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China's crude demand eases amid narrower refining margins, ample stocks

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Premiums for ESPO, Mideast crude grades ease

China refiners reluctant to buy with flat price above $40/b

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Singapore — Crude oil demand from Chinese refineries slowed down in June, amid poor refining margins and ample stocks, market sources told S&P Global Platts over the week starting June 21.

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Reflecting the fading demand, premiums for Russian ESPO Blend crude, a favorite grade among Chinese independent refiners, have eased, traders said.

An August-loading cargo of the crude was heard sold at a premium of around $3.50/b to Platts Dubai crude assessment, FOB basis during the week beginning June 21, down from premiums of around $3.70-$3.80/b to Dubai traded during the week beginning June 14.

Premiums for Middle East sour crude grades have also eased.

A July-loading cargo of Iraq's Basrah Light crude was sold into China at a premium of around 80 cents/b against the grade's official selling price on FOB basis, down from a premium of $4.20/b seen for a June-loading cargo sold in May, traders said.

Oman crude premiums have also largely eased from the mid-$2s/b in mid-June to $1s/b in end-June, traders said.

After buyers who were keen to cover their immediate requirements finished procuring, "nobody wants to pay higher," said a crude trader with a North Asian refiner. "OSPs [were] up too much [while] margins [are near] negative," the trader added.

Domestic refining margins in China have narrowed as crude prices rose steadily over May-June, trade sources said.

"For the domestic refiners, the cap for the crude oil flat price is $40/b. So with current crude prices, margins are so-so. But back in April-May, [margins] were very good so there was more buying, " a trader with a Chinese independent refiner said.

"[Chinese] teapot refineries do not [have] much margin [with oil at] $40/b. The floor price for domestic market has disappeared," another trader said.

An analyst from JLC said refining margins at independent refineries had slipped to around Yuan 200-300/mt in June, from Yuan 454/mt seen in May and Yuan 683/mt in April.

Amid the lower margins, the independent refineries are seen to be cutting run rates and lowering their crude consumption. Independent refiner Lanqiao Petrochemical, for one, cut its run rate to around 70% in the week started June 21, from 75% earlier in June, due to falling margins, a refinery source said.

STOCKPILING

Buyers are also reluctant to buy as they have enough stock.

"Chinese independent refiners are not motivated to buy September-delivery cargoes as they have already bought a lot for July and August delivery," said a China-based crude oil trader.

Reflecting tepid demand, traders noted a gap between the bids and offers for delivered crude grades into China.

Bids from teapot refineries for September-delivery cargoes of Brazil's Lula crude were at premiums in the high-$2s/b against against November ICE Brent crude futures, while offers were in the mid-$3s/b, the crudes trader said.

"[The independent refineries] are not motivated to increase their bids as they had already bought a lot of cargoes for July and August delivery. So, there is no real requirement to buy now," he added.

Data from trade flow and inventory tracker Kpler showed that China's crude inventory hit 843 million barrels in the week starting June 21 -- a record high since January 2017, when Kpler began providing the data.

The uptick in buying seen over April-May resulted in congestion at ports around China.

"Independent refineries had bought quite a lot of cheap crude cargoes over April-May, but could not discharge them due to congestion at the ports," said a China-based refinery source.

Kpler forecast on June 26 that China's seaborne crude arrivals will total 13.426 million b/d in June, a new record high after they reached 10.21 million b/d in May. However, some of the June-arrival cargoes are likely to be discharged in July due to the port congestion.

China's crude oil imports jumped 19.2% year on year to an all-time high at 11.34 million b/d, or 47.97 million mt, in May, as refiners took full advantage of ultra low crude prices and ample storage capacity, data from Kpler showed.