US inventories will likely rise less than normal in mths ahead and that is bullish

US commercial crude and product stocks will now most likely start to rise on a weekly basis and not really start to decline again before in week 38. We do however expect US inventories to rise less than normal in reflection of a global oil market in a slight deficit. This will likely hand support to the Brent crude oil price going forward.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Shedding some value along with bearish metals and China/HK equity losses. Brent crude has trailed lower since it jumped to an intraday high of USD 87.7/b on 19. March spurred by Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian refineries. Ydy if fell back 0.6% and today it is pulling back another 1% to USD 85.4/b. But the decline today is accompanied by declines in industrial metals together with a 1.3% decline in Chinese and Hong Kong equities. Thus more broad based forces are helping to pull the oil price lower.

US API indicated a 5.4 m b rise in US oil stocks last week. But rising stocks are normal now onwards. The US API ydy indicated that US crude stocks rose 9.3 m b last week while gasoline stocks declined 4.4 m b while distillates rose 0.5 m b. I.e. a total rise in crude and products of 5.4 m b (actual EIA data today at 15:30 CET). That may have helped to push Brent crude lower this morning. It is however very important to be aware that US inventories seasonally tend to rise from week 12 to week 38. And from week 12 to 24 the average weekly rise is 4.1 m b per week. The increase indicated by the US API ydy is thus not at all way out of line with what is normally taking place in the months to come. What really matters is how US commercial inventories do versus what is normal at the time of year.

US commercial stocks have fallen 17 m b more than normal since end of 2023. So far this year we have seen a draw of  39 m b vs the last week of 2023. The normal draw over this period is only -22 m b. I.e. US commercial inventories have drawn down 17 m b more than normal over this period. This has been the gradual, bullish nudge on oil prices. US commercial stocks should normally rise 63.5 m b from week 12 to week 38. What matters to oil prices is thus whether US inventories rise more or less than that over this period.

Drone attacks on Russian refineries was a catalyst to release Brent to higher levels. Brent crude broke out to the upside on 13 March along with the Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian refineries. Some 800 k b/d of refining capacity was hurt and probably went off line. But in the global scheme of things this is a mere 1% or so of total global refining capacity. And if we assume that it is off line for say 3 months, then it equates to maybe 0.25% impact on global refining activity in 2024 which is easy to adapt to. Refining margins have not moved  much at all. ARA spot diesel cracks are now USD 2.25/b lower than it was in 12 March 2024. Thus no crisis for refined products at all.

We’ll probably not return to pre-drone attack price level of USD 82/b any time soon. Though a dip to that price level is of course not at all out of the question. The oil market may send the oil price lower in the short term since very little material impact in the global scope of things seems to follow from the drone attacks on Russian refineries. Our view is however that the attacks were more like a catalyst to release the oil price to the upside following a steady and stronger than normal decline in US commercial inventories. I.e. the latest price gains in our view is not so much about an added risk premium in the oil price but more about oil price finally adjusting higher according to the fundamentals which have played out since the start of the year with stronger than normal declines in US commercial inventories. We thus see no immediate return to pre-drone-attack price level of USD 82/b. Rather we expect to see continued support to the upside through steady, gradual inventory erosion versus normal like we have seen so far this year.

Voluntary cuts by Russia in Q2-24 could be bullish if delivered as promised. Earlier in March we saw Russia’n willingness to cut back supply in Q2-24 in a mix of production restraints and export restraints. Saudi Arabia and Russia are equal partners in OPEC+ with equal magnitudes of production. In a reflection of this they set equal baselines in May 2020 of 11.0 m b/d. Saudi Arabia produced 9.0 m b/d in February while Russia produced 9.4 m b/d. This is probably why Russia in early March stated that they were willing to cut back in Q2-24. To align more with what Saudi Arabia is producing. It has been of huge importance that Saudi Arabia last year cut its production down to 9.0 m b/d and thus below Russian production. This reactivated Russia as a dynamic, proactive participant in OPEC+. The actual effect of proclaimed production/export cuts by Russia in Q2-24 remains to be seen, but calls for USD 100/b as a consequence of such cuts have surfaced.

So far we haven’t lost a single drop of oil due to Houthie attacks in the Red Sea. We have lost some up-time in Russia refining due to Ukrainian drone strikes lately. But nothing more than can be compensated elsewhere in the world. Temporarily reduced volumes of refined hydrocarbons from Russian will instead lead to higher exports of unrefined molecules (crude oil).

For now OPEC+ is comfortably controlling the oil market and the market will likely be running a slight deficit as a result with inventories getting a continued gradual widening, negative difference versus normal levels thus nudging the oil price yet higher. SEB’s forecast for Brent crude average 2024 is USD 85/b. This means that we’ll likely see both USD 90/b and maybe also USD 100/b some times during the year. But do make sure to evaluate changes in US oil inventories versus what is normal at the time of year. Rising inventories are bullish if they rise less than what is normal from now to week 38.

US commercial crude and product stocks will likely rise going forward. But since the global oil market is likely going to be in slight deficit we’ll likely see slower than normal rise in US inventories with an increasing negative difference to normal inventory levels.

Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data feed, EIA data

Total US crude and product stocks incl. SPR are now 4 m b below the low-point from December 2022

Source: SEB graph and calculations, Blbrg data feed, EIA data

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