Global oil markets under pressure as Asia destocks, China imports slowed

PUBLISHED: Thu, 25 Mar 2021 09:35:52 GMT

* Flurry of offers from storage as Brent in backwardation

* Asia Q2 demand lower on refinery maintenance

* Sellers of Russian, African, U.S. oil grades cut prices

By Florence Tan, Olga Yagova and Devika Krishna Kumar

March 25 (Reuters) – Crude oil producers from Europe, Africa and the United States faced difficulties selling to Asia, especially China, as buyers took cheaper oil from storage while refinery maintenance has reduced demand, industry sources said on Thursday.

Chinese independent refiners, which account for a fifth of the country’s imports, have slowed imports in the second quarter because of refinery maintenance, strong Brent prices and a large influx of supplies, including Iranian oil, in first quarter.

These buyers and others in Asia are lapping up cheap oil offered by traders under pressure to clear storage after Brent crude flipped into backwardation, with prices for prompt delivery higher than those for future months, traders said.

As a result traders were forced to sharply reduce prices for spot cargoes loading in April and May from Europe, Africa and the United States for delivery to Asia.

Lockdowns in Europe have also reduced demand, they said.

“Barrels are struggling to find homes in the export market as Asia still isn’t buying and Europe is struggling as well,” said Scott Shelton, energy specialist at United ICAP.

Crude grades priced on Brent were worst hit, traders said, as a wide spread between the global benchmark and Middle East’s Dubai crude price made them least appealing to Asian buyers. <DUB-EFS-1M>

“China’s demand for (Russian) Urals, West African, CPC Blend oil just evaporated. Buying from stock is much more interesting for them now,” said a source with a western trading house.

Caspian CPC Blend crude’s discount to dated Brent widened to $2.85 per barrel, the lowest since mid-May 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic caused oil demand to plunge, Refinitiv Eikon data showed. <BFO-CPC>

CPC Blend is a popular grade with South Korean refiners, but this month they also minimized oil purchases amid refinery maintenance and buying from storage, two traders said.

Unipec, the trading arm of Asia’s largest refiner Sinopec , offered six of its 10 term Angolan crude cargoes in April to the market, traders said.

An April-loading cargo of Angolan Mostarda crude sold this month for $1.50 a barrel below dated Brent, down over a dollar from levels seen in the previous month, they said.

“There’s just too much supply so buyers want to see cheap cargoes,” a Singapore-based trader said.

Reduced Asian buying also put pressure on U.S. Gulf Coast grades. WTI at East Houston <WTC-MEH>, a popular export grade, slumped to the weakest since October this week as export activity for April has been muted.

U.S. crude arrivals in Asia are expected to drop to about 30 million barrels in April, the lowest since June 2020, according to initial assessments from Refinitiv Oil Research on Eikon.

However, the recent drop in Brent crude prices closer to $60 a barrel if sustained, could help revive Asia’s demand in late June or early July, traders said.

By that time, Asia’s peak maintenance season would have ended while inventories would have largely been drawn down, they said.

(Reporting by Olga Yagova and Gleb Gorodyankin in MOSCOW, Florence Tan in SINGAPORE, Noah Browning in LONDON and Devika Krishna Kumar in NEW YORK, writing by Olga Yagova; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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