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Market Wrap

All About Rita

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If you wanted stock news on Friday you were out of luck. Hurricane Rita dominated all the airtime on any channel you cared to watch including CNBC. All eyes were on the storm track and the category rating as it approached the Gulf oil patch spared by Katrina and 25% of U.S. refining capacity located in Texas. The markets tried to rally when Rita was downgraded but could not hold the gains.

Dow Chart - Daily

Nasdaq Chart - Daily

SPX Chart - Daily

There were no material economic reports on Friday with Monthly Mass Layoffs the only blip of data. Announced layoffs fell slightly from 1249 in July to 1142 in August. The total number of workers impacted also dropped from 131,326 to 127,466. This was a non-starter as a market mover and just another report to ignore in favor of Rita news. The economic calendar for next week is also sparse until Thursday so hurricane news will continue to dominate the airwaves early in the week.

The television views of countless miles of stranded cars on Texas freeways and fuel trucks making their way from car to car were repeated over and over. After seeing the Katrina devastation for the last three weeks Texas residents were taking the evacuation order seriously. Unfortunately there was not enough gasoline on hand for two million people to drive out of harms way. Their plight, with dozens of out of gas cars clustered around out of gas stations is only a glimpse of what could happen to the rest of the U.S. next week.


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As I write this on Friday night 23% of U.S. refining capacity, 19 refineries capable of processing more than five million bbls of oil per day, were shutdown ahead of Rita's arrival. Rather than suffer potentially costly repairs by having a running refinery knocked out by the hurricane they elected to execute a controlled shutdown and prevent useless damage. Unfortunately for consumers that means from 7-10 days of lost refining production in a market still seeing shortages from the refineries shutdown by Katrina. 5% of U.S. capacity is still offline from Katrina bringing the total refining capacity shut in to 28%. Nearly 1/3 of our ability to produce gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and heating oil is idle. Reporters and armchair analysts were predicting nationwide shortages of gasoline for the coming weeks with estimates of $4 gasoline or higher in some areas.

Not only are the refineries closed but 99.1% of all Gulf oil production has been shut in with 78% of gas production shut. After seeing the impact to oil prices and supplies from Katrina analysts were constantly predicting the potential outcome from the second hurricane. The production from the Gulf amounts to 29% of all U.S. production and it is offline for the second week in a month. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port where super tankers offload imported oil has been closed since Wednesday and that represents another shortfall of millions of bbls while closed. Refineries still operating in Louisiana were running short of oil to refine after the LOOP was closed. The Colonial Pipeline, which sends refined products to the north and east from the Gulf area was operating at significantly reduced capacity due to the shortage of products to fill the line. The TEPPCO and Dixie pipelines are closed and the Explorer is running on a contingency plan as supplies are available. Petrochemical plants in the area have been shutdown and that means natural gas liquids used in production have nowhere to go. This forces a shutdown of those pipelines, which in turn shuts down upstream natural gas production facilities once storage capacity is reached. If you can't push it down the pipeline you have to stop producing it. The Chevron, Dow, DuPont, Equistar and Total plants all shut down on Wednesday. This effectively backs up production upstream for at least a week.

When Rita turned slightly east and away from a direct hit on the Houston refining complex oil prices fell and the markets rallied. While this is good for the refineries it was bad for the Gulf rigs. Katrina hit about 50% of Gulf rigs/platforms with its attack on the eastern portion of the field. The turn north by Rita put is on a dead center track to plow right through the other 50% that were spared from Katrina. According to one research firm approximately 60 rigs are directly in the current path of Rita. Using the same percentages for damage as we saw from Katrina they estimate up to 20 rigs could be severely to moderately damaged requiring months to recover. Apache has estimated it will take up to a year before Katrina damage to Gulf rigs and platforms is repaired. Rigs belonging to DO (7 rigs), THE (13), RDC (7) and PDE (6) have the greatest Rita exposure. There are 534 production platforms in Rita's direct path. Companies with the most platforms at risk include APA (23), BP (40), CVX (23), DVN (36), EP (27), FST (37), KMG (13), NFX (38), SKE (16), SGY (15), THX (16). These platforms are manned by just over 3,000 workers who have to be shuttled back out once the storm passes. Overall there are more than 1,200 rigs/platforms in Rita's general path. Because Rita is several hundred miles wide it still had the capability to shut down and damage those eastern platforms just now recovering from the Katrina blast. The double whammy actually had the impact of lowering oil prices due to the refinery closures. Oil is expected to backup in the pipeline once production is restarted with refining capacity the real bottleneck. Thus the potential for higher gasoline prices despite a temporary abundance of oil.

