(Bloomberg) — China’s crude imports climbed to a record in the first quarter as higher refining margin encouraged refiners to boost purchases.
The world’s biggest energy user increased inbound shipments to 91.1 million metric tons in the first three months of the year, data from the Beijing-based General Administration of Customs showed on Wednesday. That’s equivalent to about 7.34 million barrels a day, 6 percent higher than the previous quarter and 13 percent up from the same period last year, according to Bloomberg calculations. Imports last month fell about 4 percent from February’s record to 7.71 million barrels a day, the third-highest ever.
The nation’s net oil-product exports jumped to 1.3 million tons in March, the highest in three months, Wednesday’s data show. Refiners are importing more oil to take advantage of local retail fuel prices that are frozen when oil trades below $40 a barrel. The margin for major Chinese refineries to process Oman crude was about $16 a barrel in the first quarter, 68 percent higher than last year’s average, according to ICIS China, a Shanghai-based commodity researcher.
“Low oil prices and healthy margins are supporting imports,” Virendra Chauhan, a Singapore-based analyst at industry consultant Energy Aspects Ltd., said in an e-mail. “The strong imports also reflect demand from the teapot refiners.”
China’s total exports in March jumped the most in a year and declines in imports narrowed, adding to evidence of stabilization in the world’s second-biggest economy. The export rebound may suggest China’s economy fared better than expected in the first quarter, with data due Friday expected to show a 6.7 percent expansion for the period.
A total of 27 independent refiners, known as teapots, have obtained or applied for crude-import quotas, totaling 89.5 million tons as of the end of February, Zhang Liucheng, chairman of China Teapot Alliance, said on March 31.
“The teapot plants are very sensitive to refining margins and profitable oil processing in the first quarter certainly boosted their appetite for crude,” Guo Chaohui, an analyst at Beijing-based China International Capital Corp., said before the data were released.
China may surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest crude importer this year with average inbound shipments of 7.5 million barrels a day, driven by independent plants’ purchases and stockpiling demand, said Zhong Fuliang, vice president with China International United Petroleum & Chemicals Co., the trading arm of the nation’s biggest refiner. The U.S. imported 7.37 million barrels a day last year, according to Energy Information Administration data.
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