Crude Oil Price Ticks Higher; US Exports Soared Last Week

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The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its weekly petroleum status report Wednesday morning, showing that U.S. commercial crude inventories decreased by 6 million barrels last week, maintaining a total U.S. commercial crude inventory of 465 million barrels. The commercial crude inventory has slipped to near the upper limit of the average range for this time of year.

Crude oil exports rose to a second consecutive record of 1.98 million barrels a day last week, up by 493,000 barrels over the prior week and a whopping 1.54 million barrels more than at the same time last year. The cumulative daily average export total last week rose to 814,000 barrels a day, up from 482,000 barrels a day in the same week a year ago, an increase of 69%.

With exports of nearly 2 million barrels a day, it’s little wonder that total commercial crude stockpiles fell by 6 million barrels last week. Exports also have the advantage of being priced against the Brent benchmark price, which has been several dollars higher than the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) price for several years now.

Tuesday evening the American Petroleum Institute (API) reported that crude inventories fell by 4.1 million barrels in the week ending September 29. API also reported gasoline supplies jumped by 4.9 million barrels and distillate inventories fell by 584,000 barrels. For the same period, analysts had consensus estimates for a decrease of 300,000 barrels in crude inventories, an increase of 967,000 barrels in gasoline inventories, and a drop of 1.2 million barrels in distillate stockpiles.

Total gasoline inventories rose by 1.6 million barrels last week, according to the EIA, and remain in the upper half of the five-year average range. U.S. refineries produced about 9.9 million barrels of gasoline a day last week, flat compared to the prior week. Total motor gasoline supplied (the agency’s proxy for demand) averaged about 9.5 million barrels a day for the past four weeks, up by about 100,000 barrels a day compared with the prior week.

The December 2018 forward contract from Brent crude currently trades on the ICE at $54.63 a barrel, well below the December 2017 price of $56.02 per barrel. This market condition is known as “backwardation” and is a signal that traders are worried about the availability of near-term supplies.

The pricing differentials also indicate to OPEC and its 11 partners that their production cuts are finally working as they had hoped. In fact, Bloomberg reported this morning that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not rule out an extension of the cuts beyond the slated March 2018 termination date. Putin also said that any extension, “of course” would run through the end of next year.

On the NYMEX, WTI for November delivery traded at $50.36, while the price for December 2018 futures was marginally higher at $50.62. As WTI nears the end of a years long market condition called “contango,” where future prices are higher than current spot prices, one of a couple of things could happen. U.S. shale drillers could ramp up production or they could choose to hold the line to push prices to the point where they could actually make a profit rather than just break even.

Harold Hamm, founder and CEO of Continental Resources, reiterated his position that $50 oil is not sustainable and prices need to rise closer to $60 to meet growing global demand. He believes that the current differential between Brent and WTI should be no more than $2 a barrel. Curtailing U.S. production is one way to narrow that spread. It’s not often that U.S. shale producers side with OPEC and Russia, so don’t be surprised if U.S. crude production does not meet EIA projections by the end of the year.

Before the EIA report, WTI crude for November delivery traded down about 0.4%, at around $50.25 a barrel, and it traded at $50.62 shortly afterward. Prices went back above $52 a barrel within a few minutes. WTI settled at $50.42 on Tuesday and opened at $50.16 Wednesday morning. The 52-week range on November futures is $42.84 to $58.37.

Distillate inventories decreased by 2.6 million barrels last week and remain in the lower half of the average range for this time of year. Distillate product supplied averaged over 4 million barrels a day over the past four weeks, up by 12% compared with the same period last year. Distillate production averaged over 4.9 million barrels a day last week, up about 300,000 barrels a day compared to the prior week’s production.

For the past week, crude imports averaged over 7.2 million barrels a day, down by 213,000 barrels a day compared with the previous week. Refineries were running at 88.1% of capacity, with daily input averaging over 16 million barrels a day, about 145,000 barrels a day less than the previous week’s average.

According to AAA, the current national average pump price per gallon of regular gasoline is $2.534, down nearly four cents from $2.571 a week ago and up more than 20 cents compared with the month-ago price. Last year at this time, a gallon of regular gasoline cost $2.225 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 down about 0.2% at $81.66 in a 52-week range of $76.05 to $93.22. Over the past 12 months, Exxon stock has traded down about 5.2%.

Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) traded down about 0.3%, at $117.46 in a 52-week range of $99.61 to $119.00. As of last night’s close, Chevron shares are trading up about 16.3% over the past 12 months.

The United States Oil ETF (NYSEMKT: USO) traded up about 0.5%, at $10.23 in a 52-week range of $8.65 to $12.00.

The VanEck Vectors Oil Services ETF (NYSEMKT: OIH) traded up about 0.4%, at $25.81 in a 52-week range of $21.70 to $36.35.