RigLogix.com Rig Map with Hurricane Tracking

The potential for refinery outages in Texas is less due to the wind and more due to lack of electricity. As we have seen in Louisiana the delays in getting some refineries back online was due to a lack of electric power. The electric grid is notoriously prone to damage and outages. So while refinery damage may be minimal on the current storm track it does not mean they will all start coming back online on Sunday.

One product in short supply continues to be natural gas and every outage knocks critical winter reserves to new lows. Gas continues to hover in the $13 range but estimates are for serious shortages ahead with prices quoted as much as $20 before year-end. This is a major factor for the U.S. consumer. Utility bill estimates for this winter were raised again with heating bills expected to rise +47% in the Midwest, +55% in the North East, +60% in the West and +80% in the South East. Add in $3+ gasoline and consumers are really under attack. ARG released a survey on Friday showing that consumer spending has fallen -16% since Labor Day and that is the biggest drop in 26 years.

One commentator suggested real GDP for Q3 could drop as low as +1% given the double disasters. Actually triple disasters since Ophelia caused another billion in damage on the East coast. The Houston area, home to more than five million, is expected to lose a week of normal productivity/consumption even if Rita damage is minimal. Katrina losses are expected to remove months of productivity and the re-flooding this weekend by Rita will delay the recovery even further.

The impact to the energy community is so strong that the Nymex has taken the unprecedented step of announcing special session for trading energy futures that opens at 10:AM on Sunday morning. TV commentators are making a big deal out of Rita missing Houston but they neglect to mention that the Beaumont/Port Arthur area, currently the bulls eye is also known as Petroleumville USA because of the concentration of oil/gas facilities. Nearly two billion bbls of refining capacity calls that area home.

When Rita was downgraded from a category 5 to a 4 on Thursday oil prices fell through the floor as though it had turned into just another rainstorm. On Friday it was downgraded to ONLY a category 3 and prices again collapsed with a -2.31 drop to close just above $64. A Cat-3 storm is still a dangerous storm with 125-135 mph sustained winds and as slow as it is moving there is a lot of time over the target. As of late Friday night there were signs of strengthening just before going ashore. With the potential for substantial damage I believe the sell off in oil was overdone. If you remember the Friday before Katrina oil prices fell substantially to close near the low for the week. Once the storm passed prices rocketed again once the damage reports began to accumulate. I have a hard time believing we will not see a bounce on Monday if the situation repeats. $63.50 has been strong support for over a month and until that support breaks we are still in an uptrend. Oil stocks have not yet given up their gains from Katrina and that makes me more cautious this time around.

Crude Oil Chart - Daily

December Natural Gas Futures Chart - Daily

Unleaded Gasoline Futures Chart - Daily

I believe the Rita evacuation will cause yet another blip in the Q3 earnings cycle and cause a further reduction in earnings. We have seen a steady parade of earnings warnings that included the hurricane excuse and I believe that parade will intensify as the quarter comes to a close. Alcoa (AA) gave us another high profile warning on Friday saying it was forced to close plants in Louisiana and Texas due to the storms. They also said metal prices had been lower and expenses higher, primarily in energy and raw materials. They should benefit from the rebuilding effort once it begins and were it not for the potential for continued high energy prices I might be tempted to buy its two-year low at $24 it hit on the warning. It might be a good play for those who like watching grass grow but I believe it is dead money for the foreseeable future.

