Winter Storm May Provide Relief at the Gas Pump
Gasoline prices have surged nearly 30 cents in the past month, but a slide in the oil futures market may provide some temporary relief at the pump.
The national average for regular gasoline—already at the highest level on record for February—reached nearly $3.59 a gallon on Monday, a nearly 7-cent climb in a week. According to AAA, that's up from from $3.31 a gallon a month ago. But pump prices could pause over the next few days, based on the pullback in the futures market, analysts say.
After reaching 2013 milestones last week, energy futures traded lower at the New York Mercantile Exchange Monday with gasoline leading the decline.
March Brent crude futures slid 1 percent, but remained above $117.50 a barrel. March WTI oil futures were only fractionally lower, trading above $95 a barrel. Meanwhile March RBOB gasoline futures fell almost 1.5 percent to a low of $3 a gallon on Monday, a nearly 7 cent slide from last Thursday's high. Gasoline futures are still up about 8 percent so far this year.
"It's nothing but a little of a correction. We've just seen gasoline prices go straight up," says NYMEX floor trader Anthony Grisanti, a contributor to CNBC Futures Now. "And with that storm and people snowed in, I think you'll see a little less driving, less demand." (Watch: Are Oil and Gas Companies Ripe for Activist Interference in 2013?)
Gasoline had led energy futures higher on Friday as traders bid up prices while drivers stocked up on fuel ahead of a major blizzard in the Northeast. But as some analysts warned, the reality is the snow storm actually limited fuel consumption this weekend as much of New England was buried in several feet of snow. The governor of Connecticut ordered all roads closed in the state for nearly a day and public transportation was temporarily suspended in parts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York. Many roads are still blocked.
But the price pullback may be very short-lived, as money managers continue to pour money into the gasoline futures market.
"There's about $12 to $12.5 billion dollars of more money from financial funds that is betting on higher price outcome for gasoline," estimates OPIS analyst Tom Kloza. "Hedge funds and commodity funds have embraced gasoline very, very early this year." (Read More: Oil Bulls Remain in Charge for Now)
Money managers have consistently raised their bullish bets on gasoline nearly every week this year. The latest report from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission's Commitment of Traders Report showed money manages raised their net-long positions—bets that prices will rise—for NYMEX RBOB gasoline futures and options to the highest level since April 2012, the second-highest level on record.
"In effect, money managers are positioned for driving season to begin right now," says Citi Futures strategist Timothy Evans.
The summer driving season is usually when gasoline prices reach their highest levels of the year. Perhaps the near record level of bullish bets in the gasoline market is a "red flag" that prices have peaked, Kloza says, as buyers are all in and there may not be more buyers in the next month or so.
But it could also be another signal that gasoline prices are simply starting their seasonal climb a bit earlier—and could rise even higher—this year.