AFRICANGLOBE – Asia has become a hotspot for a price war between African and Gulf oil producers who, hobbled by bulging global supplies and waning demand, are offering steep discounts to defend their market share in the world’s top net crude buying region.
The competition is welcome news for Asian buyers. If oil stays near $60 per barrel, import costs for the world’s No.2 oil consumer, China, would drop to under $125 billion a year, versus $222 billion in 2013 when crude averaged $110.
But for producers it means more competition, and African sellers like Nigeria and Angola, faced with precarious finances due to plummeting oil prices, are struggling to make inroads into Asia, a Middle Eastern stronghold.
“There is competition between West African and Middle East suppliers for the Asian markets, but the Middle East suppliers have the cost advantage,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, head of Energy Security Division at the National University of Singapore. The city-state is a major oil trading hub in Asia.
Low operating costs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates already allow these countries to offer hefty discounts.
Now, a more than 50 percent jump in freight rates between West Africa and China since September is adding to the relative advantage of Middle Eastern grades, which require shorter shipping distances to Asia.
This has been a big setback for West African producers.
Almost half of Nigeria’s cargoes due to be exported in January are still available and the backlog has pushed Nigerian oil differentials versus Brent to their lowest since at least 2009 BFO-QUA at 65 cents a barrel, down 80 percent since May.
West African exports got a brief boost in August when Brent’s premium to Middle East crude DUB-EFS-1M narrowed to less than $2 per barrel from almost $5 in June. But with Middle Eastern producers now offering even more competitive prices, the advantage has faded.
“A year ago, a $2 premium would have been attractive, but in today’s environment it’s different,” a trader dealing with West African crude said.
Gulf Supply Dominate
West African producers traditionally sold most of their oil to North America and Europe, but exports dwindled given a gusher of shale oil from the United States and higher output from nations outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
West African crude exports to Asia rose more than 4 percent between January and December, data shows. China accounted for most of the rise as it took advantage of low prices to build up oil reserves.
But the higher West African arrivals into Asia were mainly due to sales before October, and have dropped since then due to Middle East discounts.
Middle East producers continue to dominate the Asian oil market, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait all increasing shipments to the region since 2012.
The Middle East accounts for around half of China’s imports and Africa has a 25 percent share.
With pricing an advantage for Gulf producers, one hope for West Africa is China’s drive for diversification in order to avoid over-reliance on Middle Eastern oil, JBC Energy said.
But analysts are sceptical about the sustainability of steep discounts as producers need higher prices to finance their budgets.
“Governments that underpin their budgets with oil or metals have seen currency values plummet, reserves erode or current account deficits rise … Regimes built on oil wealth will come under pressure,” risk consultancy and insurance brokerage JLT Group said in its 2015 outlook.