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Chinese imports at record highs, hitting European demand

China destocking more likely than buying

London/Singapore — After months of stocking up on oil cargoes, China is pausing its crude buying spree, which could result in a greater number of European and West African cargoes heading into local markets, an analysis by S&P Global Platts showed.

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China's appetite for North Sea, Urals and West African streams was fueled by the crude oil collapse at the start of the coronavirus panic.

Despite an unprecedented level of demand destruction for oil products due to the pandemic -- which saw crude trading as low as around $13/bl in late March -- April and May enticed buyers looking for an opportunity to buy significant quantity of cargoes at a discounted price.

In May, crude imports to China jumped 19.2% on the year to an all-time high of 11.34 million b/d, according to data from China's customs data.

The imports are set to rise further in June and July, with the seaborne arrivals predicted at 11.77 million b/d and 13.03 million b/d, respectively, data from trade flow and inventory tracker Kpler showed.

However, after a stellar last few months, China is putting a sharp halt to its buying activities as its inventories swell.

China's crude inventories hit a record 847.50 million barrels in the week that began June 22, Kpler data showed. The previous record high was 807.47 million barrels in the week of March 23-29, according to Kpler, which began providing China crude inventory data from January 2017.

The inland stocks, however, do not include floating cargoes waiting to discharge, with queues lined up due to the heavy arrivals traffic.

In the Shandong province alone -- known as the Texas of China's oil refining sector for decades -- around 40 crude carriers have been waiting for more than a week for discharging, Platts data showed.

However, as crude flat prices have begun to rise, refining margins in China's independent sector have narrowed to around Yuan 100-200/mt ($14.13-28.27/mt) as of June 29-30 from Yuan 1000/mt ($141.34/mt) late March.

Destocking more likely

The pace of Chinese buying for spot European and African oil has come to a grounding halt amid a deluge of cargoes waiting to unload, record stock levels and less favorable refining margins.

In Northwest European crude, including North Sea grades, a significant slowdown is being seen with a total of 28.51 million barrels landed in Asia for the month of June, down from 58.31 in May -- the lowest since January 2019 when 19.60 million barrels were sent to the region, according to data from Kpler.

Of the total, around 9 million barrels were made up of the five grades within the Dated Basket plus Johan Sverdrup, the lowest total volume of these combined grades since October 2019.

North Sea traders also say that there has been a noticeable lack of demand for July-loading cargoes from Asian buyers.

"I think July will be the first time for a long time where all [North Sea] BFOE will clear locally," a source said, with others echoing similar sentiment, as limited demand from the East has resulted in local bids being able to compete versus arbitrage economics.

In contrast, Chinese imports of Russia's Urals crude increased in June, with a total volume of 14.24 million barrels delivered to the country, up from 10.1 million barrels in May, Kpler data showed. However, after this steady buying, traders said that the arbitrage to China for the medium sour grade was now closed due to ample inventory in the country.

China's crude trading giant, Unipec, had not been active in the Urals market for cargoes loading in the end of June or early July, sources said.

The slowdown in Chinese buying interest comes alongside the release of the July loading program for the grade, which is the shortest since at least 2012. Amid a global shortage of heavier, sourer crudes, the reduced Chinese interest may provide some respite from competition for Mediterranean and European refiners.

Angolan crude -- a constant favorite of Chinese refineries -- has also seen a slowdown in August-loading cargoes, with some companies also seen re-optimizing, sources said.

"The teapots are very slow this month -- they bought too many cargoes in the last few months ... and so some of them are trying to reoffer cargoes," said one trader. "The initial August offers very high- some majors took positions but as cargoes are still with them, not end users."

The situation is likely to continue, with the world's biggest crude importer, "more likely to keep destocking the cheap crudes in the coming months instead of buying more when the crude price is rising", a Hong Kong-based analyst said.