[Editor's note: Opinions expressed by the author are his own.]
U.S. crude producers may have lost the fast-growing China market because of President Donald Trump's trade dispute, but they have more than compensated by making inroads into the rest of top oil-consuming region Asia.
While crude is currently excluded from the tariffs Beijing has imposed on U.S. goods, Chinese refiners have steered clear of U.S. oil, with only two cargoes totaling 3.87 million barrels arriving in the first five months of 2019, according to vessel-tracking and port data compiled by Refinitiv.
This amounts to a paltry 25,600 barrels per day (bbl/d), less than a tenth of the 332,000 bbl/d China imported in the first five months of 2018, prior to the start of the ongoing and seemingly escalating trade dispute.
Being shut out of the world's biggest crude importer, however, hasn't appeared to hurt U.S. exporters, at least from a volume perspective.
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Total arrivals of U.S. crude in Asia in the first five months of the year amounted to 1.07 MMbbl/d, up 69% from the 632,000 bbl/d for the same period of 2018.
Large gains were recorded in South Korea, which imported 356,000 bpd over January to May, up from 77,200 bbl/d in the same five months last year.
Likewise, India's imports from the United States rose to 196,000 bpd from 32,800 bbl/d, and Japan's to 76,000 bbl/d from 30,800 bbl/d. For Southeast Asia, which includes the refining hub of Singapore, imports climbed to 190,000 bbl/d from 71,500 bbl/d.
Putting together South Korea, India, Japan and Southeast Asia, and imports from the United States in the first five months of the year were 818,000 bbl/d, almost four times the 212,300 bbl/d for the same period last year.
This means the loss of about 306,000 bbl/d in exports to China has been more than offset by gains in the rest of Asia.
What the numbers don't show is the price U.S. exporters have been receiving for their crude, and whether it would have been higher if the Chinese were still competing for cargoes.
There is also a question as to whether U.S. crude exports to Asia should in fact be doing better than they already are, especially given the price advantage they currently enjoy.
U.S. Price Advantage?
The bulk of growth in U.S. crude shipped from the Gulf of Mexico has been in light, sweet crudes from shale basins.
These are generally priced against West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the benchmark U.S. light grade.
WTI futures ended at $51.68 a barrel on Wednesday, a discount of $8.95 to the Brent close of $60.63.
In theory this should provide a strong incentive for Asian refiners to buy U.S. crude, given its price advantage over global light benchmark Brent.
In reality, it's not quite so obvious, with actual physical crude prices being somewhat closer.
A price for physical WTI delivered in Houston , as assessed by Argus Media, was $58.66 a barrel on Wednesday, a premium of $7.08 to the WTI futures close.
Looking at a light crude priced against Brent, and a similar pattern emerges, with Nigeria's Bonny Light fetching $64.69 a barrel at the close on Wednesday, a premium of $4.06 over Brent futures.
Pitting WTI Houston against Bonny Light shows the Nigerian grade trading at a premium of $6.03 a barrel to the U.S. grade.
Given the two crudes aren't exactly comparable from the perspective of the refined products they yield, and the higher cost of shipping from the United States to Asia, and the price difference between the two narrows even further.
The main point is that U.S. crude is still competitive in Asia, and that the China-U.S. trade standoff seemingly hasn't had a detrimental impact on volumes being shipped.
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