It's The Demand, Stupid! Is China About To Burst The Black Gold Bubble?

For months we have heard about how the oil market's over-supply 'glut' has been removed thanks to OPEC/NOPEC's production cut deal and the narrative of 'global synchronous recovery' has buoyed the demand side of the equation - sending crude prices to four year highs (helped considerably by an increasing geopolitical risk premium, that is now evident more in Brent than WTI).

However, the last couple of weeks have turned ugly for the 'no brainer' record spec longs in crude oil as prices have tumbled (and President Trump has complained)..

The 50% surge in crude prices - and concurrent rise in gas prices at the pump - has begun to worry some that demand destruction looms. However, as The Wall Street Journal's Nathaniel Taplin reports, what investors may not appreciate is that demand growth is also poised to slow in the world’s largest net oil importer last year, China.

Chinese petroleum demand still appears fine. Growth bounced back to a healthy 9% on the year in April, twice the rate in March. April’s petroleum burn was flattered, however, by exceptionally weak demand in the same month the year before - and probably by the official end of the government’s winter pollution controls, which had given temporary shot in the arm to Chinese industry this spring.

Unfortunately the overall trend for the industrial and transport sectors - which together account for about 70% of Chinese oil demand - looks shaky.

Growth rates in freight traffic and electricity production both peaked in the third quarter of 2017, excluding January and February figures distorted by the Lunar New Year holiday.

Freight tonnage growth is now running at barely half the 11%-12% rate it reached in mid-2017. 

Weakening global trade, driven partly by the slowdown in Europe, will put further downward pressure on those numbers.

Given that background, sustaining Chinese oil-demand growth at close to 10% in the second half of 2018 looks unlikely.

Furthermore, as WSJ notesthe weakening yuan, which makes oil more expensive for Chinese importers, isn’t likely to help.

In yuan terms, Brent crude is up 20% in the past three months alone. But Chinese benchmark diesel prices are only up 12%.

Unless China’s state-set benchmarks are adjusted higher in the weeks ahead, Chinese refiners may start to feel the squeeze and cut back on crude purchases.

As WSJ concludes, oil-supply growth - Venezuela and Iran aside - is suddenly looking a bit bubblier. If Chinese demand goes pop, oil prices and shares could be in for a rocky second half.