China’s first price increases in 10 months for gasoline and diesel may signal a policy shift to limit the refining losses that discouraged production in the world’s biggest energy consumer.
The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planner, indicated in a Feb. 7 statement that it may let retail fuel tariffs track global crude prices more closely after allowing an increase of as much as 4 percent. The decision is a “clear signal” China is willing to let retail fuel prices rise further, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. and PetroChina Co., the nation’s biggest refiners, are losing as much as $4 a barrel under Premier Wen Jiabao’s controls on what consumers pay at the pump, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Inflation in the world’s fastest-growing major economy slowed to 4.5 percent last month, from 6.5 percent in July, giving the government more leeway in lifting fuel prices and encouraging domestic production.
“China will raise domestic fuel prices several more times this year,” said Gordon Kwan, the head of energy research at Mirae Asset Securities Ltd. in Hong Kong who forecasts total increases of 15 percent in 2012, with the next adjustment as soon as April. “Ensuring domestic fuel supply by restoring fair profit margins to oil companies will be a politically correct move,” he said in an e-mail.
Refining losses at China Petroleum, known as Sinopec, were 23.1 billion yuan ($3.7 billion) in the first nine months of 2011, while PetroChina’s were 41.5 billion yuan, the companies said in earnings statements Oct. 27. Sinopec gained 1.8 percent on Feb. 8, the day China introduced its latest fuel-price increases, while PetroChina climbed 2.2 percent. Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index rose 1.5 percent that day.
Total refining losses of the Chinese oil companies last year were about 100 billion yuan, Nilesh Banerjee, a Mumbai-based analyst at Goldman Sachs, said in a Feb. 8 report. Fuel tariffs advanced as much as 550 yuan a ton in 2011, even though China’s fuel-pricing formula indicated they should have gained 1,500 yuan, the NDRC said in the Feb. 7 statement.
“The falling consumer price index will make it easier for government to raise prices for oil-product and natural gas to reasonable levels,” Mao Zefeng, a Beijing-based spokesman at PetroChina, said by phone today. Huang Wensheng, a spokesman of Sinopec, didn’t answer two calls to his office and mobile phone.
Last week’s increase of 300 yuan a ton reversed a cut by the same amount on Oct. 9. Prices need to rise an additional 500 to 1,000 yuan for oil companies to break even on their crude-processing operations, according to Banerjee.
“It is encouraging to see the NDRC respond to rising oil prices, reduce refining losses, and encourage consumption efficiency,” Banerjee said in the report. It is a “clear signal of fuel pricing reform from the government,” he said.
Brent oil has risen 9.5 percent since Oct. 10 to $119.25 a barrel. Dubai blend, an Asian benchmark grade, has climbed 14.8 percent, while Cinta, an Indonesian crude also used as a benchmark by China, has advanced 14 percent.
Current rules let the NDRC adjust retail fuel when the 22-day moving average of a basket of Brent, Dubai and Cinta changes more than 4 percent . That average rose about 4.1 percent since the last price revision, JPMorgan analysts led by Sophie Tan in Hong Kong said in a Feb. 8 report.
“In the past, the NDRC delayed hikes because of inflationary concerns, but with the consumer price index expected to decline, the hike was quickly implemented when the 4 percent threshold was reached,” Tan said in the report.
China’s inflation rate unexpectedly accelerated to 4.5 percent in January from 4.1 percent the previous month as the Chinese New Year holiday boosted spending. It may still drop below 4 percent for the first time in 17 months in February, the NDRC said Feb. 13.
“Inflation is indeed trending lower, which in our view, provided a sufficient setting for policy makers to raise fuel prices,” Soozhana Choi, the Singapore-based head of Asian commodities research at Deutsche Bank AG, said in a Feb. 8 report. “The move is also likely an effort to incentivize refiners to maintain high runs and ensure ample supplies.”
China faces a shortage of 1.27 million tons of diesel this year, China National Petroleum Corp., the parent of PetroChina, said in its annual report on the oil and gas industry Feb. 9. The shortfall will be higher should a conflict in the Middle East increase crude costs, CNPC said.
The latest fuel-price boost may do little to lift output in the short term because supplies are ample, according to JBC Energy GmbH, a Vienna-based consultant.
“We are skeptical that the higher fuel prices result in a significant increase in domestic production as refiners already boosted run rates to record highs at the end of 2011,” Alexander Poegl, an analyst at JBC Energy, said by e-mail.
Record Run Rates
Average utilization rates at China’s largest refineries were 87.8 percent as of Dec. 22, near the highest level of the year, according to Oilchem.net, a Shandong-based industry website. The rate was 87.6 percent as of Feb. 2. The nation’s inventories of diesel rose by 800,000 tons to a four-month high of 8.6 million tons in December.
Sinopec is losing $1 a barrel even after the latest fuel-price increase, while PetroChina’s margin is as low as minus $4, Tan said. China processed an average 9 million barrels of crude a day last year, according to customs data compiled by Bloomberg.
Planned revisions to the current system to “rationalize” prices may include shortening the pricing cycle, improving the execution of changes and revising the crude grades assessed, according to the NDRC. China may reduce the 4 percent threshold for global crude-cost changes to 2 percent, and shorten the 22-day period to 10 days, China Business News reported Feb. 10, citing an unidentified person.
“A shorter cycle for price adjustments, which curbs hoarding, and better margins for refiners under the new mechanism will help reduce the chances of fuel shortages on the domestic market,” said Liao Kaishun, an analyst with C1 Energy, a Shanghai-based commodity researcher who estimates refiners lost 113 yuan a ton importing diesel as of Feb. 13.
Previous shortages have boosted imports of oil products and lifted Asian refining margins. Electricity rationing a year ago caused factories to switch to diesel-fired generators, increasing net imports of the fuel to 290,000 tons in December 2010, the highest in more than two years.
Gasoil, or diesel, with 0.5 percent sulfur content cost as much as $24.17 more than Dubai crude in March 2011 after China International United Petroleum & Chemical Corp., the nation’s biggest oil trader, said it would cut diesel exports to conserve stockpiles. The difference, the so-called crack spread, was the biggest in 2 1/2 years, according to PVM Associates Ltd., a London-based oil broker.
The crack spread may narrow to as low as $15 next quarter as supplies remain sufficient, according to the average forecast of three analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. It was $16.92 today, compared with $18.68 before the fuel-price increase was announced, PVM data show. Dubai crude rose to $116.77 a barrel today.
“Should a new pricing policy be implemented in China, this would stimulate oil product supply,” Miswin Mahesh, a London-based commodities analyst at Barclays Capital, said in a report dated Feb. 15. “Diesel shortages, which were widespread last year, are unlikely to arise largely due to the recent pricing changes. Should the price increases continue, together with new refining capacity coming online, China is unlikely to be a sustained diesel importer.”