Crude Oil Inventory Plunges, December Futures Jump to Near $52

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The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its weekly petroleum status report Wednesday morning. U.S. commercial crude inventories decreased by 5.2 million barrels last week, maintaining a total U.S. commercial crude inventory of 468.7 million barrels. The commercial crude inventory and have now dipped to near the upper limit of the average range for this time of year.

Tuesday evening the American Petroleum Institute (API) reported that crude inventories fell by 3.8 million barrels in the week ending October 14. API also reported gasoline supplies increased by 900,000 barrels and distillate inventories saw a drop of 2.3 million barrels. For the same period, analysts had estimated an increase of 2 million barrels in crude inventories, along with a drop of 1 million barrels in gasoline supplies and a decrease of 1.7 million barrels of distillates.

Total gasoline inventories rose by 2.5 million barrels last week, according to the EIA, and moved well above the upper limit of the five-year average range. Total motor gasoline supplied (the agency’s measure of consumption) averaged 9.1 million barrels a day for the past four weeks, up by 0.2% compared with the same period a year ago.

As expected, speculators in the oil futures and options markets pushed prices higher last week, covering their short positions to avoid a serious short squeeze that had begun the week before. According to the latest commitment of traders report from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), hedge funds and other managed money market participants have raised their long positions on 212 million barrels of crude since early August. More than half the total, 155 million barrels, have been added since mid-September.

Speculators’ short positions peaked at 249 million barrels in August and have now dipped to just 102 million barrels. Long positions have risen by 65 million barrels to 394 million barrels over the same period.

According to Reuters oil analyst John Kemp, short covering has propped up the price of crude for more than two months:

The reduction in short positions has provided crucial support to prices over the last 10 weeks and explains why OPEC’s relatively weak output agreement reached in late September had such a big impact on prices.

But the short covering process has now run its course, with relatively few more short positions to cover, and is likely to provide less support to prices going forward.

U.S. crude oil prices peaked at $51.60 on Oct 10 and have since struggled to rise further, which is consistent with the short-covering rally being largely over.

The balance of price risks has shifted significantly, at least as far as the positioning of hedge funds is concerned.

In August and September, the balance of risks was clearly tilted to the upside, with so many short positions needing to be covered and a relatively modest number of long positions.

Now the position is reversed. There are few short positions while the number of hedge fund longs is at the highest level since 2014, which tilts the balance of risks to the downside.

Pushing oil prices back to $60 is likely to prove hard unless Saudi Arabia and OPEC can show they are serious about making real production cuts that remove physical barrels from the market.

Before the EIA report, benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude for December delivery traded up about 1.2% at around $51.20 a barrel and moved higher to around $51.45 shortly after the report’s release. WTI crude settled at $50.62 on Tuesday. The 52-week range on December futures is $34.06 to $53.66.

Distillate inventories decreased by 1.2 million barrels last week but remain above the upper limit of the average range for this time of year. Distillate product supplied averaged about 4 million barrels a day over the past four weeks, up by 3.3% compared with the same period last year. Distillate production averaged 4.6 million barrels a day last week, up about 100,000 compared with the prior week’s production.

For the past week, crude imports averaged about 6.9 million barrels a day, down by 954,000 barrels a day compared with the previous week. Refineries were running at 85% of capacity, with daily input averaging about 15.4 million barrels, about 182,000 barrels a day less than the previous week’s average. Refinery runs remain low as maintenance and turnaround continue. The big drop in imports and the increases in gasoline and distillate production are likely the cause of the sharp drop in the crude inventory.

According to AAA, the current national average pump price per gallon of regular gasoline is $2.235, down from $2.254 a week ago and up about three cents compared with the month-ago price. Last year at this time, a gallon of regular gasoline cost $2.257 on average in the United States.

Here is a look at how share prices for two blue-chip stocks and two exchange traded funds reacted to this latest report.

Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) traded up about 0.7%, at $87.33 in a 52-week range of $71.55 to $95.55. Over the past 12 months, Exxon stock has traded up more than 7% and is down nearly 16% since August 2014, as of Tuesday’s close.

Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) traded up about 1.2%, at $103.02 in a 52-week range of $75.33 to $107.58. As of the most recent close, Chevron shares have added more than 13% over the past 12 months and trade down nearly 24% since August 2014.

The United States Oil ETF (NYSEMKT: USO) traded up around 2.3%, at $11.70 in a 52-week range of $7.67 to $15.45.

The VanEck Vectors Oil Services ETF (NYSEMKT: OIH) traded up about 2.8% to $30.68, in a 52-week range of $20.46 to $32.78.