US crude producers may have lost the fast-growing China market because of President Donald Trump’s trade dispute, but they have more than compensated by making inroads into the rest of top oil-consuming region Asia. While crude is currently excluded from the tariffs Beijing has imposed on US goods, Chinese refiners have steered clear of US oil, with only two cargoes totalling 3.87mn barrels arriving in the first five months of 2019, according to vessel-tracking and port data compiled by Refinitiv. This amounts to a paltry 25,600 barrels per day (bpd), less than a tenth of the 332,000 bpd China imported in the first five months of 2018, prior to the start of the ongoing and seemingly escalating trade dispute. Being shut out of the world’s biggest crude importer, however, hasn’t appeared to hurt US exporters, at least from a volume perspective.
Total arrivals of US crude in Asia in the first five months of the year amounted to 1.07mn bpd, up 69% from the 632,000 bpd for the same period of 2018. Large gains were recorded in South Korea, which imported 356,000 bpd over January to May, up from 77,200 bpd in the same five months last year. Likewise, India’s imports from the United States rose to 196,000 bpd from 32,800 bpd, and Japan’s to 76,000 bpd from 30,800 bpd. For Southeast Asia, which includes the refining hub of Singapore, imports climbed to 190,000 bpd from 71,500 bpd. Putting together South Korea, India, Japan and Southeast Asia, and imports from the United States in the first five months of the year were 818,000 bpd, almost four times the 212,300 bpd for the same period last year. This means the loss of about 306,000 bpd in exports to China has been more than offset by gains in the rest of Asia.
What the numbers don’t show is the price US exporters have been receiving for their crude, and whether it would have been higher if the Chinese were still competing for cargoes. There is also a question as to whether US crude exports to Asia should in fact be doing better than they already are, especially given the price advantage they currently enjoy. The bulk of growth in US crude shipped from the Gulf of Mexico has been in light, sweet crudes from shale basins. These are generally priced against West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the benchmark US light grade. WTI futures ended at $51.68 a barrel on Wednesday, a discount of $8.95 to the Brent close of $60.63.
In theory this should provide a strong incentive for Asian refiners to buy US crude, given its price advantage over global light benchmark Brent. In reality, it’s not quite so obvious, with actual physical crude prices being somewhat closer. A price for physical WTI delivered in Houston, as assessed by Argus Media, was $58.66 a barrel on Wednesday, a premium of $7.08 to the WTI futures close. Looking at a light crude priced against Brent, and a similar pattern emerges, with Nigeria’s Bonny Light fetching $64.69 a barrel at the close on Wednesday, a premium of $4.06 over Brent futures.
* Clyde Russell is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Sources and photo-credits: Gulf Times, Written by Clyde Russell