually see a draw at this time of the year. Gasoline inventories decreased by 0.9 million barrels, less than the anticipated draw of 1.2 million barrels. Distillate (diesel) inventories increased by 0.4 million barrels, against a consensus expectation of a 0.3-million-barrel draw, further defying typical seasonal trends and adding a bearish tone to the market, even though they remain about 7% below the five-year average. Overall, total inventories (crude + gasoline + distillate) rose by 1.3 million barrels.

Additionally, U.S. crude oil refinery inputs averaged 16.5 million barrels per day last week, an increase of 227 thousand barrels per day from the previous week. Refineries operated at 91.7% of their operable capacity, the highest since mid-January, as they ramp up following maintenance. Gasoline production averaged 10 million barrels per day, while distillate fuel production averaged 5.1 million barrels per day. A marginal improvement in refinery margins indicates healthier demand prospects leading into the driving season.

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3. FOMC Minutes and Economic Concerns:

The continued decline in oil prices can also be attributed to bearish pressure from hawkish Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) minutes, which raised concerns about persistent inflation. This could result in prolonged higher U.S. interest rates, potentially limiting future oil demand growth.

In summary, the combined effect of the upcoming OPEC+ meeting, the U.S. inventory report, and economic concerns highlighted in the FOMC minutes has contributed to the weakening of Brent crude prices this week.

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Analys

German solar power prices are collapsing as market hits solar saturation

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

German solar power producers got a price haircut of 87% over the past 10 days. German solar power producers have over the past 10 days received a volume weighted power price of only EUR 9.1/MWh. The average power price during non-solar-power-hours was in comparison EUR 70.6/MWh. Solar power producers thus got an 87% cut in the power price they get when they produce vs. the power price during non-solar-power-hours. This is what happens to power prices when the volume of unregulated power becomes equally big or bigger than demand: Prices collapse when unregulated power produces the most.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Massive growth in solar power installations in Germany in 2023 is leading to destruction of solar hour prices and solar profitability. Germany installed a record 14,280 MW of solar power capacity According to ’PV Magazine International’. That is close to twice as much as in 2022. Total installed solar capacity reached 81.7 GW at the end of 2023 according to ’Renewables Now’. Average German demand load was in comparison 52.2 GW. So total solar capacity reached almost 30 GW above average demand. Solar power produces the most during summer when demand is lower. The overshoot is thus much larger than the 30 GW mentioned when it matters.

The collapse in solar-hour-power-prices implies a collapse in solar power producer earnings unless the earnings of the installations are secured with subsidies or by PPAs. It also means that there is a sharp reduction in the earnings potential for new solar power projects. The exponential growth in new installations of solar capacity we have seen to date is likely to come to an abrupt halt. There is however most likely still a large range of solar power projects under construction in Germany which will be finalized before growth in new capacity comes to a halt. The problem of solar power production curbs (you are not allowed to produce at all) and solar power price destruction is likely to escalate yet higher before new growth in supply comes to a halt. 

Focus will now shift from solar production capacity growth to grid improvements, batteries and adaptive demand. All consumers are of course happy for cheap power as long as they are able to consume it when it is cheap. At the moment they can’t. But the incentive to be inventive is now super high. The focus will now likely shift from solar power production growth to grids, batteries, adaptive demand and all possible ways to utilize ”free power”. This will over time exhaust the availability of ”free power” and drive solar-hour-power-prices back up. This again will then eventually open for renewed growth in solar power capacity growth.

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It is probably much worse down in the grid. What is worth noting is that these numbers are for all of Germany average. Solar power congestion is much worse in the local grids all around Germany along with local grid capacity constraints ect.

