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Oil shipping rates jump 19% after US sanctions Chinese firms over Iran oil

The benchmark freight rate for very large crude carriers from the Middle East to China jumped nearly 19 per cent on Friday after the United States imposed sanctions on two shipping units under China's state-owned giant Cosco, shipping and trade sources said.

[LONDON] Oil-tanker costs are surging after the US slapped sanctions on Chinese companies it accused of hauling Iranian crude, prompting a scramble in freight markets to secure alternative vessels.

Rates for ships hauling two million-barrel cargoes of Middle East oil to Asia jumped 19 per cent on Friday, according to data from the Baltic Exchange in London. Shares of tanker operators also gained. The cost to transport US crude to Asia on supertankers rose 6.3 per cent to US$8.5 million on Thursday, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

"There's a lot of panic out there," said Halvor Ellefsen, a tanker broker at Fearnleys in London. "Modern vessels are available, but just hard to get."

The list of sanctioned Chinese companies includes a unit of Cosco Shipping Corp, which operates the world's second-largest tanker fleet. The penalties bar US citizens and companies from dealing with the sanctioned entities, effectively blocking them from American banks at the heart of the global financial system. As a consequence, oil traders spent the day canceling bookings and letting provisional charters lapse.

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Tankers rates from the Middle East to China were 75.13 Worldscale points, the Baltic Exchange said on Thursday. The same rate was at 63.38 on Wednesday. Worldscale is an industry standard that allows traders to easily calculate costs and returns from thousands of different tanker routes. Shares of Frontline Ltd advanced 7.5 per cent in Oslo while Euronav NV gained 8.1 per cent in Antwerp.

Rates were already rallying after attacks on Saudi oil installations earlier this month obliged traders to seek alternative cargoes, particularly from suppliers in the US and elsewhere in the Atlantic Basin.

"This certainly gives a slight premium to non-Chinese VLCCs," said Randy Giveans, an analyst at Jefferies LLC in Houston. Rates were already being boosted for multiple reasons including the Saudi attacks, ships getting refitted for new sulfur-emission rules, and importer nations building stockpiles, he said.

The sanctioned Cosco unit, Cosco Shipping Tanker (Dalian) Co, operates 26 supertankers capable of hauling a combined 52 million barrels of oil, according to data from Clarkson Research Services Ltd. Its parent company is not affected by the sanctions, the US Treasury said.

China opposes the penalties against its companies and citizens and has consistently disagreed with the US imposing unilateral sanctions, Geng Shuang, a foreign ministry spokesman, said at a media briefing.

"Western charterers may avoid all those Cosco VLCCs (very large crude carriers), but China Inc is still the largest importer of crude oil, so domestically alone there could be usage of those vessels," said Jon Chappell, an analyst at Evercore ISI in New York. "Longer term it's hard to see how it has a sustainable impact unless the ships are banned from global trading."