NORTHWEST EUROPE’s temperatures were below the long-term seasonal average for much of the first ten days in April, prolonging heating demand and delaying the start of the refill season for gas inventories. Temperatures at Frankfurt in Germany (a proxy for the densely inhabited northwest Europe macro-region) were below normal for seven of the first eight days in April. As a result gas inventories continued to deplete and reached a seasonal low on April 7, which is relatively late. Since 2011, the median date for minimum inventories has been March 30:
U.S. INTEREST RATE traders no longer expect the central bank to lift rates further following the failure of Silicon Valley Bank, with overnight rates expected to start falling from July onwards, as credit conditions tighten and force a slowdown in the economy. The path for interest rates over the rest of 2023/24 is now forecast to be much lower.
But the outcome of a financial failure is notoriously difficult to predict since it depends largely on confidence. Some failures are resolved quickly with little or no impact on the rest of the financial system and the real economy. In other cases, contagion occurs and the economic impact is significant:
EUROPE’s gas storage sites are 56.5% full, the second-highest on record for the time of year, well above the prior ten-year seasonal average of 36.3%. The end of the winter heating and inventory depletion season is now very near (with stocks usually hitting a minimum on March 30 ± 14 days):
BRENT’s six-month calendar spread is trading in a backwardation of $1.80 (71st percentile for all days since 1990). The spread has tightened from a contango of $0.65 (34th percentile) since December 9 as expectations for a soft-landing in the global economy have increased. But it is well below levels before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, implying the market is comfortably supplied despite sanctions on Russia and output restraint by OPEC⁺ and U.S. shale firms:
EUROPE’s gas futures prices for deliveries in March 2023 have fallen below €50 per megawatt-hour for the first time since December 2021, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Prices have fallen from €177 at the beginning of the winter heating season at the start of October and a record €338 in late August. Energy-intensive industrial closures, conservation measures, the impact of previous high prices, reduced LNG purchasing from China and South Asia, and a mild winter in northwest Europe all combined to avert feared shortages or a price spike during winter 2022/23:
CHINA imported 508 million tonnes of crude oil in 2022, down from 513 million in 2021 and 542 million in 2020, according to preliminary data from the General Administration of Customs. Slower imports as the country grappled with intermittent lockdowns eased pressure on global petroleum supplies. But the economy’s re-opening is likely to boost crude imports and tighten the market in 2023:
¹ Gas has been transported and stored in bags or balloons by poorer, often rural, customers without connection to grid supplies across Asia for some time. Specialised gas containers are relatively expensive. Photo agency Alamy has a photograph of a cyclist trailing a gas-filled “balloon” in China’s Shandong province in 2014. Don’t try this at home!
EUROZONE MANUFACTURERS reported business activity declined for the sixth month running in December but the deterioration was less widespread than in November and October. The eurozone manufacturing purchasing managers’ index was at 47.8 (21st percentile for all months since 2006). The index remained well below the 50-point threshold dividing expanding activity from a contraction. But declines were less widespread than November when the index was at 47.1 (17th percentile) and October at 46.4 (13th percentile):
U.S. CRUDE PRODUCTION including field condensates rose by +69,000 b/d to 12.381 million b/d in October 2022. The increase came entirely from onshore production in the Lower 48 states, most of which is from shale. Production has been up year-on-year by an average of around +630,000 b/d (+5.7%) in the last 12 months:
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:
CHINA’s manufacturers reported a severe contraction in business activity in December as coronavirus infections surged following the end of the government’s suppression policy. “The epidemic has had a great impact on the production and demand of enterprises, the arrival of personnel, and logistics and distribution,” according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The purchasing managers index fell to 47.0 (1st percentile for all months since 2011) in December down from 48.0 in November (2nd percentile) and 50.1 (26th percentile) in September:
NORTHWEST EUROPE’s temperatures ended 2022 much higher than normal, sharply reducing gas consumption and pulling down prices. On December 31, the average temperature at Frankfurt in Germany was almost +14°C higher than the long-term seasonal average. Frankfurt has experienced 764 cumulative heating degree days so far in winter 2022/23 compared with a seasonal average of 901, a deficit of -15%:
CHINA’s coal production climbed by almost +12% in the first four months of the year compared with the same period in 2021, as the government ordered miners to maximise output to reduce the risk of electricity shortages and cut dependence on imports from Australia:
U.S. TRANSPORTATION SERVICES (freight, post and passengers) prices increased at an annualised rate of almost +47% in the three months from January to April – as the supply chain remained under pressure and fuel costs surged after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sanctions imposed in response:
U.S. CONSUMER SENTIMENT has weakened sharply this month and has fallen to levels consistent with a recession in the past:
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