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Report Signals Strong Gasoline Demand Amid Tight Supplies

April 10, 1996

Gasoline futures rocketed to five-year highs Wednesday after a government report indicated refineries are in a race to replenish low stockpiles before the start of perhaps the strongest summer driving season in history.

The Commodity Research Bureau’s index of 17 commodities rose 3.09 points to 258.91, its largest one-day gain in more than a year as it approached a July 1988 high amid surging wheat, corn and soybeans futures prices.

Most other commodities surged as investors interpreted the explosive futures gains as signaling an inflationary jump in wholesale prices. Crude oil futures jumped more than $1 a barrel, and heating oil futures rose to new highs.

Unleaded gasoline for May delivery rose 2.47 cents to 72.99 cents a gallon, the highest price since May 9, 1991. It was the largest one-day jump since Oct. 28, 1994.

May crude rose $1.15 to $24.21 a barrel; May heating oil rose 1.87 cents to 62.51 cents a gallon.

Prices at the pump have climbed to their highest since the Gulf War, and the new reports show ``we can sit back and watch this market soar,″ said analyst Tim Evans at Pegasus Econometric Group.

``This market is in a state of mania,″ Evans said. ``The gasoline market is reacting to a whole laundry list of refining problems in addition to the anticipation that demand is going to be rising steadily.

The Energy Department predicted American drivers this summer will drain 8 million barrels of gasoline a day from U.S. stockpiles, a 2.1 percent increase over last year’s record demand.

The news reinforced worry about refiners’ recent business practice of keeping tighter stockpiles to lower operating costs. Despite near all-out production last week, the American Petroleum Institute reported late Tuesday, and the Energy Department confirmed Wednesday, that gasoline stocks plunged 1.849 million barrels to 201.75 million barrels, 4 percent below last year.

The level of concern was so great Wednesday that investors ignored increasingly optimistic reports from the United Nations that diplomatic negotiators are nearing agreement with Iraq on a $2 billion food-for-oil sale.

Analysts and government officials estimate the price of crude oil will drop $3 a barrel if 600,000 barrels a day of Iraqi oil reach the market. Ironically, oil prices have risen in recent weeks because refiners have been anticipating such sharply lower prices and were waiting until the last minute to buy.

Wheat futures rocketed the daily limit in most contracts on the Chicago Board of Trade for the first time in years, while corn futures set new all-time highs as investors’ concern about tight supplies turned to panic.

Soybeans futures also rose sharply in sympathy with the grains.

Wheat futures rose the 20 cent trading limit as traders focused on reports of extensive frost damage to soft red winter crops in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Anecdotal evidence showed many farmers were plowing over their fields in favor of other crops, said broker Jason Roose at U.S. Commodities Inc. in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Damage to the soft red winter crop, combined with previously known damage to the hard red winter crop has eliminated any chances of a good harvest to replenish stockpiles at 22-year lows. Further, cold weather is delaying early spring planting that would bring in a harvest by September.

Corn futures soared to a sixth consecutive day of all-time highs before falling back. Investors said they expect an Agriculture Department report due out Thursday to show a further tightening of ending stocks given the continued strong export and domestic demand for corn supplies.

Wheat for May delivery rose 20 cents to $5.49 3/4 a bushel; May corn rose 9 1/2 cents to $4.44 1/2 a bushel after rising as high as $4.46 1/2; May soybeans rose 15 3/4 cents to $7.94 1/2 a bushel, the highest since Jan. 13, 1989.

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