The problem of solar power is high concentration of production: 80% of German solar production was produced during 22.3% of the hours in the year in 2023. What is also worth mentioning is that solar power production is extremely concentrated in relatively few hours per year. It produces in the middle of the day and during summer. In 2023 German solar power produced 80% of its production in only 22.3% of the hours of the year. This basically implies that once solar power production reaches 22.3% of total power supply (without batteries), then solar-hour-power-prices will likely collapse. Solar power production reached 55 TWh in 2023. That’s a lot but it is still only 12% of total demand of 458 TWh in 2023. What it means is that the acute problem of solar-hour-power-price-destruction sets in much before the ”theoretical 22.3%” mentioned above.

On the 21 Feb 2024 we wrote the following note on this issue: ”The self-destructive force of unregulated solar power” where we highlighted these issues and warned that this will likely be a process of ”First gradually. Then suddenly”.

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German solar power capacity makes a big leap upwards in 2023 as the energy crisis hurt everybody. Demand went down. Now there is a large overcapacity in installed solar effect vs. demand load.

German solar power capacity makes a big leap upwards in 2023 as the energy crisis hurt everybody. Demand went down. Now there is a large overcapacity in installed solar effect vs. demand load.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, PV Magazine, Wikipedia, Blberg data on German power demand

German solar power producers got an 87% price haircut on average during last 10 days vs. those who produced during non-solar-power hours.

German solar power producers got an 87% price haircut on average during last 10 days vs. those who produced during non-solar-power hours.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Solar power production and German power prices over the past 10 days.

Solar power production and German power prices over the past 10 days.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Solar power production and German power prices on 27 April 2024.

Solar power production and German power prices on 27 April 2024.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg
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Analys

Firm at $85

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

This week, Brent Crude prices have strengthened by USD 1.2 per barrel since Monday’s opening. While macroeconomic concerns persist, market reactions have been subdued, with price fluctuations primarily driven by fundamental factors. Currently, the oil price stands at its weekly high of USD 84.4 per barrel, with Wednesday’s low recorded at USD 81.7 per barrel, indicating relatively normal price movements throughout the week.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

The upward trajectory since Wednesday afternoon can be attributed to two main factors:

Firstly, Wednesday’s US inventory report, though mixed, conveyed a bullish sentiment to the market due to an overall decline in commercial inventories. The report from the US Department of Energy (DOE) revealed a draw in US crude inventories of 1.4 million barrels last week, surpassing consensus estimates of a 2.0-million-barrel draw –  the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) forecast of a 0.5-million-barrel build on Tuesday.

Additionally, a marginal improvement in refinery margins hints at healthier demand prospects leading up to the driving season. While commercial crude oil inventories (excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve) decreased, standing approximately 3% below the five-year average for this period, total gasoline inventories saw a notable increase of 0.9 million barrels compared to the consensus forecast of a decrease of 1.1 million barrels. Distillate fuel inventories experienced a more moderate increase in line with expectations, rising by 0.6 million barrels but remaining approximately 7% below the five-year average. Overall, total inventories (crude + gasoline + distillate) showed a marginal increase of 0.1 million barrels, coupled with a 1% improvement in refinery utilization to 88.5% last week (see pages 11 and 18 attached).

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The substantial draw in commercial crude inventories, particularly compared to the typical seasonal build, has emerged as a key price driver (see page 12 attached).

Secondly, the third consecutive day of oil price gains can be attributed to renewed optimism regarding US rate cuts, supported by positive US jobs data suggesting potential Federal Reserve rate cuts this year. This optimism has boosted risk assets and weakened the dollar, rendering commodities more appealing to buyers.

In a broader context, crude oil prices have been moderating since early last month amidst easing tensions in the Middle East. Attention is also focused on OPEC+, with Russia, a key member, exceeding production targets ahead of the cartel’s upcoming meeting. Expectations are widespread for an extension of output cuts during the next meeting.

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Conversely, providing support to global crude prices is the Biden administration’s intention to increase the price ceiling for refilling US strategic petroleum reserves to as much as USD 79.99 per barrel.

With geopolitical tensions relatively subdued, but lingering, the market remains vigilant in analyzing data and fundamentals. Our outlook for oil prices at USD 85 per barrel for 2024 remains firm and attainable for the foreseeable future.

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