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Positive jobless claims figures push crude prices higher

2013.05.02 - Jobless ClaimsEnlarge Graph

  • The U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of oil, and, therefore, the state of the U.S. economy is an important determinant of world oil demand. One indication of the strength of the U.S. economy is the initial jobless claims figure (the number of people who have filed for unemployment benefits for the first time).
  • Last week’s jobless claims figure was less than forecast (as determined by the average forecast of a number of economists and experts), which resulted in a positive indicator for the U.S. economy and therefore was positive for oil demand and prices. Oil traded up on the day, closing at $93.99/barrel, compared to $91.03/barrel at the prior day’s close.

Oil prices are ultimately determined by supply and demand forces, and oil consumption is one factor in the demand equation. U.S. employment figures affect U.S. oil consumption as employment is one measure of how strong or weak the domestic economy is. Additionally, the more people who are employed, the more miles are driven to and from work, which drives a portion of demand for oil as some of the commodity is used to make transportation fuels. Therefore, many market participants track U.S. employment figures as one indicator of the demand for oil, and consequently oil prices which affect the earnings of upstream energy producers, such as Exxon Mobile (XOM), Chevron Corp. (CVX), Hess Corp. (HES), and ConocoPhillips (COP). Lower valuations of these companies also affect ETFs such as the Energy Select Sector SPDR (XLE), which is comprised of a number of upstream energy producers in addition to oilfield service providers and refiners.

On May 2nd, the Department of Labor reported that initial jobless claims for the week ended April 27th was 324,000 as compared to the estimate of 345,000, which was a positive data point as the figure was lower than the forecast figure. Additionally, jobless claims for this past week were lower than that of the prior week’s figure of 342,000. These points are positive short-term indicators. Crude traded up on the day, closing at $93.99/barrel compared to $91.03/barrel a day earlier.

From a longer-term perspective, initial jobless claims spiked during the recession, but have gradually trended downward. Note, however, that though initial jobless claims have largely returned to pre-recession levels, the U.S. unemployment rate is still significantly above where it was prior to the recession.

2013.05.02 - US Unemployment RateEnlarge Graph

The below chart demonstrates the relationship between the number of U.S. jobs and U.S. oil demand on a percentage change basis from January 2001. Though, for various reasons (such as seasonality), the demand for oil fluctuates much more than the jobs figure, the trends of U.S. jobs and oil demand appear to be closely linked.

2013.05.02 - Jobs vs OilEnlarge Graph

Therefore, market participants watch unemployment figures and jobless claims as one indicator of domestic oil demand. A worse than expected report on jobless claims can cause oil prices to trade down. Given lower oil prices, upstream energy companies realize lower revenues which ultimately affect earnings and valuation. Conversely, a better than expected report on jobless claims can cause oil prices to trade up, boosting oil companies’ revenues.

Last week’s smaller than forecast figure on initial jobless claims was a positive short-term indicator for oil prices. Additionally, it seems that over the medium-to-long term both initial jobless claims and the broader unemployment rate appear to be trending downwards and both these trends are also positive for oil demand and oil prices.