Oil price little changed despite inventory drop

Concerns about the fuel demand outlook offset a big draw in crude oil inventories last week, leaving the price of US light crude crawling sideways.

US light crude oil was broadly unchanged by mid-afternoon in New York, despite the weekly petroleum status report from the US Energy Department showing an unexpectedly large decline in crude oil inventories.

The Energy Information Administration (the statistical arm of the Energy Department) announced that crude supplies fell by 6.9 million barrels for the week ending 12 July to 367 million barrels. A Thomson-Reuters survey ahead of the report had pointed to a drop of just 2 million barrels.

This is the third week in a row in which we have seen a sizeable decrease in US inventories and the third week in a row in which the drop has been significantly larger than expected. In those three weeks, the total decline is over 27 million barrels which takes the US crude oil stockpile to its lowest level since January. Up to May, inventories had been swelling, though, with the highest total inventories in over 80 years being reached in late May.

Although crude supplies are now falling, there is a build in refined products, which raises concerns over demand. Refinery operation rates have been steadily increasing in the last few weeks, which is an expected seasonal variation, as we are now in the US driving season when gasoline consumption is expected to be reaching peak levels.

Capacity utilisation at refineries rose 0.4% last week to 92.8%, but gasoline consumption has not been moving in the expected direction, dropping 570,000 barrels a day last week (6.1%) and this meant gasoline inventories expanded by 3.06 million, when a decline of more than a million barrels was expected.

Ben Bernanke’s comments suggesting that the Fed foresees tapering beginning later this year does not bode well for the demand outlook. Mr Bernanke was keen to point out that the decision will ultimately hinge on the performance of the economy, but the more evident it becomes that the Fed is preparing to taper, the more that downward pressure will be felt in the crude market.

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