By Henning Gloystein
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Amid increasing signs of China's industrial slowdown in 2019, data this week showing record oil and natural gas imports likely indicates a country at peak energy growth, with its thirst set to wane as the slowdown bites.
China's record intake for both crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2018 cemented its status as the world's largest oil and second-largest LNG importer.
But heading into this year, China's trade war with the United States is taking a toll.
On Tuesday, the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planner, warned that economic pressure will impact the job market. This came only a day after data showed an uptick unemployment and that growth in the world's second-largest economy cooled to its slowest pace in 28 years in 2018.
"Trade war concerns have reduced global growth expectations and with it comes a lower demand of energy," said Alfonso Esparza, senior market analyst at futures brokerage Oanda.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch said this week it expected "a significant slowing in growth" in both China's economy and energy demand for 2019.
Few analysts expect an outright recession in China this year, but amid signs of slowing factory activity that began impacting natural gas demand in the fourth quarter of 2018, the data points toward a slowdown.
LNG tanker shipments into China are set to be just over 5 million tonnes in January, down from a record 6.4 million tonnes in December, Refinitiv ship tracking data showed, limited by not only warmer-than-usual winter temperatures but also slipping industrial demand.
The January shipments would be the lowest in a year despite China's program to move millions of households and factories from using polluting coal to cleaner natural gas.
"Economic slowdown (and) a more considered approach on coal-to-gas switching ... will mean LNG demand will slow in 2019," energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said in a note this month, although it added that China's LNG imports would "still grow at around 20 percent, by far the largest source of LNG demand growth in the global market."
TOO MUCH FUEL
China's crude imports by tanker look set to peak in January, breaking over 10 million barrels per day for the first time, according to Refinitiv data. But that masks signs of slowing demand growth for both transportation and industrial fuels, according to analysts.
China's car sales fell for the first time in more than two decades in 2018, the country's top auto industry association said this month, dropping by 2.8 percent from a year earlier.
Property investment growth in December slowed to the second-slowest rate for 2018. Real estate is a key Chinese economic driver and construction is the source of much of the country's diesel demand.
China National Petroleum Corp this week said it expected diesel demand to fall by 1.1 percent in 2019. That would likely be China's first annual demand decline for a major fuel since its industrial ascent started in 1990.
Some of China's record crude oil imports were used to fill up strategic reserves, including at new storage sites in Jinzhou in the north and Huizhou on China's southern coast, meaning they did not reflect actual end-user demand.
Additionally, independent refiners increased their overseas orders at the end of the year to use up their annual import quotas received from the government for 2018.
But that meant they produced more fuel than even thirsty China can absorb, triggering record exports of refined products as refiners offloaded surplus fuel.
To contain the glut, the government has cut back import quota for independent refiners, while it may further raise fuel export quotas.
"Fuel exports will hit another record this year," said Seng-Yick Tee, oil analyst with Beijing-based consultancy SIA Energy.
(Reporting by Henning Gloystein; additional reporting by Chen Aizhu and Jessica Jaganathan; editing by Christian Schmollinger)