US gasoline consumption stalls, adding to oil producers’ problems

During the first 10 months of 2018, US gasoline consumption was flat as rising fuel prices offset the strong economy and big gains in employment.  Shell photo.

US gasoline consumption averaged 9.34 million b/d between January and October 2018

By John Kemp
LONDON, Jan 29 – US gasoline consumption was flat in the first 10 months of 2018 as escalating motor fuel prices offset the impact of a strong economy and big employment gains.

Flat-lining US gasoline consumption combined with surging US shale production and a slowing global economy to push the oil market towards surplus and explains the plunge in prices late last year.

Gasoline consumption averaged 9.34 million barrels per day (b/d) between January and October 2018, which was slightly down from 9.36 million b/d in the same period in 2017.

Full-year consumption is forecast to have declined by around 40,000 b/d, according to estimates from the US Energy Information Administration (“Short-Term Energy Outlook“, EIA, December 2018).

Consumption has shown little or no growth since 2017 after four years of variable but strong gains between 2013 and 2016 (“Petroleum Supply Monthly“, Energy Information Administration, December 2018).

Fuel use has flattened off even as the rate of economic growth has accelerated to an annual rate of more than 3 per cent and almost 5 million non-farm jobs have been created since the end of 2016.

But stagnating gasoline consumption has been consistent with a sharp slowdown in the growth of traffic on the nation’s roads in the last two years.

Traffic volumes surged between 2014 and 2016, with vehicle-miles travelled often rising at year-on-year rates of 2-3 per cent or more, but slowed sharply in 2017 and 2018, with gains slowing to 1 per cent or less.

Traffic volume in the three months from September to November 2018 was just 0.3 per cent higher than in the same period a year earlier (“Traffic Volume Trends” Federal Highway Administration, December 2018).

In the last quarter of a century, traffic growth has been closely correlated with both the state of the economy and changes in the cost of fuel.

While the economy has remained supportive, higher oil prices have been strongly negative for gasoline consumption.

Falling prices between 2014 and 2016 provided a stimulus to consumption but subsequent rises have caused that effect to unwind.

Global slowdown

The deceleration in US gasoline consumption is one reason climbing oil prices helped push the global oil market towards a surplus in 2018 and why prices needed to fall to rebalance production and consumption.

The impact of rising prices on US motorists also explains why they are so sensitive for US politicians and why President Donald Trump aggressively pressed OPEC to bring prices down last year.

Finally, stagnating US gasoline consumption explains why the oil market has become ever-more reliant on emerging markets and freight transport to absorb output growth from US shale and other sources.

Global oil consumption growth and prices have become increasingly sensitive to changes in economic growth outside the United States and the other advanced economies.

As signs of a global slowdown in trade became evident in the second and third quarters of 2018, it became increasingly clear consumption growth would decelerate and prices would have to decline.

Once the United States decided to grant generous sanctions waivers to Iran’s most important customers, allowing them to continue buying the country’s crude, the last remaining support was removed and prices fell.

Lower prices are a necessary part of the market’s rebalancing process and, over time, should help restore some consumption growth in the United States and more importantly in emerging markets.

But with so much consumption growth now geared towards China and other emerging markets, the outlook for market balance and prices in 2019/2020 will remain dominated by concerns about a possible global slowdown.

Until the threat of a global slowdown is lifted, oil prices will struggle to recover, despite the efforts of OPEC and its allies to reduce production.

John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.

(Editing by Edmund Blair)

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