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Singapore — China's apparent oil demand slipped into the negative territory in 2016, a sharp reversal from the near 7% growth witnessed a year earlier, as the country's slowest GDP growth in 26 years slashed appetite for industrial and transportation fuels in Asia's biggest oil consuming nation.

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A near 25% growth in LPG demand and close to double-digit growth in naphtha and jet fuel demand failed to offset the impact of sharp falls in gasoil and fuel oil consumption, pulling down overall oil demand in 2016 by 0.8% to 11.11 million b/d, compared with a growth of 6.6% in 2015.

The world's second biggest oil consumer saw a sharp slowdown in demand after GDP growth slowed to 6.7% in 2016 from 6.9% in 2015 and 7.3% in 2014. GDP growth was 3.9% in 1990.

Although GDP growth was only 0.2 percentage points lower than in 2015, fixed asset investment growth slowed to 8.1% year on year in 2016 from 10% in 2015.

Industrial production grew 6% in 2016, also lower than the 6.1% growth seen in 2015, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed.

These factors together pulled down gasoil consumption in the transportation and construction sectors, resulting in a 5.4% year-on-year fall in apparent demand for the fuel, which accounts for around 30% of China's overall oil products consumption.

Beijing does not release official data on oil demand and stocks. Platts calculates apparent or implied oil demand by taking into account official data on monthly throughput at Chinese refineries and net product imports. But the official data fails to reflect some of the crude throughput increases from the new crude oil consumers -- the independent refineries.



If output from the independent sector is taken into account, apparent demand last year is estimated to be around 11.34 million b/d, representing 1.3% year-on-year growth, according S&P Global Platts' China Oil Analytics.

For 2017, analysts expect GDP growth to further soften to 6.5%. The country's think tank, the State Information Center, forecasts international trade will soften amid global protectionism and this will lead to slower growth in the consumption of transportation fuels.

But oil demand will find some support in infrastructure investment, which according to HSBC will remain a key pillar of growth in 2017.

COA forecasts China's apparent demand will reach 11.57 million b/d in 2017, a 2% increase against the adjusted numbers for 2016.


GASOIL FEELS THE PINCH


Although gasoil demand recovered to a 24-month high of 3.76 million b/d in November, driven by busy transportation activity for raw materials, it failed to lift apparent demand growth for gasoil into positive territory in 2016.

The transportation sector accounts for around 65% of gasoil demand, while agriculture and construction account for the rest.

"Gasoil demand has been retreating since late November, with stocks building up," said a Shandong independent refinery source.

In 2016, apparent demand for gasoil was 3.35 million b/d, a 5.4% decrease year on year, compared with only a 0.4% decline in 2015, Platts' calculations showed. With an adjustment in output data, COA estimates demand at around 3.52 million b/d in 2016, a 0.6% fall year on year.

The decrease would narrow further if the incremental supply from the blending pool was taken into account. Blended barrels, with imported light cycle oil and domestic kerosene as the main components, are not included in gasoil apparent demand calculations.

China's imports of light cycle oil surged 135% year on year to 4.46 million mt in 2016, data from the General Administration of Customs showed. Blending with 1 mt of LCO could get 2-2.5 mt of off-spec gasoil, which is used mainly in the construction and fishing sectors.

"Gasoil demand, including adjusted refinery output, could fall to 3.45 million b/d in 2017 as the economy restructures further and developed provinces along the eastern coast continue to move away from gasoil intensive activity," said Song Yen Ling, a senior analyst with COA.


GASOLINE GROWTH MODERATES


Apparent demand for gasoline was at 2.78 million b/d in 2016, representing slower year-on-year growth of 3.2%, compared with the 9.6% growth registered in 2015. But COA estimates that adjusted demand would be at 2.91 million b/d, a 7.8% increase from 2015 levels.

Similar to gasoil, blending pools also played a role in overall gasoline supplies. Sales of imported mixed aromatics, which are used mainly as a blending material for gasoline, provide an indication of demand.

Data from the GAC showed that imports of mixed aromatics surged 81.4% year on year to 11.7 million mt in 2016, suggesting a significant rise in blending activity. About 3 mt of mixed aromatics are needed to blend 10 mt of gasoline. This means that up to 39 million mt, or 906,000 b/d, could have been added to the supply pool in 2016.

Gasoline demand also found support in a 14% year-on-year rise in gasoline-fueled vehicle sales in 2016, data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers showed, with sales of gasoline-guzzling sport utility vehicles surging 43% year on year.

This year, COA expects growth in adjusted gasoline demand growth to slow to around 6% to 3.08 million b/d. "It is likely that the growth of car sales in 2017 would be softer than 2016," Song added.


LPG, NAPHTHA


LPG demand surged to 1.57 million b/d in 2016, up 24.8% year on year, compared with 20% growth in 2015. Market sources attributed last year's strong growth to increasing demand from petrochemical plants, industrial and residential users.

China launched two new PDH units, with a total capacity of 1.16 million mt/year, in the fourth quarter of 2016, adding to the six existing PDH plants with a total capacity of 4.74 million mt/year. As a result, China's LPG imports jumped 33.4% on year to 505,000 b/d in 2016.

This year, LPG demand is expected to continue growing but the year-on-year increase could slow to around 8.3% or 1.7 million b/d because downstream demand is likely to be limited. In addition, no new PDH plant is expected to come online, according to COA.

Apparent demand for naphtha rose 9.8% year on year to 969,000 b/d in 2016. It was slightly higher than the 9% growth registered in 2015.

China's ethylene production rose 3.9% year on year in 2016, stronger than the growth of 1.6% in the previous year. Around 65% naphtha is estimated to be used as feedstock to produce ethylene, while 30% go to reformers.

In 2017, as more reformers are expected to come on stream, naphtha imports are expected to grow sharply, while output from refineries is expected to remain stable. As a result, COA estimates growth to slow to 5.6% this year to 1.02 million b/d.


JET FUEL, FUEL OIL


Apparent demand for jet fuel in 2016 rose 8.7% year on year to 754,000 b/d, slowing from 15.9% growth in 2015 when new production units came on stream.

Latest data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China showed that aviation traffic turnover rose 12.7% year on year in the first 11 months of 2016, down from the 13.8% growth in the whole year of 2015.

In 2017, COA expects apparent demand for jet fuel to grow at 12.3% to 847,000 b/d because of higher production yields of 8.6%, compared to 7.9% last year.

Apparent demand for fuel oil in 2016 fell 23.9% year on year to 716,000 b/d, compared with an increase of 14.9% in 2015. The sharp fall in 2016 was mainly because independent refineries reduced fuel oil use, including bitumen blend, after they were granted crude oil import quotas.

Independent refineries in Shandong province cracked only 1.9 million mt of fuel oil in 2016, down 76.8% from the previous year, data from Beijing-based information supplier JYD showed. COA expects consumption to decline only 1.4% year on year in 2017 to 704,000 b/d.

--Oceana Zhou, oceana.zhou@spglobal.com
--Sambit Mohanty, sambit.mohanty@spglobal.com
--Edited by Wendy Wells, wendy.wells@spglobal.com