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Mideast sour crude oil complex rallies to over 3-year high on Chinese quota news

Singapore — The Middle East sour crude complex rallied to a three-year high on Wednesday amid expectations of an uptick in demand from China following news of a 63% increase in the 2018 crude oil import quota for Chinese independent refiners.

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The spread between the January cash Dubai assessment and the same-month Dubai swap assessment was assessed at a premium of 89 cents/barrel on Wednesday, the highest since July 25, 2014 when the equivalent spread was assessed at 95 cents/b, S&P Global Platts data shows.

The spread has averaged a premium of 76 cents/b in November to date, up from an average premium of 43 cents/b in October and the strongest since June 2014 when it averaged $1.05/b.

China's Ministry of Commerce on Wednesday said that the total crude oil import quota for independent oil companies in 2018 would be 142.42 million mt (2.86 million b/d), up 63% from the 87.6 million mt (1.76 million b/d) that the government set for 2017, according to calculations by Platts. The actual quotas awarded in 2017 stand at 103.52 million mt.

The Middle East crude structure in November has sustained its strength for a third successive month, with the impact of OPEC-led production cuts being felt by Asian end-users at a time when demand usually peaks.

Traders have said that they expect winter demand from Asian end-users this month to remain robust for January-loading Middle East crude cargoes due to healthy cracks and limited arbitrage opportunities. The Middle East sour crude market typically trades two months ahead.

"Winter demand is still strong, while arbitrage is limited," said a North Asian crude trader.

Persistent strength in the Brent crude complex has kept the spread between Brent and Dubai wide, impacting arbitrage economics and supporting the Middle East sour crude market, traders said.

The Brent/Dubai EFS (exchange of futures for swaps) was assessed at $2.78/b on Wednesday, down slightly from $2.84/b on Tuesday, which was the highest since September 19 last year when it was assessed at $2.89/b.

On a monthly basis, the EFS has averaged $2.62/b for November to date, up from an average of $2.34/b in October and the highest since October last year when it averaged at $2.64/b, Platts data shows.

A wider EFS raises the value of Brent-linked crudes against Dubai, making the Dubai-linked crudes more attractive to buyers.

"[It is] still difficult to move in [Western arbitrage barrels to Asia] at such EFS levels and freight," said a North Asian crude trader.

--Ada Taib,

--Edited by Alisdair Bowles,