Skinny And Sweet: US Refiner Earnings Depend On The Oil Diet

Skinny And Sweet: US Refiner Earnings Depend On The Oil Diet
Shares of smaller independent US refiners with less complex facilities surged in the stock market in the first quarter.


NEW YORK, April 26 (Reuters) - Shares of smaller independent U.S. refiners with less complex facilities surged in the stock market in the first quarter as investors expect strong earnings growth thanks to a fall in price of their primary cost - light, sweet crude oil coming out of West Texas - to more than three year lows.

Over the last 20 years, the nation's biggest refiners spent billions building units capable of turning heavy, sour crude into gasoline, diesel fuel and other products.

But the U.S. shale revolution has boosted crude production to a record 10.5 million barrels per day, upending the global oil market by adding millions of barrels of very light crude to the supply mix. A majority of that new production is light, sweet West Texas crude, which needs less processing to produce premium fuels.

Recent trends have turbocharged this shift: full pipelines in West Texas, where light U.S. oil originates from, have depressed prices for Midland, Texas, crude to more than three-year lows. On the other hand, OPEC production cuts and supply issues among big producers of heavy crude like Venezuela and Mexico have raised the cost of heavy, sour oil.

That gives an advantage to some independent refiners equipped for lighter crude. Investors have been buying up shares in independents with less complex refineries like Delek US Holdings Inc and HollyFrontier Corp, as they could benefit from low Permian prices for several quarters to come.

"To have your major feedstock be in such abundant supply is unequivocally a positive for U.S. refining," said Matthew Blair, a Denver-based refinery analyst with Tudor Pickering & Holt.

"The benefits of that are going to be unevenly spread through the group."

To be sure, shares of most refiners have been rallying, as refining margins are at nearly six-month highs and U.S. gasoline demand is near record levels.

Results for the first quarter are likely to show strong profits across the sector. Valero Energy Corp, the top independent U.S. refiner, was the first to report results on Thursday, exceeding profit expectations.

However, over the last three months, as Permian crude has slumped, Delek shares have soared, returning more than 30 percent, with HollyFrontier close behind at 25 percent, besting all other independent refiners. The two are also ranked highest among U.S. refining companies in the Thomson Reuters earnings revisions model, which looks at analyst revisions for earnings and revenue and recommendation changes.

Carry That Weight

"Light" grades are distinguished based on what is known as API gravity - a measurement of density. A majority of U.S. shale crude output growth is at the top of the scale with API gravity above 40 degrees.

More complex U.S. refineries are configured to run on grades of crude with an API gravity of around 31-33 degrees. Most refineries cannot simply take in only lighter crude, because it would affect operational efficiency.

"In order to process more shale from here on, refiners will need access to more heavy crude too," Morgan Stanley analysts said in a note last week.

About 70 percent of Delek's crude slate is based on Permian crude, according to a March company presentation. The company did not respond to a request for comment.


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