EUROPE’s gas storage sites reported small net inflows on March 18 and March 19, a tentative sign the winter inventory depletion season is coming to an end early. The data is provisional and contains a mix of confirmed reports and estimates. But storage across the European Union and the United Kingdom was 55.8% full on March 19, the second-highest for the time of year after winter 2019/20 (56.2%) and well above the prior ten-year average (34.8%):
U.S. INTEREST RATE markets steadied on March 16 as the Federal Reserve organised major national banks to help boost confidence in their smaller regional counterparts by placing large-scale deposits with First Republic bank. Rate forecasts firmed slightly. But the rate trajectory implied by futures prices still shows rates declining from August onwards as the central bank responds to tightening credit conditions and a slowing economy:
NORTHWEST EUROPE is roughly 85% of the way through the heating season. Temperatures at Frankfurt in Germany have been close to the long-term seasonal average since the start of March. But very warm temperatures in October and from mid-December to mid-January have left a significant deficit in heating demand that has not been erased. The total number of degree days so far this winter (1540) is -16% below the long-term average (1842):
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):
U.S. GAS PRICES have fallen less than $2.60 per million British thermal units from more than $9 six months ago. In real terms, prices have fallen to just the 3rd percentile for all months since 1990 down from the 86th percentile in August 2022:
CHINA’s Lower Yangtze mega-region is being hit by a wave of intense of cold which will drive a significant increase in heating demand, though most factories are closed for the Lunar New Year holiday. Temperatures in Nanjing were more than -6°C below the long-term seasonal average on January 25. So far this winter heating demand (731 HDDs) has been lower than average (789 HDDs). But the recent run of cold weather has trimmed the cumulative deficit in heating demand to -7% down from -11% on January 13:
U.S. PETROLEUM INVENTORIES including the strategic reserve rose +4 million barrels to 1,606 million barrels in the seven days to January 20. But stocks were -170 million barrels below the level a year ago and -304 million barrels below the level before the pandemic in 2019. Commercial crude stocks have increased by +33 million barrels compared with the same point last year. But only because the strategic petroleum reserve has been depleted by -220 million barrels:
EUROPE’s gas inventories are rapidly nearing a record high for the time of year following warmer than normal temperatures and reductions in industrial consumption. EU28 inventories were 937 TWh on January 9 closing in on the seasonal record of 944 TWh set in winter 2019/20.
Stocks were +247 TWh (+36% or +2.37 standard deviations) above the prior ten-year seasonal average up from a surplus of +92 TWh (+10% or +0.86 standard deviations) at the start of the winter season on October 1. The storage surplus is still increasing.
Inventories are projected to reach a post-winter low of 591 TWh with a probable range of 460 TWh to 749 TWh. If that proves correct, storage facilities would end the winter 52% full, with a likely range from 41% to as much as 66%:
U.S. SERVICE SECTOR prices rose at an annualised rate of 6.4% over the three months ending in November. Service sector output is more labour-intensive than manufacturing and prices tend to be more sticky. Services inflation has decelerated from 9.9% in the three months ending in June, but it is still three times faster than the central bank’s target of a little over 2%:
¹ Food and energy shortages have always been about prices and affordability rather than physical supplies and availability. Higher-income and wealthier households will always find ways to put food on the table and heat their homes, it is lower-income and poorer households that lack financial resources that are unable to cope and hit hardest (“Corn supply of ancient Rome”, Rickman, 1980).
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’s ports are experiencing a sharp drop in container traffic reflecting contentious labour negotiations and the threat of a strike as well as the slowdown in global merchandise trade and efforts by U.S. manufacturers and distributors to cut excess inventories. Combined container traffic through the neighbouring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach was just 0.84 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in October, down from 1.07 million TEUs in the same month in 2021, and the lowest for the time of year since the recession of 2009:
EUROZONE manufacturers report the sector has entered recession, based on preliminary results from the monthly purchasing managers survey. Partial results show the manufacturing activity index slipped to just 46.6 in October (14th percentile for all months since 2006) from 48.4 in September (24th percentile):
EUROPE’s temperatures are expected to be at or above the long-term seasonal average during the three months from November to January, according to the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting. Mild temperatures through October and the relatively warm outlook for the first part of the winter have contributed to downward pressure on the region’s gas futures prices:
¹ Like any cartel, OPEC+ uses a set of production baselines so total group supply can be adjusted in response to changes in market demand while ensuring each member retains a fair pro rata share. Like other cartels, the baselines used by OPEC+ do not necessarily correspond to shares in actual production or capacity in the real world. Cartels often find it very difficult to reach unanimous agreement to change baselines and shares. So in most cases they end up using baselines that have some historical basis but have become out of date.
Between the 1600s and 1800s, England’s Newcastle coal cartel (known as “the limitation of the vend”) allocated larger shares to some mines than they could actually supply. Some of the older, smaller or higher-cost mines had not been able to grow output fast enough to maintain their traditional market shares. But it was easier to keep the baselines and adjust allocations up and down in line with changing market demand than to renegotiate them. OPEC+ has often faced the same problem.
For both the Newcastle coal cartel and OPEC+, total allocations were often above total supply, ensuring changes in notional allocations were normally greater than changes in actual production.
OPEC+ frames its decisions in terms of adjustments to total and individual allocations, not production. The actual change in production is often different. In this case, many OPEC+ countries have been unable to utilise their allocations fully because they have insufficient capacity. These members will not be required to reduce their actual production since it was already well under quota. The actual fall in production is therefore likely to be much smaller than the reduction in the notional allocations.
The difference between production and notional allocations has been a persistent problem in the oil market. OPEC+ decisions are usually reported as “changes in production” when they should be reported as “changes in allocations”. It may seem a harmless simplification but it is deeply misleading.
Sometimes, however, the misdirection is intentional. It allows OPEC+ to announce a large headline increase or decrease, and use it to generate a desired market or diplomatic reaction, even though the actual change in production is much smaller.
But it is more technically accurate and analytically useful to report OPEC+ decisions in terms of production allocations and then report changes in actual production separately.
U.S. PETROLEUM INVENTORIES fell by -16 million bbl in the week to September 30. There were reductions in crude (-8 million), gasoline (-5 million), distillate fuel oil (-3 million) and jet fuel (-1 million). Total inventories have depleted by -480 million bbl since the start of July 2020 and are now at the lowest seasonal level since 2004:
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