By Irina Slav
China is bothering energy analysts and investors. It’s bothering them because it has been on a buying spree for crude in the last two years but nobody knows for sure how much of it the world’s second-largest consumer of oil has stashed away in strategic and commercial tanks.
At least, that was true up until this morning, when China graciously reported their oil strategic inventory reserves as of the first of the year—31.97 million tons, or between 33 and 36 days’ worth of China imports. The figure, which is higher than analysts had expected, may not mean a whole lot, because we still don’t know anything about how much they have amassed since then, and it doesn’t include any information about what may be stashed away in commercial storage facilities.
Knowing how much oil China has put away could be vital for predicting the future moves of the oil market, from analysts’ perspective. Unfortunately, Beijing doesn’t feel that it has to share this vital information with the world.
What the world-outside-China knows is that this year, crude oil imports there have reached historic highs, as the country takes advantage of the price rout and teapot refineries gain in prominence – and clients abroad. The world also knows that local production is falling, as E&Ps have to deal with maturing fields and low profitability.
This falling local production is increasing China’s dependence on external sources of crude, which hardly sits well with Beijing and could provide an easy explanation for the inventory boost: buy it cheap while it lasts, have a nice big cushion when prices start climbing back up.
Yet, it’s certainly uncomfortable for observers and analysts to not know even approximately how much crude oil there is in China. That’s why some of them have found a way around the fragments of information that the country’s bureau of statistics releases sporadically. Bloomberg writes that analysts at JPMorgan use a simple calculation method to figure out those notorious inventories. They simply subtract what the country consumes from what it produces and imports. The difference over the first half of the year came in at 1.2 million bpd, with total inventories reaching about 400 million barrels by end-June. This falls short of a stated target of 511 million barrels, but the target may have been reached by the end of August and JPMorgan analysts are suggesting Chinese imports this month could fall.
After today’s new figures, the number crunchers might have to do some refiguring, and already unsettled markets more unsettled.
Energy Aspects, on the other hand, believes there will be no serious changes in China’s oil-buying habits in the near term as another 150 million barrels worth of storage space is due to be built by the end of 2017. This includes both strategic and commercial storage space, as China can move crude from strategic to commercial tanks and back—rendering today’s figures even less useful.
China wants to have enough oil in storage to secure 100 days’ worth of imports, but accumulating this amount takes time and new storage facilities. Initially, plans were to have these 100 days secured by 2020, but earlier this year the deadline was pushed forward as the construction of storage space will apparently take more time than initially estimated.
Any reliable piece of information regarding the consumption and inventories of the world’s biggest oil consumers could help analysts and investors navigate an extremely volatile market. At the same time, however, this information arguably makes the market even more volatile: every week the release of crude inventory estimates by the American Petroleum Institute and then official data from the Energy Information Administration causes sudden jumps and falls in crude oil prices, even if the two reports contradict each other, which is not infrequent.
So, how would the market benefit from complete information about China’s oil in storage? Today, we’re about to find out.