Photographer: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Noisy Mumbai Car Lots Show How India Is Becoming Oil’s New Star

  • India FY16 gasoline sales up 14.5%, diesel sales rise 7.5%
  • Passenger vehicle sales likely to grow 8% in FY17: SIAM

Investors looking for a break from the doom and gloom of the past two years in the oil market need only turn to a hot, noisy lot in Mumbai.

QuickTake Cleaner Cars

There on a recent Saturday, a tall, cricket-loving, 34-year-old engineer named Anil Gaikwad took part in a rite of passage that for nearly a century has helped define entry to India’s middle class. He bought a car. And with that, his life got easier as he cut his commuting time and parked his motorcycle.

Gaikwad’s sudden upgrade from being a mere gasoline sipper is emblematic of a larger trend in India. The country is the new “star performer” in oil demand, taking over from China as the world’s main growth market, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Increasing consumption in nations like India will be needed to maintain oil’s steady rebound from a 12-year low as demand stalls in developed countries including the U.S. and Japan.

“India will continue to become a more and more important consumer in the world oil market,” said Rajiv Biswas, chief economist for Asia-Pacific at consulting firm IHS Inc. “Over the next 5 years, it could add around 2 million barrels a day, which could have quite a big impact on global oil supply and demand balances.”

A government push to add 100 million manufacturing jobs, improved standards of living and poor public transportation are stoking a boom in shipping and car sales in India.  Combined, these things will propel massive growth in consumption of gasoline and diesel in the country.

India consumed 4 million barrels of oil a day last year, according to the IEA, and is expected to surpass Japan as the world’s third-largest oil user this year. It will be the fastest-growing crude consumer in the world through 2040, according to the IEA, adding 6 million barrels a day of demand, compared with 4.8 million for China.

Gaikwad chose a shiny, metallic brown Maruti Suzuki Crossover S-Cross as his new transportation. The small SUV is big enough for him to fit his wife and 3-year-old daughter, and it will ease his daily trip to work and monthly journey to his hometown in Aurangabad, 400 kilometers (250 miles) away.

“I was mostly dependent on buses for daily commute and occasionally used the motorcycle,” Gaikwad said. "I was spending a lot of time traveling."

Inreasing Sales

Gaikwad isn’t alone at the car lot. Domestic vehicle sales in India rose 5.6 percent in the year ended March 31 to more than 20 million, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. Chinese car sales were about 25 million over the same period, while in Japan it was 4.9 million.

Asia is the only region in the world that is short on energy and rapidly growing. It was Asian economic expansion, led by China, that drove oil prices to $100 a barrel last decade. With the Chinese economy slowing to a more sustainable pace, that leaves room for a new country to spur oil demand.

An industrial revolution is at the heart of the growth. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious plan to create new factory jobs by 2020 will boost that sector’s share of the economy to 25 percent from 18 percent in 2014. Manufacturing drives oil use both by increasing the amount of goods that need to be moved around on ships and trucks and by raising living standards for workers.

"Mobility of people is rising. The standards of living has increased," said P. Balasubramanian, director of finance at India’s second largest fuel retailer Bharat Petroleum Corp. "Definitely good manufacturing activity and an increase in the movement of goods is pushing diesel consumption."

More Income

Per capita income is expected to grow to $4,700 in 2025 from $1,650 last year, IHS’s Biswas said. That will allow people to go from spending nearly all their money on food and necessities, to being able to afford cars, motorbikes and air travel.

India’s gasoline consumption in the fiscal year ended in March grew at more than 14.5 percent from the year earlier, the fastest since at least 2002. Diesel use gained 7.5 percent, the most in four years. Sales of medium and heavy commercial vehicles rose nearly 30 percent, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. Commercial vehicles account for 40 percent of total diesel consumed in India.

In a New Delhi car lot, Bhartendu Om kicked the tires of a Mahindra Scorpio SUV. The 24-year-old recently quit his job with a market research firm to study German in hopes of a brighter future. And he wanted a car to match those dreams.

“We haven’t had an SUV before,” he said. “There is a social currency associated with it. It’s a pull.”

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