Sunday, May 22, 2011

Belly flopping into a sea of gasoline

Belly flopping into a sea of gasoline

The market bounced back from steep lows last Friday putting crude oil prices back on track up to the $100 a barrel mark . Crude oil managed a strong rebound even as the US dollar showed strength. June WTI traded as low as $95.99 and bounced back $3.50 to expire at the $99.49 a barrel level gaining $1.05 a barrel. The $96 a barrel was reached at one point as the US dollar rose with big money investors worried about the outlook for global growth and the financial health of countries in Europe. The crisis was abetted by the recent arrest and subsequent resignation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund.
The euro fell against the dollar as wariness about disagreements on how to tackle Greece’s debt and ahead of a Spanish regional election caused investors to cut back on the euro before the weekend.

The dollar, which often moves inversely to commodities because oil and other raw materials are priced in the US currency, rose around 0.6 per cent against a basket of currencies.
WTI crude oil futures for June, which were due to expire later on Friday, were trading around $96.40 per barrel, down $2.04 by 1400 GMT, after hitting an intra-day high of $99.60 with Brent crude oil for July dropping $2.12 to $109.30. Crude oil prices have declined 15 % from April 29 through May 20, 2011.

This week began with crude prices still battered and bruised from double-digit losses sustained the week prior. The chart above this article shows the trend between Brent and WTI crude oil prices from February 5 through May 16, 2011.

Meanwhile gasoline prices at the pump remained at their lofty heights and oil companies are acting as of nothing is happening. Gasoline is a refined product of crude oil with retail gasoline and crude oil prices tend to move in tandem in the up market.

Domestic crude oil inventories are at all time highs and concerns of potential refinery disruptions in the Mississippi Delta region receded as fast as the drop in water level. Gasoline pump prices were temporarily buoyed even while crude oil prices kept going ever lower. The Mississippi Delta area is home to 11 oil refineries with a combined refining capacity of 2.461 million barrels of gasoline per day, which is 13.1 percent of total U.S. refining capacity. Weather-related disruptions caused by floods or hurricanes could have a serious impact for gasoline prices across the country.

Motorists should finally see the price of gasoline drop at the pump barring any other unforeseen market moving developments in the next several weeks. The relief will be felt just in time as prices will ease heading into the Memorial Day travel weekend with the average price for gasoline in the US heading down towards the $3.50 per gallon mark.

It may be short lived with the summer driving season and threats of hurricanes affecting the Gulf Coast refineries. Belly flopping into the sea of gasoline will make the water splash over the sides of the pool but things get back to normal pretty quickly afterwards.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Bin Laden Effect on the Oil and Gasoline Market

ExxonMobil's map showing areas of the US with boutique gasoline summer blend requirements.

The oil market turned around this week and spot market gasoline and diesel prices in turn went back down the week of May 1, 2011. This goes against the grain of what usually happens when American Petroleum Industry (API) and Department of Energy (DOE) inventory reports show draws for both gasoline and diesel.

The average price for unleaded gasoline in the US is $3.982 per gallon on Wednesday and may touch $4 by this Friday. But the demand for gasoline is down with numbers from March showing a steep decline showing the effects of the ever increasing gasoline prices. The AAA Fuel Gauge report on May 4, 2011 showed the following gasoline prices:

Current Avg.
Yesterday Avg.
Week Ago Avg.
Month Ago Avg.
Year Ago Avg.

Highest Recorded Average Price:
Regular Unl.

The national price for unleaded regular gasoline may peek at $4 per gallon with California currently at $4.265 and the State of Washington at $4.018 staying about the same by the end of this week.

The news of Osama Bin Laden's death on the night of Sunday, May 1st gave the country great relief and a chance to celebrate in spite of our economical situation. The dollar stayed weak but prices for both West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude oil went down, which caused wholesale gasoline prices to go down 20 cents per gallon since Monday.

The world woke up Monday morning with a new attitude and oil traders took heed by turning bearish. Last week’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) report showed paper traders with record longs in the market, a position which bets on oil prices continuing increase.

