Sightlines Bulletin

Diesel Fuel Details

The big story during August and September was Hurricane Harvey. At its worst, Harvey knocked about 20% of U.S. refining capacity knocked offline. As a result the average price of regular gasoline jumped by 34-cents per gallon (15%) between the end of July to the week of September 11th, when it peaked at $2.61 per gallon. The price of diesel increased also rose by 27-cents per gallon (10.7%).

Crude oil prices actually fell as the storm hit Houston. During August the WTI price dropped from $50.21 per bbl to $45.96 per bbl. But since the beginning of September the WTI price has recovered, hitting $49.88 on the 18th. Going along with the crude oil price fluctuations, the U.S. crude oil inventory dropped by 19.8 million barrels (1.7%) during August, but risen since the beginning of September by 11.6 million barrels.

During August the price of Brent crude rose slightly from $51.99 to $52.69 per bbl. Data on domestic oil production and imports are only available through June. That month domestic producers accounted for 53.2% of the U.S. oil supply, and domestic production averaged 9.1 bbl per day. Shale oil accounted for 52.5% of domestic production.

Turning to domestic motor fuel consumption, for which the most current data is from last April, gasoline consumption totaled 12.0 billion gallons, up 206.5 million gallons (1.7%) from the prior April. This is a notable increase&mdashover the most recent three months gasoline consumption had declined by 0.2%.


Diesel fuel consumption in April totaled 3.4 billion gallons, up 153.2 million gallons (4.7%) from April 2016. During the prior 3-, 6- and 12-month diesel fuel consumption grew by 3.7%, 4.3% and 3.6%, compared to the same periods in the prior year.

Regionally, over the three months from February&mdashApril the strongest growth occurred in New England states (18.3%) followed by the Southwest states (9.7%). States in the Southeast, Great Lakes and Far West regions also experienced some growth, but below 5.0% in all cases. The greatest decline occurred in the Mideast states (-3.9%). Other regions where diesel fuel consumption decreased included the Plains (-2.0%) and the Rocky Mountains (-0.8%). The states of the Rocky Mountain region have experienced year-over-year declines during the most recent 3-, 6- and 12-month periods.


As shown on the above graph, the relationship between the 3-month moving average of diesel fuel sales and manufacturing employment continues to hold. However, the number of months by which changes in the diesel series leads the manufacturing employment series does fluctuate. The diesel series started becoming increasingly positive in March 2016, while the growth rate for manufacturing employment stayed negative until February 2017. Manufacturing employment growth has stayed positive and has continued to increase over the past seven months with a large jump from July (0.6%) to August (1.1%). If the relationship continues to hold, the year-over-year manufacturing employment growth rate will likely level off at about 1.3% for the remainder of 2017.

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State-level GDP: Down on the Farm with Energy Rising

During first quarter of 2017, economic growth declined in five of the seven Plains states. Within this region, only Missouri and North Dakota saw their economies grow during the quarter. North Dakota’s growth came from a reviving energy sector that contributed 1.7pp and offset almost the entire 1.9pp drop in its agriculture sector. Missouri’s agriculture sector declined by 0.8pp, but this was offset by relatively strong growth in durable goods manufacturing and wholesale trade.

The states that experienced the greatest declines in output were Nebraska (-4.0%), South Dakota (-3.8%), and Iowa (-3.2%). Lower prices for row crops likely explain the decline. During the first quarter of 2017 corn prices averaged 4.4% below the prior year and wheat prices were down 11.7%. Soybean prices were up somewhat compared to 2016 but were trending lower.

Nationwide the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector subtracted 0.41pp from the overall annualized growth, which totaled 1.1%. As the accompanying chart shows, absent the agriculture sector national GDP grew by 1.6% during the first quarter.

The fasted growing sector in Q1 was mining, which includes oil extraction. It was up 0.3%. As shown in the accompanying chart, excluding the mining sector national GDP would have only increased by 0.8%.


Texas 3.9% gain was the strongest. Its mining sector increased by 2.1pp. West Virginia experienced the second highest rate of overall growth at 3.0% and its mining sector contributed 3.2pp. New Mexico had the third highest growth rate at 2.8% with its mining sector contributing 1.8pp. Other energy states also experienced increased growth. Oklahoma’s 1.9% growth in output ranked 11th and noisy Alaska’s 1.8% growth ranked 14th. (A revenue estimator from the state told us they basically don’t even try to forecast revenue growth in the state because the economy is so volatile.)

