NEW YORK (Reuters) – The US oil storage trade is back – and may be bigger than ever.
Six years ago, the financial crisis led to a sudden surplus of oil and a collapse in prices, spurring a classic low-risk trade that’s set to make a comeback: buying crude to store in onshore tanks or floating tankers, since oil costs $8 a barrel less now than what futures buyers will pay in a year.
OPEC’s decision not to cut output in the face of slower demand and growing US shale has traders scrambling to cash in on the return of a market structure known as ‘contango,’ by securing storage that could yield an almost guaranteed return of 8 per cent or more.
This year, they’ll have more scope than ever before to take advantage of the contango play: the capacity of US commercial oil storage tanks has expanded by a third since 2010, while months of strong demand for domestic crude from North American refiners has prevented inventories from swelling too far.
As a result, those onshore tanks are barely a third full, with less than 150 million barrels of the nation’s total 439 million barrels of shell storage capacity occupied as recently as October, according to a Reuters analysis of US data. That’s by far the highest vacancy rate since the Energy Information Administration began a bi-annual survey of tank farm capacity – which exclude refinery stocks and oil in pipelines – in 2010.
Since September, US commercial stocks have risen by about 22 million barrels. Assuming all of that fed into tank farms, rather than refineries or pipelines, whose inventory levels generally don’t fluctuate much, more than half of the nation’s tanks still stand empty, the data show.
The historically large volume of empty tank space may also herald a pause, if not an end, to an unrelenting rout in global markets, as traders embark on a sustained campaign to buy physical crude to stockpile, analysts said – at least until stocks rise so high that space once again becomes scarce.
“We’re at an inflection point” in the oil market, said Philip K Verleger, an energy economist who has closely tracked oil storage economics for three decades. “Prices can stay at these levels as storage fills. But if demand doesn’t pick up or supply go down, then prices will fall again.”
The figures may surprise traders who have been thus far focussed on the atypical build in stockpiles this winter, with inventories reaching record seasonal highs at a time when they normally decline due to heating demand and year-end tax issues.