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Chinese investor appetite in US LNG unclear but talks continue: Tellurian

Singapore — Amid ongoing trade tensions, the state of Chinese investor appetite in US LNG projects remains to be seen, and active discussions with Chinese companies continue, Houston-based LNG project developer Tellurian Inc said Thursday.

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The company's comments come against a backdrop of Australia's LNG Ltd delaying its final investment decision for its Magnolia LNG export project in Louisiana until next year due to problems in securing long-term contracts from Chinese investors.

"Our investor profile has a global picture and we're still narrowing down who the final investors will be. We still have active discussions with Chinese companies," Vice Chairman Martin Houston told reporters at the Gas Asia Summit in Singapore.

"It remains to be seen what the appetite is from the Chinese for US LNG and that's not something I can quantify right now," Houston added.

Houston maintains his view that the trade spat will be history by the time Tellurian's LNG project is on stream in 2023. He said global trade is so fungible right now that it's possible for LNG cargoes to be swapped and diverted in such a way that they do not attract tariffs, and large portfolio players can do this anyway.

"I think it's a short-term affair," he said.

In September, China imposed a 10% tariff on US LNG imports, in retaliation for US tariffs on other Chinese goods and products. This tariff affected arbitrage economics of the US-China LNG trade and makes US LNG less attractive for Chinese buyers.

"We're talking about small amounts [of tariffs] here," Houston said. "The reality is we're not concerned about it."

US LNG investment still represents an OECD country with the rule of law, strong political support, fantastic state support, clear tax arrangements, long-term investor stability, cheap input costs, available and relatively cheap labor compared to regions like Australia, and some union activity but not debilitating, Houston said.

LNG SHIPPING CAPACITY

The other market development relevant for US-Asia LNG trade is the projected shortage of LNG ships, which could dry up as LNG cargo supply outpaces ship supply by a huge margin post-2020.

Houston said large ship owners have indicated that they are close to another wave of speculative orders of LNG carriers as the recent upturn in spot LNG freight rates has boosted investor sentiment.

"It's easy to get beguiled by the fact that a temporary winter increase in shipping costs is going to change the [LNG] flows or change long-term pricing and that's not the case," Houston said.

"The shipping industry has a habit of correcting itself. I can remember more times of oversupply than undersupply in the industry," he said, adding that in a way ship owners need a bit of a crisis to cause them to move and order new ships.

LNG carrier spot rates have hit record levels, with the Asia Pacific day rate currently at $170,000/day and the Atlantic day rate at $140,000/day, according to S&P Global Platts calculations. This has made the US-Asia arbitrage even more difficult.

The LNG shipping market is faced with shorter contract durations as demand for long-term contracts diminished and chartering activity is also increasingly focused on the spot trade.

So ship owners have to deal with a market which doesn't necessarily give them long-term price guarantees that they can take to their banks to fund the building of LNG fleets, Houston said.

"In just the same way that the LNG industry itself has to reinvent its financing model for shorter tenure or even spot construction, so is the ship industry," Houston said.

-- Eric Yep, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Maurice Geller, newsdesk@spglobal.com