Petrol retailers across Australia are bracing for a forecast 50 percent decline in fuel demand (petrol and diesel) during April as the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) shuts down greater segments of the economy, restricts more transportation, regulates cross-state driving, as the federal and state governments urges people to stay home.

Using total petrol consumption data for all three grades (plus E10 from Statistics Australia compiled by the government), a 50 percent decline in volume in April would look like this, based upon average volumes for April 2017, 2018, and 2019.

                     Australia      NSW      VIC         QLD        SA      WA

3Mth Avg     1476.7ML     464.7     380.5     291.4     96.2  148.9

Less 50%       728.4           232.3    190.3      145.7     48.1  74.5

Such volume declines would be unprecedented! Nowhere in the government’s petrol demand statistics can you find volumes this low.

Credit card transactional data used by OPIS to track demand patterns confirms what several petrol retailers already tell us: petrol demand across Australia is dropping by the day.

Transactional data for all of Australia reveals the number of credit card swipes dropping 25% for March, with that percentage getting higher the last days of the month. New South Wales the decline for March is 28%; Queensland 22%; Victoria, 28%; South Australia, 27%; Western Australia, 27%; the Northern Territory, 21%; and Tasmania, 28%; and the ACT, 30%.

Separately, three independent retailers told OPIS their volumes are down more than 30%, with the biggest declines coming in the second half of the month. Each acknowledged they expect petrol demand in April to plunge 50% or more, based upon trends seen in Asia, the U.S., and Europe, regions that are a few weeks ahead of Australia in confronting the migration of the virus.

The amount of credit card transactions has dropped sharply in the last ten days and continues to accelerate, OPIS data reveals.

Exclusive station demand data obtained directly from operators in the U.S. shows demand across the country sinking 46% through the end of March when compared to prior year volumes. Earlier in March that number had been 30.2%, similar to current Australia volume declines.

IHS Markit, OPIS parent company projects that U.S. gasoline demand in April will be cut in half!

For now, station owners both in the U.S. and Australia are seeing continuing large falls in wholesale prices and consumer demand. Information supplied to OPIS suggest that retailers in both countries are trying to find a margin and volume balance that will account for the underlying operational costs tied to running a station. With the situation changing rapidly businesses are building in a risk margin to support them for now.

Independent service station operator in NSW, Nic Moulis said, “My biggest concern is balancing business demand against customer expectation. Supporting my community is important so keeping the doors open is critical.

“Declining wholesale price coupled with this rate of declining retail volume is unprecedented. Finding the right board price to balance off cashflow, cost recovery and volume is very difficult.”

One U.S. retailer who operates 100 plus sites said it bluntly: “I can’t afford to drop my price at the lower volumes; otherwise in I would have to close some stores.”

Another U.S. retailer operating branding stations said this: “strong margins are the only thing keeping me in business right now.”

In Australia, the need for firm margins, however, comes in the face of Australia’s competition commission (ACCC) urging operators to drop petrol pump prices in line with falling global crude oil prices.

Published reports quote ACCC Chairman, Rod Sims, wanting stations across the country above the 120 cents per litre figure to be below that. The ACCC has vowed to closely monitor retail petrol prices to make sure retailers are passing along their lower bulk fuel costs.

OPIS retail data that is site and brand specific reveals nearly one in every ten stations across Australia already pricing regular and E19 petrol below the dollar mark. Most of the stations are in South Australia, New South Wales, and Western Australia. In Adelaide the average price of a litre of regular petrol was 90.18 cents on 31 March. At the bottom of its most recent pricing cycle Perth prices averaged just over a dollar, a drop of a dozen cents in one week and more than 30 cents in two weeks.

Retail stations in Australia and globally are caught in a fast-changing market where prices are dropping, but they drop one day, go up the next, only to drop again. Given the longer supply chain for fuel to get to Australia and the volatile course of prices, one might understand why there is a natural lag for petrol pump prices to fully reflect shifting bulk fuel costs.

Crude oil costs are but one component of the expense that goes into operating a fueling site and retailers across the country are working hard to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19.

For more information about OPIS full line of petroleum price coverage in Australia please visit:

https://australia.opisnet.com/australian-oil-market-price-report/

Ben Brockwell,
bbrockwell@opisnet.com