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Global crude oil stockpiles are finally falling, but there's a hidden threat

Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Developed nations' total oil stockpiles fell in August for the first time since March, according to the International Energy Agency, but analysts say a continued buildup of refined fuels remains a barrier to reversing a two-year crude glut.

The IEA reported Tuesday that overall oil and product inventories in OECD countries fell by 10 million barrels, driven by a 22 million barrel decline in crude stocks in the United States, Japan and South Korea. But an 18.7-million barrel increase in petroleum products offset the decline.

Those products included middle distillates like jet fuel and heating kerosene, fuel oil and particularly U.S. propane. At 3.092 billion barrels, total oil stockpiles in August were just below a record of 3.111 billion barrels in July.

The rise in petroleum product stockpiles reinforced fears that demand for the "feedstock" crude that's refined into petroleum products will eventually fall as the world works through the fuels backlog, potentially dragging down oil prices anew.

"I think that really is the big worry here. Even though crude stocks drew, we saw products increase, and we have such a strong overhang of products," said Matt Smith, director of commodity research at cargo-tracking firm ClipperData.

Oil prices retreat

IEA identified an increase in refinery activity in many parts of the world as a reason for the steep drop in crude inventories. Crude oil is the raw material for refining fuels like gasoline.

Refiners' profit margins have been holding up, providing one of the few respites in an energy industry battered by a two-year oil price downturn, said John Kilduff, founding partner at Again Capital. Notably, refining has increased in China, particularly among the country's small "teapot" refineries.

But while the teapots are processing more crude oil, China is simply putting gasoline and other refined fuels back on the global market, particularly in Singapore, but also in Europe and, more recently, the United States, Kilduff said.

"It looks like there's more demand out of China, but the problem is the crude is basically making a round trip," he told CNBC. "That kind of demand rings hollow to me."

While China's teapot refiners are much more active this year, they are not driving exports, Smith said. Instead, their refining is saturating the domestic market and causing state-run companies to export more petroleum products.

"You're seeing more product exports from the likes of China, and so really, the products side of the situation is still fairly bearish," he said.

Overall, Kilduff said the EIA report is "very bearish" because record OPEC output, persistently high stockpiles and "just OK" global demand overshadowed the good news on crude inventories.

"It's mildly supportive at best, but it's a drop in the bucket though. That's the problem," he said.

Given the weak oil market fundamentals, speculation that OPEC members will reach a deal internally and with non-OPEC members to limit production is the only thing holding up crude prices, Kilduff said.