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2.4: Futures contracts for refined petroleum products

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    Futures contracts for refined petroleum products

    Gasoline, diesel fuel, and heating oil are volatile commodities – prices fluctuate up and down, sometimes dramatically, as shown in \(Figure \text { } 2.7\) which compares spot prices for crude oil with retail prices (i.e., what you would pay at the pump) for gasoline and diesel fuel. Focusing on gasoline and diesel fuel, you will notice that there is some pattern to all of the noisiness in the graphic – prices for both fuels tend to rise starting in the spring and tend to decline in the late summer and fall. This reflects the increased demand for transportation (primarily driving) during the summer months.


    \(Figure \text { } 2.7\): Weekly average prices for crude oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel, January 2011 to June 2013.

    Why are prices for petroleum products so volatile? The easy (but not that satisfying) answer is that the price of crude oil can be volatile. In the United States, about 65 cents of every dollar we pay for diesel fuel or gasoline represents the cost of crude oil. The rest represents taxes assessed at the state and federal level. (In European countries, taxes are a much bigger component of gasoline costs.) You can see the volatility visually through the use of the crude oil price graphing tool from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It allows you to plot the price of West Texas Intermediate (the benchmark crude oil price in the U.S.) on a daily, monthly, and annual basis (depending on how much variability you want to see).

    Starting in early 2008, prices climbed very rapidly, reaching nearly $150 per barrel in early July. But by December of that year, the price had dropped by almost 75%! Meanwhile, more recently, the price has dropped to $40 per barrel or even lower! What on earth is going on?

    That supply and demand forces were at work is the primary reason, but the nature of the supply and demand forces are worth some time discussing. Suppose that the demand for crude oil or a refined petroleum product were to increase by some amount. How would that demand be met? There are basically two options: existing idle capacity (oil wells or petroleum refineries, for example) could be restarted, or that demand could be met by drawing down crude oil or petroleum product storage. If additional capacity could be restarted, the increase in demand would lead to an increase in the market price due to the higher costs of the capacity brought back online.

    But what is the cost of releasing additional supply from storage? Here, we have a tricky economics problem – the actual cost (in accounting terms) of releasing additional supply is probably pretty small. But if you are the owner of some crude oil or petroleum products in storage, if you release supply from storage now, then you can’t release those same barrels again at some point in the future unless you replenish your storage facility (which requires buying oil or petroleum products on the open market and then putting them in storage). So, by releasing from storage now, you are giving up the opportunity for some future profit. This is referred to as “opportunity cost.” (Another term used in the finance field is the “convenience yield.”) Whether the opportunity cost is high or low depends on your expectations about the future price in the crude oil or petroleum products market. If you think demand is going to continue to be high tomorrow, then you face a high opportunity cost by releasing supply from your storage today. If you think that the increase in demand is transient, then that opportunity cost is low (because you think that demand is going to go back down tomorrow).


    \(Figure \text { } 2.8\): Capacity constraints can lead to price spikes in crude oil and petroleum product markets when demand increases.

    As it turns out, the opportunity cost of releasing supply from storage is related to the amount of spare production capacity, as shown in \(Figure \text { } 2.8\). Generally, as the demand for oil or refined petroleum products rises, more expensive capacity (whether it’s oil wells or refineries) must be brought online, so the market price rises as demand goes up. As you get close to the total capacity constraint (the dashed vertical line in the figure), there is literally no more capacity to be brought online, so the price must rise rapidly in order for one of three things to happen: (i) additional supply is released from storage; (ii) new capacity can be constructed, which of course is expensive; or (iii) demand can go down because the price is too high. This transition from a slow and steady price increase to a regime of substantial volatility is endemic to the market for nearly every energy commodity, and the kink in the supply curve shown in \(Figure \text { } 2.8\) is appropriately known as the “devil’s elbow” in the energy commodity business.


    \(Figure \text { } 2.9\): New supplies can lead to substantial declines in price. But this may keep new supply out of hte market if prices drop too low relative to the costs of the new supply.

    Bringing on new capacity will eventually lead to lower prices if demand stays constant – all it does is to shift the capacity constraint and the devil’s elbow in \(Figure \text { } 2.8\) further to the right (this is shown in \(Figure \text { } 2.9\)). But this may have a self-reinforcing effect of keeping new capacity out of the market. Since new capacity in the refining business is generally built in large chunks (so-called “lumpy” investment – no one is going to build a refinery that processes a few marginal barrels of oil per day), if a new refinery is built without an increase in demand for petroleum products, the net effect may be to reduce the price for petroleum products so much that the new refinery is not profitable. Because of the devil’s elbow and the lumpy nature of bringing new sources online, energy commodity markets generally do not have a stable equilibrium like you might find in economics textbooks.

    NYMEX (now called the "CME Group") offers futures contracts for several refined petroleum products - the most frequently-traded are heating oil and gasoline. The video below shows you where to find these prices on the CME Group website.

    This page titled 2.4: Futures contracts for refined petroleum products is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Seth Blumsack (John A. Dutton: e-Education Institute) .