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Oil slides on China trade slump, but crude imports remain high

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Oil prices fell by almost 1 per cent on Monday, with Brent crude slipping below US$60 per barrel, after Chinese data showed weakening imports and exports in the world's biggest trading nation and second-largest crude oil consumer.

[SINGAPORE] Oil prices fell by almost 1 per cent on Monday, with Brent crude slipping below US$60 per barrel, after Chinese data showed weakening imports and exports in the world's biggest trading nation and second-largest crude oil consumer.

International Brent crude oil futures were at US$59.91 per barrel at 0403 GMT, down 57 cents, or 0.9 per cent from their last close.

US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were down 47 cents, or 0.9 per cent, at US$51.12 a barrel.

China's December overall exports fell by 4.4 per cent from a year earlier, the biggest monthly drop in two years, official data showed on Monday, pointing to further weakening in the world's second-largest economy. Imports last month also contracted, falling 7.6 per cent, the biggest decline since July 2016.

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"Crude futures were back in the red as trading began for a fresh week in Asia, in tandem with most of the region's stock markets ... (as) China early Monday reported US$351.76 billion trade surplus in dollar terms for 2018, the lowest since 2013," said energy consultant Vandana Hari of Vanda Insights in a note on Monday.

The weak trade figures confirm a raft of indicators that have been pointing to an economic slowdown since the second half of 2018.

"Producer price inflation has decelerated for six consecutive months, adding to other signs of cooling industrial activity (in China) amid weakening global demand," rating agency Moody's said in a note.

Traders said the data pulled down crude oil futures and Asian stock markets alike, which had both posted modest gains earlier on Monday.

Economic research firm TS Lombard said oil prices were capped as "the world economy is now slowing ... limiting the scope for positive surprises in oil demand and hampering inventory reduction."

Ole Hansen, head of commodity strategy at Denmark's Saxo Bank, said "the deterioration seen recently in forward-looking economic data from the US to Europe and China" meant that the upside for crude oil futures was likely limited to US$64 per barrel for Brent and for US$55 for WTI.

Despite the weak Chinese trade data, the country's oil imports remained sky-high in December at 10.31 million barrels per day (bpd), holding above the 10 million bpd mark for the second month in a row, on stockbuilding by small independent refiners who were trying to use up annual quotas.

Amid this strong demand from the world's biggest oil importer, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and some non-Opec allies, including Russia, have been cutting supply since late 2018, providing crude prices with some support.

In the United States, drillers cut four oil rigs in the week to Jan 11, bringing the total count down to 873, energy services firm Baker Hughes said in a weekly report on Friday.

REUTERS