But other energy states did not fare as well. Lousiana’s economy grew by only 1.0% (ranked 28th). Growth in Wyoming clocked at just 0.9% (32nd), and Montana saw a 0.5% decline (45th)

Finally, a couple of standout states for the quarter were Washington and Wisconsin. Washington continued a pattern of strong performance from 2016 when it took the blue ribbon. Its economy grew at an annualized rate of 2.7% during the first quarter and by 3.8% for all of 2016. This growth was driven by its information sector, which accounted for 1.7pp, and durable goods manufacturing, which accounted for 0.7pp, of the overall growth. Wisconsin’s 2.1% annualized growth for the first quarter represents a reversal of fortune from 2016 during, when its economy grew by only 0.9%. The sectors that contributed the most to its first quarter 2017 growth were real estate (0.6pp), durable goods manufacturing (0.4pp) and nondurable goods manufacturing (0.4pp).

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What are transportation fuels telling us?

We follow transportation fuel sales volumes because they have a tight relationship with overall and manufacturing employment. The data are released with a lag, but they still provide a lead on the health of employment, especially manufacturing employment.

There’s been quite a bit of price action in the sector. Since bottoming out at $26.19 per barrel (bbl) on February 11th, the WTI price of crude has recovered to near $50; since mid-February the average price of regular gasoline has risen from $1.64 to $2.24 per gallon and the average price of diesel has increased from $1.98 to $2.36 per gallon.

Since the end of April, the nation’s crude oil inventory has decreased by almost 3 million bbls, or 0.1%. Domestic production has decreased by 11.5% since peaking during March 2015, shale oil production has decreased by 8.4% its March 2015 peak.

During December 2015 (most current data), diesel fuel sales increased by 82.5 million gallons (2.3%) nationwide over the year. During the prior 3-, 6-, and 12-months, increases were 2.5%, 3.1%, and 2.5%. This brought the 1-month diffusion index below 50 for the first time since May 2015, or from 52.9 to 47.1, as shown in this graph:


This next chart shows that the strongest diesel sales growth occurred in the Southeast, Great Lakes and Rocky Mountain regions during the past three months, while sales fell in the Southwest, Plains and Mideast regions.

Diesel yy

The 3-month-average growth rate for diesel sales bounced back from November’s 1.81% to 2.49% in December. During April, the relevant month, total employment growth rate decreased from 1.99% to 1.88%. The growth rate for manufacturing employment moved up from -0.20% to -0.16%, and remains near the lowest level since September 2010. Although other indicators imply some positive signs for growth in the manufacturing sector, diesel fuel sells imply growth in this sector will remain subdued through much of the remainder of 2016:

Employ diesel

Tracking the American Economy


At Sightlines Bulletin we:

Provide businesspeople and long-term investors with concise data-driven monthly analyses of the direction of the American economy so they can successfully formulate their business plans and fine-tune their resource allocations;

Use unique indicators that have proven successful at flagging turns in the economy to provide early warnings of shifts in the economic outlook;

Test and debunk commonly held misperceptions about current conditions, often employing the histories of crucial economic indicators we have compiled over the years, some back to the 1800s.

Sightlines Bulletin is published mid-month when the prior month’s important data points have been released. Each issue includes the results of our monthly surveys of state-level withheld and sales tax receipts (see Reference for more detail), our breakdown of important labor market and domestic consumption developments, a rundown of trends in fuel/electric usage and what they mean for coming months, comments on the direction of interest rates, and a two-page summary of important economic indicators, all in historical perspective.

For Sightlines Bulletin, we have developed proprietary data series based on monthly surveys of state revenue agencies and state fuel/ energy sales reports. These series provide the basis for the analysis of economic turning points and growth trends using diffusion indices, historical trend correlations, and forecasts. Analysis is done for the nation, regions, and states. In addition to guiding business planners and investors, including those who manage municipal debt portfolios, we believe the detail offered by these data series will help our clients create new jobs and better understand the advantages of returning jobs to the United States.

Additionally, each month we highlight a data series we follow, for example the Quit Rate or the Insured Unemployment Rate, so our readers become more fluent with our ongoing analysis and with the often ignored but rich data sources that offer our subscribers an edge over their competition.

Finally, we issue Special Bulletins as necessary to alert our subscribers to one-off developments like changes and biases in data collection methods, and other subtle but important signals missed by the mainstream media likely to affect employment, consumption, and interest rates.

Philippa and Doug have collected and analyzed state-level tax receipts since the early mid-1990s, and are widely respected for their ability to parse out the importance of trends in those revenue flows. Mike was, for many years, a state revenue contact in this work. His expertise in successfully developing off-beat indicators, like diesel fuel usage, spurred the development of Sightlines Bulletin.

We came together to provide a monthly forward-looking summary of current economic conditions, supported by our proprietary data, to fill a void in what is currently available to the business world. Financial professionals have long relied on the insights of The Liscio Report, a newsletter specifically tailored for traders. Sightlines Bulletin presents a broader perspective, based on these same insights and our combined experience, for decision-makers with a longer time frame.


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