Money managers increased their net length by 2.8%, setting an all-time high when you look at both futures and option positions. However, this report was prepared before this weekend’s big events in Asia and North Africa.U.S. gasoline consumption fell last week and maintained a deficit to year-ago levels. SpendingPulse report showed demand for gasoline decreased by about 93,000 barrels per day (b/d), or 1%, to an average of 9.157 million b/d for the week ending April 29. Compared to the same calendar week in 2010, demand last week was 0.6% lower and the week's demand was 1.2% lower compared to a year ago, it was the second week in a row in which the year-over-year gasoline demand shrank.

US motorists have been told speculators, unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, natural disasters, a weak US dollar and world demand were the causes for the march towards the seeming inevitability of seeing $5 per gallon gasoline at the pump. However, this march towards a never before reached milestone seems to have been broken for the time being.

However, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) set standards for gasoline creating areas in the country with boutique gasoline requirements. That is the main reason for the huge price differentials in parts of the country other than federal and state taxes. The following ExxonMobil map shows areas of the US affected by these oxy fuel or RFG compliance requirements for gasoline:

The worst area of the country to be hit by these requirements is Chicago with gasoline in the Windy City currently the most expensive in the nation at $4.467 per gallon. They perhaps will hit the $4.50 per gallon mark by the end of this week but then prices will come crashing down.

Fair warning the adage: "Gasoline prices shoot up like rocket, drift down like a feather" will apply as major oil companies slow down passing the lower cost for crude oil along to their branded retail station accounts. The independent non-branded station prices will be the ones reacting quick to their new found advantage by lowering their pump prices.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Busting the myth about oil company profits

What can we do to stop commodity speculators from causing the rapid hike in gasoline prices? Arrest them, put them in jail, and try them before a jury before we hang them?

Early last week, President Obama started that ball rolling by telling US Attorney General Eric Holder to stop oil market fraud. Eric Holder promptly announced he was appointing a “working group” focused on rooting out the cases of fraud in the oil markets that might affect gasoline prices. This might work in any other business but the petroleum industry is not going to be simple to control.

Later in the week ExxonMobil reported their 1st quarter profits went up a whopping 69 percent to $10.7 billion from the same quarter a year ago. This ignited a firestorm almost immediately raising the ire of politicians and activists alike, who accused the oil industry of profiteering while Americans pay nearly $4 a gallon for gasoline.

Instead of being good news it was reported as bad news on the front page of major newspapers and became the lead off story on most of the TV and radio news broadcasts.

On the other hand Apple, which showed a 95% increase in net profits in their quarter from $3 billion to $6 billion, had Steve Jobs proudly announce those results in his April 20, 2011 news conference.

No one screamed “Off with their heads!” about Apple’s profits, so why all the brouhaha about ExxonMobil and the other oil company’s profits? Surely they are both stalwart organizations making the capitalistic system work for their shareholders, expecting to receive a fair return on monies invested in those companies. They should be allowed to make a profit with products everyone either wants or needs and you can charge for them according to what the market will bear.

ExxonMobil sent out Ken Cohen, their Vice President of Public and Government Affairs, to face skeptic reporters at a news conference on April 28, 2011. He launched a preemptive public relations strike to blunt expected criticism from politicians and the public about of seeing gasoline pump prices increase along with ExxonMobil’s profits.

The following graph from the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) shows the results of what happens to oil company profits when crude oil prices increase:

Ken Cohen wrote an article entitled: "Gas prices and industry earnings: A few things to think about", which can be read it in full on the ExxonMobil Perspectives blog at

ExxonMobil does not own the patents to the iPhone or iPad franchise but they have something even better by being the largest company in an oligopoly made of oil companies producing a product we cannot do without . . . . . . fuel.

