Now You See It, Part 2 - Could U.S. Propane Demand Plus Exports Draw Down Inventories Enough to Spike Prices?

Amid all the turmoil and negative news in energy markets this year, U.S. propane has been the exception, turning in a stellar performance. Even with exports up almost 10% in November from the same period last year, averaging 1.3 MMb/d for the month, inventories remain in good shape at 92.6 MMbbl, or about 5% above stocks in November 2019. Part of the reason has been strong production numbers, which are down only 5% since January, and up a whopping 14% since May. Weather has been another contributor to robust stock levels, with November 2020 coming in as one of the warmest on record. But winter is just arriving. And with export volumes now greater than total U.S. winter consumption, market dynamics have shifted. It now takes more inventory in the ground throughout the winter to support the combination of U.S. demand and exports. But how much more inventory is enough? And how should we factor in the potential for further increases in exports? At the same time, the market is still facing the possibility of another round of declining production due to COVID-related drilling cutbacks. This blog series is about making sense of what’s going on in the propane market today, and what may be coming up in the months ahead. 

In Part 1, we started by showing how strong propane prices have been this year on a relative basis, meaning in comparison to crude oil. Focusing on the period between June and November, in 2019 the price of propane was only 34% of crude, while this year it has averaged a much higher 53%. (As a general rule, propane is considered to be expensive relative to crude when that ratio is above 50%, and cheaper when the ratio is below 50%.) Which begs the question, why would propane prices be so strong in 2020 when in 2019 prices were weak relative to crude?

One clue has been the magnitude of export growth relative to domestic consumption during the winter season. Total winter domestic demand has been relatively steady, ranging between just under 1.0 MMb/d in 2016-17, up to a high of almost 1.2 MMb/d in 2013-14. Demand the last couple of winters has averaged about 1.1 MMb/d. In contrast, export volumes have stepped up almost every year for the past decade — in both the summer and winter, with no discernable seasonal pattern. Exports are up from about 0.6 MMb/d in 2015 to 1.3 MMb/d in November 2020. In winter 2019-20, exports exceeded average domestic demand for the first time.

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