Navigating Propane Market Volatility by Phil Baratz: BPN June 2024

In the realm of retail propane distribution, the volatility of the market can present significant challenges to businesses, especially those heavily reliant on selling residential space heating. Fluctuations in propane prices, unpredictable winter weather patterns and varying sales volumes can all impact the bottom line.

To mitigate these risks and protect profitability, retail propane distributors (RPDs) should employ effective risk management and hedging strategies. To be abundantly clear, “hedging” is not a synonym for “trading.” Within the practice of trading, there is both speculating and hedging. Speculating is taking on risk to gain — or possibly lose — from the outcome (settlement) of a trade. With hedging, however, positions (trade characteristics) are designed to offset additional costs or benefits that result in changes in price or demand.

As the product that you sell is a true “commodity” — the same product every one of your competitors sells — you should establish a differentiator. These could be “keep full” contracts (i.e., automatic delivery), budget or level- payment plans to eliminate big bills during the winter or a plan that also incorporates customer retention, such as offering a price plan to protect customers from severe market fluctuations. Price caps are commonplace in retail heating oil sales and have gained a good deal of traction in the propane space.

Before diving into risk management strategies, it’s important to recognize the key market dynamics influencing the retail propane industry:

  • Crude oil prices
  • Supply and demand subtleties
  • Geopolitical events
  • Weather patterns

The pricing of propane often correlates with crude oil prices, given their interconnectedness in the energy market. However, propane prices can also be influenced by localized supply disruptions, such as hurricanes or refinery outages, which can lead to regional price disparities. Locational understanding of prices is often intuitive, but more often it is simply sitting in your back-office system and can be easily analyzed for informed decision-making.

Let’s now delve into the fundamentals of risk management and hedging tools tailored specifically for RPDs in the United States, with a primary focus on residential space heating.

One of the fundamental hedging strategies employed by RPDs is basis differential hedging. “Basis differential” refers to the difference between the local propane price and the benchmark price, typically quoted at major trading hubs, such as Mont Belvieu, Texas. RPDs can use basis differential hedging to protect against price disparities between their local market and the benchmark price. By locking in a fixed basis differential through forward contracts — as well as swaps with suppliers or “paper” trading counterparties — distributors can mitigate the risk of adverse price movements and stabilize their margins.

In addition to basis differential hedging, RPDs can hedge the outright price of propane to manage price risk effectively. Futures contracts or trading propane “indexes” provide a mechanism for hedging the price of propane. By entering into contracts to buy or sell propane at a predetermined price on a specified future date, distributors can lock in prices and protect against market fluctuations. It’s essential for distributors to align their hedging strategy with their inventory management practices and customer demand forecasts to optimize hedging effectiveness.
In addition, the incorporation of options — including both call options and put options — can play a valuable role in managing risk, especially if you are offering a price cap program to your customers.

Aside from price volatility, RPDs face risks associated with fluctuating sales volumes, particularly during winter seasons that are characterized by varying temperatures. A warmer-than-average winter can lead to decreased demand for propane, resulting in excess inventory and reduced revenues. Conversely, a colder-than-expected winter can strain supply chains and lead to supply shortages or price spikes. To manage sales volume risks effectively, distributors must develop robust demand forecasting models based on historical consumption patterns, weather data and economic indicators. Additionally, maintaining flexible supply arrangements and strategic inventory reserves can help mitigate the impact of unexpected demand fluctuations.

Effective risk management and hedging are essential components of a successful retail propane distribution strategy, especially in the context of residential space heating. By employing basis differential hedging, hedging the price of propane and implementing proactive measures to manage sales volume risks, distributors can safeguard their profitability and ensure operational resilience in the face of market volatility.
It’s imperative for distributors to stay informed about market trends, leverage appropriate hedging tools and adapt their strategies to evolving business conditions. With a comprehensive risk management framework in place, RPDs can navigate uncertainty with confidence and thrive in a dynamic marketplace.

Navigating Propane Market Volatility - BPN 06.2024Original article “Navigating Propane Market Volatility” written by Phil Baratz and published in the June 2024 issue of BPN.

The risk of loss in trading commodity interests can be substantial. You should therefore carefully consider whether such trading is suitable for you in light of your financial condition. In considering whether to trade or to authorize someone else to trade for you, you should be aware that you could lose all or substantially all your investment and may be liable for amounts well above your initial investment.