Oracle announced earnings Thursday night and was dropped for a -8% loss on Friday due to weak guidance. A casual observer might wonder if the sudden acquisition binge was a result of a slowing business model. Oracle acquired PeopleSoft and is now working on Seibel Systems as it rolls up all the other competitors in its sector. Seems if you can't grow you buy everyone who can. This camouflages your inability to grow and provides an excuse for earnings weakness as you digest the acquisitions. Many companies have prospered using this strategy. Oracles database license growth was only +2% year over year compared to +19% growth in the same period in 2004.

After the bell on Friday Microsoft announced a joint press conference on Monday with PALM and Verizon. They will announce a new Windows based version of the Treo smart phone to compete with the RIMM Blackberry. RIMM fell nearly -$2 after the announcement. Palm shed its software division in order to open the way for just such a solution that would enable them to better to compete with Microsoft as a partner.

The deteriorating storm gave the markets a slight boost but not before the Dow tested support at 10350. The bounce was lackluster and resistance at 10450 held for a loss for the week of -222. If we don't see major damage from Rita we could see another rebound attempt but I believe it is simply another opportunity to get short. Dow 10500 should provide a hurdle that will be difficult to scale. Likewise 10350 should continue to provide support for all but a concentrated selling effort. I am still holding to my 10250 target for next week.

The Nasdaq escaped with only a -43 point drop for the week and a nice bounce off the 100-day average at 2108 and support at 2100. Support at 2120 turned into resistance just before the close. The Nasdaq still has risk to 2050 before September is out.

The wild card here is the SPX given the support of the oil stocks. If there is enough damage to produce an oil rebound off $64 then the oil stocks should hold up the S&P to some extent. We saw the SPX rebound from a sharp dip to 1205 as dip buyers jumped in on falling oil on Thursday. That bounce continued on Friday as oil continued its drop. Unfortunately a -$4 drop in oil was only able to produce a +10 point bounce in the SPX. Oil stocks were producing the drag as oil prices fell. The combination of an expired Rita and a potential oil stock bounce could retest SPX 1225 again but I believe it is simply another opportunity to get short for the final bout of month end volatility. The SPX has risk to 1190 before the month is out. Remember, the wild card is oil and hurricane damage. Trying to predict any movement in this market is hypothetical at best but I am sticking with the normal historical trend for the monthly lows to occur in the last week of September.

If you remember last Friday's rally to SPX 1237 I told you that I thought it was all related to the S&P reweighting and suggested you short any weakness on Monday morning. If you took my advice you were rewarded with a -30 point drop. Don't believe what you hear on stock TV or it will be costly to your financial health. With bulls praising the rally all day on the 16th many investors likely bought the top. If you followed my advice you sold it.

The economic calendar will start to heat up as we move into month end with Durable Goods and Kansas City Fed Survey on Wednesday followed by GDP on Thursday. Friday has Personal Income, NAPM-NY, Consumer Sentiment and Chicago PMI. That will close out the month and sets up Construction Spending and ISM on Monday. This ISM is going to be critical although it is still a little early to see the complete impact of Katrina. However, we have seen significant drops in the regional reports and we could easily see the national ISM fall below 50 from last months 53.6. A move below 50 could be the straw that breaks the markets back. The following Friday has the Jobs Report for September and the consensus is for a loss of -120,000 jobs but I believe that is conservative. Obviously this is a one time Katrina related event and will be discounted to some extent by the market but I suspect there will be some higher volatility than normal associated with the announcement. Earnings warnings will likely increase and higher gasoline prices from Rita's impact will be detrimental to consumer spending as the quarter closes. Remember also that we still have a little more than a month in prime hurricane season and while tropical depression Philippe is not expected to head for the Gulf there is likely to be another storm forming right behind it. I wrote this commentary on Friday night so by Sunday many events will have changed significantly after the storm passed but my outlook will still be the same. As always, remember to enter passively and exit aggressively and definitely don't get married to your positions or your bias.

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