Why inventory figures buoyed crude oil prices


Dec. 4 2020, Updated 10:53 a.m. ET

Oil inventory figures reflect supply and demand dynamics and affect prices

Every week, the U.S. Department of Energy (or DOE) reports figures on crude inventories, or the amount of crude oil stored in facilities across the U.S. Market participants pay attention to these figures, as they can indicate supply and demand trends. If the increase in crude inventories is more than expected, it implies either greater supply or weaker demand and is bearish for crude oil prices. If the increase in crude inventories is less than expected, it implies either weaker supply or greater demand and is bullish for crude oil prices. Crude oil prices highly affect earnings for major oil producers such as Oasis Petroleum (OAS), Hess Corp. (HES), Chevron (CVX), and Exxon Mobil (XOM).

Crude, gasoline, and distillate inventories figures all gave positive signals to crude prices

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On February 5, the DOE reported an increase in crude oil inventories of 0.44 million barrels—much lower than analysts’ expectations of a build of 2.27 million barrels. Generally, a smaller-than-expected build of crude storage drives prices higher, as it indicates either stronger demand or less supply than expected. Plus, stocks of refined products such as gasoline and distillate gave positive signals too. Gasoline inventories built up 0.51 million barrels last week—only half of analysts’ expectation. Distillate stock dropped 2.36 million barrels—0.24 million barrels more than the market expected. Both figures showed higher demand for crude oil, so they were positive for crude prices. Ultimately, crude traded up on the day, to close at $97.84 per barrel—$0.44 per barrel higher than the previous day.

Background: U.S. crude oil production has pushed up inventories over the past few years

From a longer-term perspective, for most of 2013, crude inventories were much higher than they were in the past five years at the same point in the year (though they closed in under comparable 2012 levels at points throughout the year). There has been a surge in U.S. crude oil production over the past several years. Inventories had accrued because much of the excess refinery and takeaway capacity had been soaked up, and it took time and capital for more to come online. This caused the spread between WTI Cushing (the benchmark U.S. crude, which represents light sweet crude priced at the storage hub of Cushing, Oklahoma) and Brent crude (the benchmark international crude, which represents light sweet crude priced in the North Sea) to blow out.

However, over the course of 2013, this closed in considerably, so that the two benchmarks traded almost in line again, as more takeaway capacity from the Cushing hub came online. Recently, however, the spread has widened back out (see Why did the WTI-Brent spread continue to narrow last week?).

This week’s crude oil inventories data was a positive short-term indicator for oil prices. WTI price movements and broader oil price movements affect crude oil producers, as higher prices result in higher margins and earnings. Names with portfolios slanted towards oil such as Oasis Petroleum (OAS), Hess Corp. (HES), Chevron Corp. (CVX), and Exxon Mobil (XOM) could see margins squeezed in a lower oil price environment. Also, oil price movements affect energy sector ETFs such as the Energy Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLE), an ETF that includes companies that develop and produce hydrocarbons and the companies that service them.


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