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COLUMN-China oil demand growth to miss forecasts: Clyde Russell

Thursday, 12 Dec 2013 | 10:15 PM ET

--Clyde Russell is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.--

By Clyde Russell

LAUNCESTON, Australia, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Chinese oil demand this year is virtually certain to miss forecasts by the International Energy Agency and the country's top producer.

Implied crude demand fell 5.1 percent to about 9.94 million barrels per day (bpd) in November from the same month a year earlier, but was 1.5 percent higher than in October and was also the most in five months.

However, the November figures take implied demand for the first 11 months of the year to about 9.76 million bpd, a gain of only 2.1 percent over the same period in 2012.

This is substantially below the IEA's forecast for total demand of 10.19 million bpd in 2013 contained in the agency's monthly report published Dec. 11.

It is also below the 10.28 million bpd forecast in January by top state oil company China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC).

Implied demand is calculated by adding net fuel imports to refinery throughput, but excludes changes in commercial and strategic inventories.

Inventories changes in volume terms aren't disclosed by the authorities, although percentage changes for commercial stockpiles are reported monthly.

These have been declining in recent months, with refined product inventories dropping 6.08 percent in October from September, the fourth monthly decline.

Commercial crude inventories also declined 1.84 percent in October from a month earlier, but they had risen 10 percent over the prior two months.

But even if inventories are falling, they aren't declining by enough to explain the difference between the implied demand and the forecasts by the IEA and CNPC.

It appears that demand growth in China has failed to live up to expectations, most likely because of weaker-than-expected economic growth in the middle of the year, the gradual shift to a more consumer-led economy and improving efficiencies.

STRONG DECEMBER NOT ENOUGH

Even a strong month of imports in December won't be enough to lift overall implied oil demand to above 10 million bpd.

It appears that December's imports will be around 5.65 million bpd, based on calculations by Thomson Reuters Oil Analytics.

This is higher than the 5.57 million bpd imports have averaged in the first 11 months of the year, but not dramatically so.

If domestic oil output is assumed to have held steady at the 4.15 million bpd it has averaged in the first 10 months of 2013, this means roughly 9.8 million bpd will be available for refining, excluding any draws on, or builds of, inventories.

Net fuel imports averaged about 226,000 bpd for the first 11 months, and assuming this is maintained for December, it implies that oil demand will be just over 10 million bpd for the month.

This is certainly stronger than the 9.76 million bpd average for the first 11 months, but will still keep the figure for the whole year below 10 million bpd, probably somewhere in the region of 9.8 million bpd.

This is roughly 400,000 bpd below the IEA's forecast and 480,000 bpd short of CNPC's.

If 2013 implied demand does come in around 9.8 million bpd, it would be only 1.4 percent higher than the 9.66 million bpd recorded for 2012, when demand rose 4.5 percent from the prior year, the slowest growth rate since 2008.

It would also provide a lower starting point for 2014 forecasts, meaning the IEA's 10.57 million bpd estimate for demand next year would likely start off being optimistic.

What the numbers show is that oil demand growth in China is slowing, a trend that is likely to continue.

Instead of expanding at more than half the pace of economic growth as in the recent past, it seems likely that oil demand will increase at something closer to a quarter or third of gross domestic product growth.

This is a sign that the authorities' plans to move China to a more consumer-led economy may be bearing some fruit, at least from an oil demand perspective.

It also means that global oil markets may have to factor in slower demand growth in China, which will have ramifications for the overall outlook, given that the IEA forecasts that the country will account for just under one-third of the total increase in world demand.

(Editing by Joseph Radford)