May 29, 2019 / 1:25 PM / 19 days ago

Column: Global economic slowdown hits diesel consumption

LONDON (Reuters) - Global manufacturing and trade volumes have been decelerating since the third quarter of 2018 and the slowdown is starting to show up in sluggish consumption of middle distillates such as gasoil and diesel.

A diesel and fuel pump machine are seen at a gas station, in Mexico City, Mexico January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Global manufacturers have reported falling export orders for eight months since September, according to the new export orders component of the JP Morgan global purchasing managers’ index.

World trade volumes peaked in October and have since been contracting at the fastest rate since 2009, according to the Netherlands Bureau of Economic Policy Analysis.

Every real-time measure of manufacturing and trade flows points to a very sharp slowdown over the last nine months (tmsnrt.rs/2Wf88Tp).

Container shipments are falling. Air cargo is down. Rail freight is shrinking. And shipping lines are cancelling voyages owing to lack of demand.

Distillates are the most heavily exposed to the business cycle since most gasoil and diesel is used in freight transportation, manufacturing, mining, oil and gas extraction and farming.

OECD stocks of gasoil and diesel were down by less than 2 percent in March compared with the same month a year earlier, and by less than 4 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period in 2018.

Year-on-year stock draws have slowed from more than 12 percent for single-month and three-month periods in the second quarter of 2018, according to statistics from the Joint Organisations Data Initiative.

Global distillate stocks may now actually be rising. By the middle of May, distillate stocks in the United States were more than 12 million barrels (11%) higher than at the same point last year.

Reduced pressure on distillate inventories is most likely attributable to a combination of slower growth in consumption and faster growth in production.

Refineries have been ramping up distillate production ahead of the introduction of new IMO regulations for marine bunkers at the start of 2020, which will force many vessels to burn distillates rather than residual fuel oil.

But it is also likely distillate consumption growth has been hit by a combination of higher fuel prices and weakening freight and manufacturing consumption.

Recent easing pressure on stocks is starting to resemble previous business cycle and trade slowdowns in 2008/09 and 2014/15.

It also resembles previous periods of consumption restraint caused by escalating prices in 2005/06 and again in 2011/12.

Recent moves in distillate stocks are therefore consistent with other indicators showing the global economy slowing sharply since the middle of 2018 and are starting to weigh on distillate and crude oil prices.

Looking forward, the outlook for distillate consumption and prices is split between IMO regulations (bullish) and the slowing economy (bearish).

Until recently, most traders anticipated a shortage of distillate fuels later in the year as the economy avoided recession and the switch to IMO-compliant fuels took place.

In recent weeks, however, the escalation of trade tensions between China and the United States, and weaker-than-expected economic data, has made traders more worried about the economic outlook.

Crude and distillate prices are falling in line with the progressive inversion of the U.S. Treasury yield curve and increasing expectations of weakness-driven interest rate cuts.

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

Editing by Alexandra Hudson

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