Why 2014 Will Be a Profitable Year for Refiners

As the export ban on crude oil from the U.S. remains in place, stockpiles are building up and giving storage facilities at Houston and the rest of the Gulf Coast more oil than they can handle.

Indeed, during the week that ended on April 4, it was reported that stockpiles of crude around Huston reached 202 million barrels. That's the largest volume of crude in storage on record.

The oil continues to flow into the region, however. Production across the U.S. continues to expand, and storage tanks as well as pipelines are filling up.

Pressure on prices
With so much crude building up at terminals, the price of oil is going to come under pressure later this year, according to Bank of America and EIA forecasts. Bank of America forecasts that WTI will trade at a discount of $13 a barrel to Brent, the international benchmark, later this year, while the EIA forecasts the average gap for 2014 will be about $9.

This news follows a report from analysts at Barclays who have forecast that the spread between Brent and Light Louisiana Sweet (LLS) -- a benchmark that is rapidly taking the place of WTI as a reflection of market economics on the Gulf Coast -- will widen over the next year or so.

The spread between Brent and LLS has closed in recent months because bad weather affected supply chains. However, now that the weather has cleared, analysts expect the Brent-LLS spread to widen throughout the rest of the year, and the refinery industry should benefit.

Riding the trend
To play this trend, the best refiner would be Valero Energy (NYSE: VLO  ) . Seven of the company's 14 refineries are located along the Gulf Coast where the glut of oil is building.

Further, as oil stockpiles rise and prices fall, refiners are increasingly exporting their crude as higher prices can be realized overseas.

During the fourth quarter of 2013, Valero exported 133,000 barrels a day of gasoline. December was a particularly strong month for exports, but exports are expected to come in at similar levels for the first quarter. For the most part, it would seem as if this volume is going to Latin America where many countries are failing to produce enough refined product to support themselves.

Additionally, Valero exported an average of 219,000 barrels per day distillate during the fourth quarter. The company's management has stated that these volumes look to be pretty consistent going forward.

As the prices of domestically produced crude fall, Valero will be well placed to make lucrative returns on exports.

Exporting and trading
Meanwhile, Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX  ) is using a slightly different strategy to profit from the rising volumes of crude building up along the Gulf Coast.

Phillips has seven coastal refineries, three of which are on the Gulf Coast. Three others are on the West Coast, while one is on the East Coast. These refineries exported about 250,000 barrels a day during 2013, two-thirds of which was diesel, and about a third was gasoline. The company plans to increase export capacity to capture higher margins and also maintain high utilization refinery rates.

Alongside exports, Phillips is also trading oil. Specifically, Phillips' management is aiming for 100% advantage crudes -- oils that are trading at a significant discount to Brent in other words. However, the company typically buys "substantially" more crude than it processes. Phillips is always in the market, either buying or selling crude, and moving stock from one region to another in order to exploit arbitrage situations.

As crude builds up in different regions around the U.S., it is likely that Phillips will be able to use this to its advantage and exploit opportunities for profit.

Sticking around
Of course, another way to play the buildup of crude is through storage facilities. World Point Terminals LP (NYSE: WPT  ) is a master limited partnership that owns, operates, develops, and acquires terminals and other assets designed for the storage of refined products and crude oil.

World Point's storage terminals are strategically located on the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and Midwest, so the company's assets are strategically located for profit. During fiscal 2013, the company reported a 13% jump in revenues due mainly to increased throughput at several of its terminals.

What's really exciting about World Point though is the fact that the company has almost no debt. Total liabilities only amounted to $21 million at the end of 2013 compared to assets of $185 million, leaving plenty of room for the company to leverage and buy additional growth.

Foolish summary
As the volume of crude produced within the U.S. continues to rise, oil prices are going to come under pressure. This will push the Brent-WTI differential wider and drive refinery profits higher.

There are many ways to play this trend, and any refiners are likely to see their profits rise. Companies with export capacity are in a better position to profit, however.

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