By Meng Meng and Chen Aizhu
BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s independent refiners have ramped up their foreign oil buying after returning from prolonged summer maintenance to gear up for rising winter fuel demand, a sign that the financial pain from taxes and higher crude prices have ebbed for now.
The pick-up in imports by private refiners, often called “teapots”, has boosted the physical prices of Middle Eastern and Russian oil to their highest in months.
Their return to the market also comes as margins have improved after their extended shutdowns helped drain a glut of diesel and gasoline, boosting domestic fuel prices.
The independents imported 6 million tonnes, or 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude in August, up 40 percent from July and 10 percent higher from the same period last year, Thomson Reuters Oil Research and Forecasts data showed.
Their July purchases were the second-lowest on record for data going back to October 2016, as refiners shut or suspended operations due to a toxic mix of sinking diesel demand, higher crude prices <LCOc1> <CLc1> and new tax rules.
The calculation does not include purchases from large private refiners Hengli Petrochemical <600346.SS> and Rongsheng Group. The teapots account for about one-fifth of the nearly 9 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil imported into China, the world’s biggest oil importer.
“Our bookings of heavy crude increased in August and September as we came back from a 20-day-long maintenance in July,” said a manager with a Dongying-based independent refiner who declined to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
“Margins have been negative for a while, but we finally booked profit in August,” he said, adding that higher refined products prices encouraged more refineries to return from maintenance.
Sustained buying from China’s independents will add to global demand at the same time there are looming supply disruptions expected from major producers such as Venezuela and Iran. The surge in demand should boost benchmark futures prices.
It will also allay worries about weaker demand as China’s economic growth has stumbled.
“Crude demand in September will further pick up from August because independents are going to ramp up for winter production in the fourth quarter,” said Zhou Guoxia, an analyst with oil consultancy JLC, adding that the industry has been haunted by tight credit and more scrutiny on their tax practices.
Spot premiums for Oman <OMA-1Mdubsw-A> and Russian ESPO Blend <ESPO-DUB>, the typical grades that teapots buy, rose to their highest in months this week, supported by the demand recovery from private refiners, several trade sources said.
The utilisation rate of 44 Shandong-based refiners rose to 58 percent of their capacity in the second week of August, up from an average of 52.5 percent for July, calculations from JLC showed. The run rates were lower compared with state-owned refiners that were operating at 70 percent.
Margins improved moderately as domestic product prices rose due to thinning fuel supplies.
But executives warned that profits for teapots are still razor thin and smaller operators are struggling with the lingering issues of more stringent tax collection and higher crude prices, potentially requiring some to close for good.
Teapots also lose out on higher profits since they lack the retail networks of companies such as state-owned China Petroleum & Chemical Corp <600028.SS>, known as Sinopec, and the higher premiums from retail fuel sales.
The refiners do not have government licenses to export fuels, meaning they also miss out on potentially lucrative overseas sales.
Another manager with a Dongying-based refinery, which is preparing to return to full capacity, said business has gotten easier since early July when the bankruptcy of teapot Shandong Haiyou Petrochemical cast doubt on the financial health of the sector.
“With demand for crude coming back, it is easier for independents to get financing and credit to buy crude oil,” he said.
“Profit this year in general shrunk from a year ago,” the manager said. “Some small teapots with poor management skills and loan problems might die, but overall the bigger teapots are able to survive.”
(Reporting by Meng Meng and Aizhu Chen in BEIJING and Florence Tan in SINGAPORE; Editing by Josephine Mason and Christian Schmollinger)