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Oil hits 2019 high on China crude use, but slowdown looms


CRUDE prices rose to their highest so far in 2019 on Monday after data showed refinery processing in China, the world's second-largest oil consumer, climbed to a record last year despite a slowing economy.

International Brent crude oil futures were at US$62.75 per barrel at 0747 GMT, up 5 cents, or 0.1 per cent, from their last close. Brent earlier rose above US$63 for the first time in 2019.

US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were at US$53.87 a barrel, up 7 cents, or 0.1 per cent. WTI earlier advanced above US$54 a barrel for the first time this year.

Traders said the price rises came after data released by China's National Bureau of Statistics on Monday showed crude oil refinery throughput climbed to a record 603.57 million tonnes in 2018, or 12.1 million barrels per day (bpd), up 6.8 per cent from the previous year.

The strong figures came despite China's 2018 economic growth slowing to the weakest in 28 years, at 6.6 per cent versus 6.8 per cent in 2017.

Although the slowdown was in line with expectations and not as sharp as some analysts had expected, the cooling of the world's No.2 economy casts a shadow over global growth.

"The global outlook remains murky, despite emerging positives from a dovish Fed (now boosting US mortgage applications), faster China easing (China credit growth stabilising) and a more durable US-China truce," US bank JP Morgan said in a note.

Despite this, analysts said supply cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) would likely support crude oil prices.

"Brent can remain above US$60 per barrel on Opec+ compliance, expiry of Iran waivers and slower US output growth," JP Morgan said.

Energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said on Monday that it expected Brent prices to average US$66 per barrel in 2019, adding that despite the Opec-led supply cuts, there would be "ample supply through to the end of 2019".

Not all analysts see it that way.

Researchers at Bernstein Energy said the supply cuts led by Opec "will move the market back into supply deficit" for most of 2019 and that should cause prices to rise to US$70 a barrel before year-end.

In the United States, energy firms cut the number of rigs drilling for oil by 21 in the week to Jan 18, taking the total count down to 852, the lowest since May 2018, energy services firm Baker Hughes said in a weekly report on Friday.

It was biggest decline since February 2016, as drillers reacted to the 40-per cent plunge in US crude prices late last year.

With the rig count stalling, last year's growth rate is unlikely to be repeated in 2019, although most analysts expect annual production to average well over 12 million bpd, making the US the world's biggest oil producer ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia. REUTERS

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