Analysis: Saudi crude gains ground in Japan amid faltering Asian market share

Tokyo (Platts)--13 Feb 2018 958 pm EST/258 GMT

Saudi Arabia's commitment to the OPEC-led production output cut deal was confirmed with reduced exports to key Asian outlets in 2017, but Japanese imports of Saudi crude jumped to the highest level in 35 years as the kingdom also maintained its flexibility to meet demand whenever there is a need. Japan's crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia rose 9.5% year on year to 1.295 million b/d in 2017, or 40.1% of total imports in the year, and the country's imports of Saudi crude in 2017 were the highest since 1982, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry data.

Market sources attributed Japan's increased imports of Saudi Arabian crude oil in 2017 to a combination of the kingdom's flexibility to respond to market's needs as well as economics with competing grades.

"At the end of the day, the Saudi [crude] was easy to take because of its operational flexibility, as well as they were basically flexible to accommodate our request for tolerance," Hisashi Kobayashi, president of Japanese refiner Cosmo Oil, told S&P Global Platts.

But market sources said that it had become more difficult to seek incremental supplies from Saudi Arabia as it had started cutting monthly crude term allocation for major Asian importers from around September loadings onwards last year.

Since early in the third quarter last year, major OPEC producers including Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. have been consistently cutting their monthly crude term allocations to various customers in Asia as part of the OPEC/non-OPEC output cut deal, prompting big Asian consumers including China, India and South Korea to look for more reliable supply sources outside the Middle East.

Statistically, Japan's imports of Saudi Arabian crude grades were reflective of the kingdom's sharper decline in terms of production of heavier crudes. Imports of Arab Extra Light jumped 39% year on year, while its imports of Arab Heavy, Arab Medium, and Arab Light dropped by 11%, 16% and 4% respectively from a year ago, according to METI data.

"While the US and Europe have been destinations for Saudi lighter crudes, the increased production of US shale oil and increased supplies from Libya to Europe have made it easier for the Saudi lighter grades to come to Japan overall," according to Takayuki Nogami, chief economist at Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp.

The increased flow of Saudi Arabian crude to Japan also comes at a time of slowing Chinese imports of Saudi crude, coupled with reduced imports from India and South Korea.

China's imports of Saudi Arabian crude inched up year on year to around 1.04 million b/d in 2017 but its share of the total crude intake fell to 12.4%, down from 13.4% in 2016, according to the General Administration of Customs data.

India imported a total of around 716,000 b/d of crude oil from Saudi Arabia in 2017, down about 13% from the 820,000 b/d imported in 2016, S&P Global Platts trade flow software cFlow showed. South Korea's crude imports from its biggest supplier Saudi Arabia slid 1.6% year on year to around 875,000 b/d in 2017, data released by state-owned Korea National Oil Corp. showed.

LOFTY RUSSIAN PREMIUMS Spot premiums for various light and medium sweet Russian grades had been well supported throughout 2017 due largely to China's relentless appetite for crude oil produced in the non-OPEC state.

Russia in fact was crowned as the top crude supplier to China for the second year running in 2017, with a 14% year-on-year increase in volume to around 1.2 million b/d, the Chinese customs data showed.

Accordingly, Japanese refiners could have resorted to Saudi Arabia for alternatives to lighter Russian grades including ESPO Blend, Sokol and Sakhalin Blend.

"Independent Chinese refiners being allowed to import crude oil led to them bidding up Russian crudes from the ESPO pipeline," said Fareed Mohamedi, chief economist for consultancy Rapidan Energy Group.

"Japanese refiners felt ESPO prices had gone too high relative to other alternatives like Murban and Arab Extra Lite," said Mohamedi, a corporate adviser to Saudi Aramco until mid-2016. "The Saudis were happy to oblige and will continue to do so in 2018.

"It was all demand driven and later the Saudis realized it was a good market to capture," he added.

ESPO Blend crude was among the most expensive grades in the Asia Pacific sweet crude market during the second half of 2017, with the spot differential for the medium sweet Far East Russian grade riding a steady and sharp uptrend from a premium of 95 cents/b to Platts Dubai seen in May to a premium of $4.80/b in December 2017.

In comparison, monthly official selling price differentials for Arab Extra Light crude were less intimidating for Asian buyers last year. Saudi Aramco had set the monthly OSP differentials for the light sour grade between $0.40-$2.45/b to the Platts Oman and Dubai average during January-December last year.

"My rough calculation is that ESPO was [on average] around $2-$3/b more expensive than Extra Light on FOB basis," said a trading manager at a Japanese firm.

-- Takeo Kumagai,

-- Gawoon Philip Vahn,

-- Edited by James Leech,

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