EUROPE has made an early start refilling gas storage ahead of winter 2023/24. Storage has risen in six out of the most recent eight days as increasing temperatures cut gas consumption while high prices continue to restrain demand and attract imports. Storage facilities were 56.0% full on March 25, a record for the time of year, slightly exceeding the previous peak on March 25, 2020:
U.S. PETROLEUM INVENTORIES including the strategic reserve increased by +2 million barrels over the seven days ending on March 3. Stocks have increased in 10 of the last 14 weeks by a total of +31 million barrels from their recent low on November 25, 2022, arresting the previous downward trend. Inventories are still -231 million barrels (-12% or -2.15 standard deviations) below the prior ten-year seasonal average. But the deficit has narrowed from -278 million barrels (-15% or -3.05 standard deviations) in November:
BRENT’s front-month futures price has fallen to $82 per barrel down from a high of $127 at the end of May 2022, after adjusting for inflation. But is that still fairly high or already below the long-term average? It depends whether or not the comparison includes the long period of low prices in the 1990s. In real terms, $82 is in the 65th percentile for all months since 1990, still fairly high. But if the 1990s are excluded, prices are in the 42nd percentile for all months since 2000 and the 48th percentile for all months since 2010, already in the lower half of the distribution:
¹ PJM’s post-event study for winter storm Elliot on December 24 is worth reading in full and confirms the major problem was the failure of many generators to respond to instructions from the grid because of a failure to start up or secure enough fuel (principally gas). Generators were unavailable even though they had been given repeated warnings of an extreme weather event for several days beforehand and told to prepare for a plunge in temperatures. In many cases, generators provided less than 1 hour of notice they would not be available. If generators cannot be depended upon to respond to instructions they cannot be considered firm dispatchable power for reliability purposes.
In response, PJM was forced to initiate a series of relatively extreme emergency measures to protect the transmission system, including voltage reductions and an order for flat-out maximum generation from units that were available.
U.S. PETROLEUM INVENTORIES including the strategic reserve totalled 1,599 million barrels on January 6, the lowest seasonal level since 2004. Stocks have fallen by -185 million barrels over the last 12 months and are down by -518 million barrels from their peak in mid-2020 as production has persistently fallen below consumption:
U.S. GAS INVENTORIES ended the year at 2,891 billion cubic feet on December 30. Stocks were -293 billion cubic feet (-9%) below the pre-pandemic five-year seasonal average down from a deficit of -71 billion cubic feet (-2%) on December 16, the result of a heavy weather-driven depletion in the final two weeks of the year:
U.S. NON-MANUFACTURING businesses reported an unusually sharp deceleration in activity in December. The Institute for Supply Management’s purchasing managers’ survey, which covers services, construction, mining and real estate, slumped to 49.6 (8th percentile for all months since 1997) in December from 56.5 (63rd percentile) in November and 54.4 (35th percentile) in October.
Non-manufacturing activity has been slowing in line with the manufacturing sector over the last 12 months following the post-pandemic boom. The ISM non-manufacturing index is more volatile than its manufacturing counterpart, so the sudden deceleration should be treated with extreme caution. But if confirmed in the next couple of months it would indicate the business cycle downturn is spreading from merchandise to services:
¹ Distillate fuel oil is an important fuel source for electricity generators designed to serve peak loads and provide emergency reserves. New England is particularly reliant on distillate to provide reserve generation and distillate units were heavily used during cold weather around Christmas. In the rest of the country, distillate is also used as lighting-up fuel for coal-fired units, which were heavily used during the extreme cold. Coal will not ignite on its own and distillate is sprayed into the furnace to provide initial combustion, heat up the furnace, establish air circulation, and support the combustion process until the flame is stabilised. As the coal combustion becomes self-sustaining, the distillate burners are gradually shut off.
² Failure of generators to start when instructed by the grid contributed to the shortfall in capacity in New England ISO region on December 24, as in other areas. Scheduled generation of 2,150 MW became unavailable. Failure to start remains one of the biggest problems for electric reliability during extreme cold events.
