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Wading through the speculation


One of the many good things about spring is the dramatic falloff in those calls from Karachi-based call centers offering professional duct cleaning services by a crew that happens to be in your neighborhood next week. This is almost as annoying as the robocalls from Gladys (or whomever it is) informing you that you are the lucky winner of a free cruise, so come on down to our showroom and pick up your tickets!

This week we have had to bear the robo-rants of a US president who just doesn’t take listening for granted, especially as he insists on talking. Seems to me, he takes policy advice from the first person to show up at his door each day – be it the milkman from Wisconsin, an American lumberjack, or the cable repair guy.

But he is not alone.

There are robo-speculators as well, especially those who house themselves in the energy commodity watchtowers of the business world.

The winners or losers in the, “OPEC versus shale oil, crude oil production” game, is determined by the weekly inventory and related data, as released by the industry-sponsored American Petroleum Institute (API) on Tuesdays and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Wednesdays. The former is voluntary as provided by the oil industry, and the latter is government directed and mandatory. Speculators take the more sensational of the two reports and tweak the futures prices, which then filter down to the racks and consumer pump prices. The divergence of inventory data can cause radical price movements over a 24-hour period.

Recently, the API told us that crude oil inventories increased by 897,000 bbls, so the end prices decreased. The next day the EIA said, “No, no silly, the crude levels dropped by 3.6 million bbls,” so prices increased.

Personally, I don’t regard the API data as anything but a self-fulfilling industry manipulation, so I rely on the non-biased EIA as a reliable tourist guide through the jungle of energy related data.

I’ll go a step further. I don’t really care about crude oil inventories – whether they go up, down, or sideways – because the world is awash in the stuff.

OPEC can announce all the cuts they want, they are becoming an afterthought as shale oil, or tight oil, is not merely a US curio and annoyance, but now a global matter of fact, and a threat to the cartel’s existence, and they know it.

What I look at is the refined product demand side of the EIA data and the refinery runs. How much is needed and how much is being made.

Refineries are running at 94% of capacity, which is the highest on record for this time of year and unusual with a month to go before the driving season. Inventories grew by 3.4 million bbls last week. So, all of that is good for the consumer as far as summer pump prices go.

But then it gets better, as demand for gasoline has not reached positive territory all year despite strong employment numbers in the US, and high consumer confidence levels in the new Trump administration, like him or not.

In the spring, the pump-price-panic-prediction calls by the speculators can be counted on, as can the calls from the duct cleaners in the winter.

No need for the consumer to listen to what either has to say right now, or for the rest of the summer. You’ll have to listen to President Trump though; after all, he said so, didn’t he? I don’t know, I wasn’t listening.

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Roger McKnight is the chief petroleum analyst with En-Pro International Inc. Roger has more than 25 years of experience in the oil industry. He is a regular guest on radio and television programs, and is quoted regularly in newspapers and magazines across Canada.