thoughts on the International Energy Agency release of strategic oil reserves

the IEA action

Yesterday, the International Energy Agency (IEA), an organization of oil consuming countries, announced its 28 member nations have agreed to release 60 million barrels of their collective emergency oil supplies, at the rate of 2 million barrels daily for thirty days starting early in July.  The idea is to offset upward pressure on the oil price that might arise during the summer high point in demand.

The extra oil, which represents a bit less than 4% of the total government reserves of the IEA, is ostensibly to replace crude lost to world markets by fighting in Libya.

The agency has done this twice before.  The first time was when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990; the second was after Hurricane Katrina.

Of the 60 million barrels, North America (read, the US) will supply half, Europe 30% and Asia the rest.  Each country will decide for itself how it will achieve its goal.  The US intends to release crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  Japan, in contrast, is simply going to reduce by three days the amount of refined petroleum products that refiner/marketers are legally mandated to maintain.  This presumably will ultimately lead to decreased purchases of crude by Japanese oil companies.

a stop-gap measure

The release of petroleum reserves is a stop-gap measure.  It appears to have been well-timed enough to be shaking some speculators out of their long positions in oil futures, and may therefore get the world through the summer months with lower gasoline prices.  But the move is also reminiscent of the ultimately futile attempts of the signatories to the Bretton Woods currency agreements to defend fixed exchange rates.

structural issues

In the case of oil, two structural issues stand out:

–the increasing affluence of the developing world means ever higher demand from these countries for fossil fuels for power generation and for transportation, and

–the US, the only developed country without a sensible energy conservation policy, consumes almost a quarter of the petroleum the world produces, even though it  represents just over 4% of the population of the globe.

effect on stocks

The initial reaction from financial markets is that the IEA action is bad for oil stocks and good for consumer names, especially in the US.  To some degree, I think this is the right response.  But production-sharing agreements signed between the big international oil companies and producing nations over the past twenty years call for progressively increasing percentages of oil sales revenue to go to the nation rather than the oil company as prices rise.  So the negative effect of the current price fall will likely be less than markets expect.  Also, the IEA move is more a temporary reprieve than a problem solution for hard-pressed consumers.

As a result, I think that, as it unfolds in the coming weeks, the IEA move will prove a better occasion for selling US retail stocks whose customers are ordinary Americans and buying oil names that it is to do the opposite.