EUROPE’s gas futures prices no longer command a premium over futures for deliveries into Northeast Asia. Europe’s prices have fallen much more rapidly than Asia’s as fears of a winter emergency have faded. Europe’s futures are now trading at a slight discount for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. European importers are no longer paying a premium to attract cargoes which should leave more LNG cargoes available for consumers in Northeast and South Asia:
U.S. DISTILLATE STOCKS fell -1.4 million bbl over the seven days to December 30 (including drawdown of -0.7 million bbl in New England). Inventories were probably pulled forward along the supply chain to homes, offices and power generators as a result of extreme cold around Christmas:
¹ Failure of coal and gas-fired generators to start up when instructed by the grid because of instrument and equipment freezes has been a recurrent problem and major cause of power failures during extreme cold weather episodes in the last several decades. Failure to start has meant actual generation available has been much lower than forecast, reducing reserve margins and forcing rotating blackouts to restore margins to safe levels.
THE FUNDAMENTALS of commodity trading have not changed in 2500 years, illustrated by this quote about China’s commodity merchants taken from the Guan Zi, which purports to be a dialogue between Lord Huan of Qi and his powerful chief minister Guan Zhong in the Spring and Autumnperiod (771-481 BCE) but probably a compilation of traditional knowledge written during the Warring States period (481-221 BCE):
“Merchants observe outbreaks of dearth and starvation, scrutinize changes in the fortunes of states, study the patterns of the four seasons, and take notice of what goods are produced in each place. With this knowledge of prices in the marketplace, they gather up their stock of goods, load them on oxcarts and horses, and circulate throughout the four directions. Having reckoned what is abundant and what is scarce and calculated what is precious and what is worthless, they exchange what they possess for what they lack, buying cheap and selling dear … Marvellous and fantastic things arrive in timely fashion; rare and unusual goods readily gather. Day and night thus engaged, merchants tutor their sons and brothers, speaking the language of profit, teaching them the virtue of timeliness, and training them how to recognise the value of goods.”
Guan Zi: Political, Economic and Philosophical Essays from Early China (Rickett, 1985) cited in The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (von Glahn, 2016)
EUROPE’s gas prices are falling and the futures curve has shifted into contango as inventories remain very high for the time of year and traders no longer anticipate any risk of a shortage before the end of winter 2022/23. The end-of-winter March-April 2023 calendar spread is trading in a contango of more than €1.20/MWh down from a backwardation of €9.70 at the end of September:
U.S. WELL DRILLING shows signs of having hit a peak and starting to fall as the sector responds to lower prices. The number of active rigs targeting oil or gas has fallen in the most recent two weeks and is no higher than at the end of October. As a result, the rig count has increased by an average of just +1.0 per week in the last 13 weeks:
¹ China has reported severe coronavirus outbreaks in megacities across the entire country, including Beijing and Tianjin in the northeast, Guangzhou in the southeast, and Chongqing in the southwest. Xinjiang in the northwest has been under semi-permanent lockdown for months. The central government’s lockdown and suppression strategy is failing to control transmission and disrupting the entire economy. But there is still no sign of an exit strategy that would enable the country to live with the virus, worsening the economic and oil consumption outlook for 2023.
BRENT calendar spreads for the first half of 2023 have softened significantly as traders anticipate a business cycle slowdown and China’s postponed re-opening from coronavirus will relieve some pressure on crude supplies and inventories:
BRENT’s six-month calendar spread has fallen to a backwardation of $4.90 per barrel (95th percentile for all trading days since 1990) down from $7.60 (98th percentile) a month ago and a record over $15-20 in the first months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The softening spread is consistent with a recession in Europe and China, possibly spreading across the rest of the world, easing pressure on oil supplies in 2023:
U.S. TREASURY yield curve is now more inverted between two-year and ten-year maturities than at any time since September 1981 at the start of the second instalment of the double-dip recession. U.S. interest rate traders anticipate an exceptionally rapid turn around in monetary policy. Such a rapid pivot is consistent with a soft-landing allowing the central bank to unwind rate rises quickly, or because a hard-landing eliminates inflation and requires it to support growth and employment instead: