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(Bloomberg) -- Chinese traffic and factory activity is not only back to normal, it’s surpassing pre-virus levels, underpinning the global oil demand recovery.
The robust consumption from China -- the world’s biggest crude importer that’s also on track to become the No. 1 refiner this year -- offers support to oil bulls. That’s especially true because India, Asia’s other main demand center, is dealing with a brutal new wave of the coronavirus that’s leading to deserted streets and itinerant workers fleeing major cities.
Chinese oil demand in May could be as much as 20% higher than the same period in 2019, said Sengyick Tee, an analyst at Beijing-based SIA Energy. Apart from a few months last year, the nation’s energy consumption has been strong and continues to be, he said.
Factories at 143 industrial locations were operating at 83.5% of capacity at end-March, according to Shenzhen-based data provider Space Vision, which uses satellite imaging and analysis of indicators including night-time power use. That’s up from 70.3% at the same time last year and 73.6% in 2019.
Congestion levels on roads during morning rush hours in the week through April 12 were higher than average levels in 2019 in major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Changsha and Wuhan, data from navigation company TomTom International BV show.
China played an outsized role in helping oil prices recover from their dramatic plunge below zero just over a year ago. As the original epicenter of Covid-19, the country was hit first but was also already in comeback mode as other big economies were being locked down. Consumption from China has been a key stabilizer for oil as virus waves ebbed and flowed in other parts of the world.
Vitol Group, the world’s biggest independent oil trader, sees global crude demand roaring back this year. Prices will likely top $70 a barrel in the third quarter, Chief Executive Officer Russell Hardy said in an interview.
China’s robust appetite for oil is at odds, however, with Beijing’s increasing focus on reducing carbon emissions. The People’s Bank of China will limit investment of the country’s foreign exchange reserves in high-carbon assets as part of efforts to move toward a greener economy, Governor Yi Gang said Tuesday at the Boao Forum on Asia in Hainan province.
The nation’s refining capacity will reach 900 million tons this year and rise to 980 million tons by 2025, according to a report from Economics & Technology Research Institute, which is affiliated with China National Petroleum Corp. Domestic demand for diesel, gasoline and kerosene is also likely to peak in the middle of this decade, it said.
Asia is currently in the midst of the peak refinery maintenance season that runs over March and April. Chinese buying has played an even bigger-than-normal role in supporting the physical crude market this year, although some of the nation’s processors have been snapping up sanctioned Iranian oil rather than oil from traditional suppliers.
See also: Flurry of Oil Trades Led by China Refiner Bodes Well for Demand
Chinese people also now seem to have put the risk of infection mostly out of their mind and are returning -- at least domestically -- to their normal travel habits. Some 102 million local trips were made over the three-day ‘Tomb-Sweeping’ holiday in early April, up 145% from the same period last year when the country was still reeling from Covid-19, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. That was 95% of the level recorded in 2019.
And there’s also good news for jet fuel, the hardest-hit oil product. Some 4.33 million domestic flights were made over the holiday, 256% higher than in the same period of 2020, according to data from the Ministry of Transport.
“I believe China’s jet fuel demand will stabilize from here and see gradual improvement over the rest of the year, mainly supported by domestic travel,” said Mia Geng, an analyst at industry consultant FGE. “Flight numbers could hit a record high during the upcoming Golden Week in May.”
China’s apparent oil demand, based on oil-processing volumes and the net import of refined petroleum products, rose 19% to 13.22 million barrels per day in January through March from a year earlier, according to Bloomberg calculations based on official data. Oil refining in March alone jumped 20% year-on-year to a near-record 14.14 million barrels a day.
(Updates with forecast from Vitol CEO in seventh paragraph.)
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