Road-trip season may bode well for ETF investors allocated to oil.
The summer driving season is officially underway, and more Americans are expected to hit the roads this year than they have in nearly a decade. For ETF investors, perhaps one of the simplest ways to tap into this annual phenomenon is through oil-focused ETFs.
To be clear, the U.S. driving season lasts from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and oil funds tend to do well during that period. For example, last year, a quartet of U.S. Commodities Funds’ ETFs tapping into different pockets of the oil market saw solid returns in the late May to early September period.
The United States Oil Fund (USO | A-100)—the largest oil ETF in the market today, and one that invests solely in the near-month WTI crude futures contract—led in gains in the summer of 2013 with a 14.73 percent rally.
The United States 12 Month Oil Fund (USL | B-40), which optimizes exposure to WTI crude by investing in 12 different futures contracts, wasn’t far behind, with gains of 11.2 percent. The United States Brent Oil Fund (BNO | 64)—Brent is the global oil benchmark—delivered 12.8 percent in gains last summer, while the United State Gasoline Fund (UGA) trailed with total returns of 9.45 percent.
The year before, in the summer of 2012, UGA gained nearly 19 percent between Memorial Day and Labor Day, while the other three ETFs also posted gains. These four ETFs are not the only choices investors have been looking for exposure to oil in an ETF or ETN wrapper, but they offer a good example of the honed-in exposure available in different pockets of the oil market.
This year, AAA estimated that more than 36 million people would kick off the summer driving season by driving 50 miles or more over the Memorial Day weekend. That’s the highest level since the 2008 market crash, and the second-largest number of drivers since 2000. From a historical perspective, 2014’s number of drivers is expected to clock in 2.6 percent higher than the 10-year historical average.
“As we enter into the summer travel season with warmer temperatures and tulips in bloom, thoughts of the historic cold are still fresh in the minds of Americans in many parts of the country,” Marshall L. Doney, AAA’s chief operating officer, said in a recent news release. “The winter blues appear to have given Americans the travel bug and a case of cruise cabin fever as travel for the holiday is expected to hit a new post-recession high.”
Beyond the traditional oil demand associated with summer driving, there are other fundamentals impacting the oil market to keep in mind. These fundamentals are behind the dispersion in performance we’ve seen between USO, USL, BNO and UGA so far this year.
Charts courtesy of StockCharts.com
USO has been outperforming its counterparts, with gains of 6.3 percent year-to-date. The fund is largely considered the U.S. oil benchmark in the ETF market. It’s also the largest oil ETF, with more than $466 million in assets, and it invests solely in near-month Nymex futures contracts on WTI crude oil.
The front end of the futures curve tends to react more strongly to news and events, which makes USO a relatively good proxy for what’s happening in the spot price of WTI oil. It also means that USO’s short-term focus on supply and demand for oil makes it that much more sensitive to volatility.
WTI has been outperforming Brent this year as new pipeline additions help drain the massive glut of oil in the U.S. Midwest, Hard Assets Investor analyst Sumit Roy told ETF.com.
“Midwest and Cushing inventories have plummeted as the new pipeline capacity has come online,” Roy said. “However, the glut of oil in the U.S. hasn’t disappeared; it’s merely been transferred from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast.”
“U.S. prices in general, for WTI and other grades of crude, should remain below prices for Brent as long as U.S. crude production keeps spiking,” he added.
Outside of the U.S., persistent labor unrest in Libya continues to “decimate supply in that country,” while proposed sanctions against Russia—the world’s second-largest oil producer—would also be detrimental to supplies globally, Roy says.
Demand, meanwhile, remains strong both domestically as well as abroad. The global economy is expanding, keeping consumption at record levels, even if concerns abound about slowing Chinese economic growth, notes Roy.
What does all this mean for the American driver concerned about the price of gas at the pump, or for an ETF investor wondering whether gasoline prices will spike this summer? Apparently, not all that much.
From an ETF perspective, UGA, which offers viable exposure to gasoline prices, is up merely 1.9 percent year-to-date. The fund, which invests in near-month Nymex futures contracts on RBOB gasoline, is relatively expensive to hold, costing investors 1.03 percent in expense ratio a year, or $103 per $10,000 invested.
“Right now, gasoline stockpiles are near normal levels, so we shouldn’t see a huge spike in gas prices, barring a shock to oil prices themselves,” Roy said.