A few of the talking points used in Ken Cohen’s article need closer scrutiny and examination since they are now been repeated almost verbatim by pundits and analysts alike:

Point: We don’t own 95 percent of our station, and therefore we don’t set the price.
Counterpoint: The first part is correct; however the retail pricing manager for ExxonMobil checks the spot market regularly during the day and makes wholesale pricing decisions dependent on the area of the country. The methods used by ExxonMobil are rack and zone pricing giving them the ability charge whatever the market will bear. The competitive pricing data is gathered for them by third parties such as Oil Price Information Service and The Lundberg Survey. The latter is the most important one since Lundberg gathers Dealer Tank Wagon (DTW) prices for each locale in which ExxonMobil has retail operations. Rack pricing is used to set the wholesale prices for either branded or unbranded gasoline. The DTW prices are charged to those dealers who have branded supply contracts direct with ExxonMobil. These are not the prices posted on the pumps at the station and are the most secretive part of gasoline retailing. Zone pricing, or a Temporary Voluntary Allowance (TVA) method of pricing, controls almost 85% of all the branded-contracted gasoline sold in the US with the difference sold to unbranded non-contracted stations.

Point: Local stations are often owned by a businessman or businesswoman in your community, and they set their own prices based on local market conditions.
Counterpoint: The owner or dealer of a local station receives deliveries of gasoline with the new wholesale price set by the oil companies, and then adds a margin to the gallon of gasoline. They are contractually obligated with long term supply agreements to only buy from the “branded” supplier with whom they signed up.

Point: For every gallon of gasoline, diesel or finished products we manufactured and sold in the United States in the last three months of 2010, we earned a little more than 2 cents per gallon.
Counterpoint: Adding all the oil company profits together including their upstream, downstream and chemical divisions and then dividing that amount by the total gallons of fuel sold is somewhat misleading. Each one of those is separate profit centers and not the only products sold by the oil company.

Point: Crude oil is a commodity, and like all other commodities – such as corn, wheat or sugar – the price is determined by buyers and sellers in a global market.
Counterpoint: ExxonMobil is one of five “super major" vertically integrated oil companies in the US controlling the process of refining gasoline from the wellhead to the pump. Crude oil, the raw material from which gasoline is refined, is either purchased or obtained from company owned or controlled wells with prices set according to the gravity of the crude oil. ExxonMobil utilizes the Last In/First Out method of accounting and the last price at which crude oil was obtained establishes the posted price for crude oil delivered to their refinery gates.

Point: ExxonMobil owns less than 1 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and it produces less than 3 percent of the world’s daily oil supply.
Counterpoint: ExxonMobil is the largest oil company in the world and when the elephant in the jungle trumpets, the market listens. The throughput of their refineries and percentage of market share have a big influence on the other oil companies’ reaction on how they in turn price their products.

Point: Last year, our total taxes and duties to the US government topped $9.8 billion, which includes an income tax expense of $1.6 billion.
Counterpoint: This is a somewhat misleading statement since taxes and duties include tax credits allowed on payment to foreign governments. It is another subsidy, devised by the US State Department in the 1950s, which allows US based oil companies to reclassify the royalties they are charged by foreign governments as taxes. Those can then be deducted dollar-for-dollar from their domestic tax bill. That provision alone will cost the federal government $8.2 billion over the next decade, according to the Treasury Department. These are currently allowed to be reported as taxes paid to the US Government. The following opinion re-printed from the Harvard Law Review gives a more detailed explanation on how this works:

BP, ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips and Shell, the other four super-major oil companies, said their profits rose in the first quarter because of soaring crude prices and other factors.

Members of Congress and President Obama used the record setting earning reports to step up calls for the repeal of the $4 billion in annual depletion allowance tax breaks for oil producers. John Boehner, R-Oh, Speaker of the House, first seemed to want to go along with eliminating this tax break only for the large oil companies but then changed his mind.

Jeff Sheets, Chief Financial Officer of ConocoPhillips, said that while the industry's profits are higher, the margins are still slim compared to the amount of assets oil companies maintain, and profits haven't risen as fast as gasoline prices. “When critics focus only on the bottom-line number, they lose the scope of what's required to produce that profit," Sheets said
The industry further argues that ending tax breaks would cut investment in new oil and natural gas projects, cost new jobs and decrease oil and natural gas production.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate as early as next week could take up Obama's proposal to halt the tax breaks and President Obama said the $4 billion a year in oil subsidies would be spent on alternative energy investments.

Holding a commodity off the market and then selling it after the price goes up is only one form of speculation, and it’s not one that works very well in the oil market. Simply put when gasoline prices increase so do the profits at the oil companies.