As of about 9:30 this morning, Brent crude is trading at its lowest price in three months, and the price differential between Brent and WTI crude closed to about $12/barrel last week before widening again to around $15/barrel this morning. The wider spread is due to the sharp decline in WTI, now trading under $98/barrel.
For refiners with significant production capacity in the middle part of the US, the price differential has made a major contribution to earnings. HollyFrontier Corp. (NYSE: HFC) this morning reported EPS that fell short of the consensus estimate, but at $1.16 were still well above the $0.79 EPS reported in the first quarter of 2011. Western Refining Inc. (NYSE: WNR) reported better-than-expected earnings last week, but Valero Energy Corp. (NYSE: VLO), Tesoro Corp. (NYSE: TSO), and Marathon Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: MPC) all came up short. ConocoPhillips has finally completed its spin-off of its refining assets into Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX), and Sunoco Inc. (NYSE: SUN) is going to get out of the refining business one way or another by summer.
What matters for refiners is the cost of Brent. For those with operations along the Gulf and East Coasts, crude inputs come primarily from barrels priced at or near Brent prices. For mid-continent refiners like HollyFrontier and Tesoro, as the Brent-WTI differential closes, profits are very hard to come by.
If the price of WTI falls faster than the price of Brent, as has been happening, mid-continent refiners benefit. If Brent falls faster, the coastal refiners get more of the benefit because their input costs drop. As new or reversed pipelines become available to move WTI from the Cushing, Oklahoma, hub, Brent prices should drop further, adding to the benefit for coastal refineries.
No matter how one looks at it though, refining crude oil is not likely to produce big profits again any time soon, unless the US economy should jump its GDP growth above 3%. A slow, wobbly march in that direction won’t do much.
Shares in HollyFrontier are down about -1.6% in the first half-hour of trading this morning, at $29.05 in a 52-week range of $21.13-$38.90.