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Oil tanker in Ningbo Zhoushan port

A VLCC oil tanker is seen at a crude oil terminal in Ningbo Zhoushan port, Zhejiang province, China May 16, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

Shipping Data Reveals Surge in Oil Shipments Bound for China

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May 4, 2023

By Sharon Cho and Bill Lehane (Bloomberg) —

China’s recovery may be disappointing some oil bulls, but there’s one incontrovertible fact: the world’s biggest importer is drawing in a lot of crude by sea.

Some 125 supertankers with the capacity to deliver 250 million barrels were en route to the Asian country at the end of last month, vessel tracking data compiled by Bloomberg show. That’s the most in over two years, and cargo loading data for April also support the idea China is set to receive more.

The data put numbers on what was known to be an increase in buying. Back in February, traders reported a surge in purchases by processors including Unipec, the trading arm of refining giant Sinopec, with millions of barrels being snapped up from the Middle East, US and West Africa. 

Traders involved in the Asian physical market say China’s oil appetite will probably stay relatively healthy, though it’s unclear whether it will be as strong as it was earlier this year. Crude futures have been hit lately amid worries about a worsening economy, sliding about 17% since mid-April.

Asian refiners typically book spot crude cargoes a couple of months in advance of when they’re needed. The ramp-up in China’s buying earlier this year following the exit from its Covid Zero policy led to a jump in supertanker traffic headed for China.

For actual cargo loadings for April, shipments from Brazil, the US Gulf, United Arab Emirates and Russia Pacific region saw big gains, Bloomberg tanker-tracking data show.

Unlike most buyers elsewhere in Asia, Chinese refiners have been able to purchase discounted oil from producers in Russia, as well as Iran and Venezuela, supporting their margins, traders said. 

Theoretical refining margins for smaller independent refiners as of late April were 1,012 yuan per ton, or around $19 a barrel, up more than 20% from two weeks earlier, according to OilChem data.

–With assistance from Alfred Cang.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.


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