Oil traders from around the world, including the United States, Britain and Brazil, have tripled their sales to Asia as they take advantage of an emerging supply gap following OPEC-led production cuts announced late last year.
Around 30 supertankers have this month made long-haul trips to ship crude oil from the Americas, the North Sea and the Mediterranean to refineries across Asia, the world's biggest and fastest-growing consumer, data extracted from Thomson Reuters Oil Research and Forecasts shows.
The unusual movements follow the decision late last year by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other producers including Russia to cut production by almost 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) during the first half of this year in a bid to rein in global oversupply and prop up prices.
Companies most involved in the long-haul deals include major oil producers such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, private commodity traders Trafigura, Vitol and Mercuria, and Chinese refiner Unipec, trading sources say. Energy and mining giant Glencore, Azerbaijan's state-oil firm Socar and Brazil's Petrobras have also been involved.
Taking advantage of relatively low freight costs and regional crude oil price differentials—known as arbitrage, or arb—traders can profit from supply shortages in one region and oversupply in another.
West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures, for example, currently trade at around $54.50 per barrel, while international benchmark Brent crude costs $56.90—a Brent premium over WTI of $2.40 a barrel, compared with near parity in late November, just before OPEC announced its cuts.
"The OPEC cuts have ... led to an open arb for long-haul cargoes, leading to a rise in long-haul crude imports (which) make up for the decline in OPEC (supplies)," said Tushar Bansal, director of Ivy Global Energy, a Singapore-based consultancy.
The cuts are an OPEC policy reversal after two years of pumping out oil and keeping prices low as the cartel sought to squeeze rival exporters.
"OPEC production cuts... created distortions in the Asian crude market, changing global trade patterns," BMI Research said in a note to clients.
OPEC cedes market share
Helping fill the OPEC gap, crude shipments to Asia from the United States, Britain, Brazil, and even war-torn Libya jumped to over 35 million barrels in February, or 1.26 million bpd, from 10.4 million barrels in October, or 336,000 bpd, the data shows.
For OPEC, which typically meets around 70 percent of Asia's oil demand, that means a 5 percent loss of market share since October.
"Under current oil market conditions, OPEC risks losing market share with further production cuts," said Carole Nakhle, director of advisory firm Crystol Energy in London.
Although OPEC's relationship with customers in Asia tends to be good, refiners in North Asia's consumer hubs of Japan, China, and South Korea say they will readily turn to other suppliers in order to meet their needs.
Loading schedules show U.S. crude exports to Asia increased to more than 3.5 million barrels this month—including a first U.S. oil cargo delivery to India—from below 1 million in October. UK shipments have jumped to more than 10.5 million barrels from just 1.6 million.
Shipments to Asia from Brazil have hit a record 16.7 million barrels in February, up from 6.9 million in October, and Libya, an OPEC-member exempted from the cuts, doubled its Asia shipments to 2 million barrels last month.
Shipping schedules show the trend continuing into March.
BMI said the OPEC cuts, especially of medium and sour crude grades, were "providing opportunities for (similar)... Mediterranean crudes to flow into the Asian market," which include Libyan oil.
Will the arb last?
One of the first major long-haul shipments to Asia in this round of arbitrage trading was by BP, which late last year used more than half a dozen tankers to ship almost 3 million barrels of U.S. crude as far as 30,000 km (18,641 miles) to Australia, Thailand and Japan.
In similar deals, Unipec and Trafigura have shipped U.S. oil from the Gulf of Mexico to China. Shippers of North Sea crude to Asia have included Vitol, Mercuria, Trafigura, Glencore, Shell, Unipec and Socar. The main exporter from Brazil has been state-owned Petrobras, shipping data shows, with traders saying its crude has replaced oil from OPEC-member Angola.
Oystein Berentsen, managing director for crude oil trader Strong Petroleum in Singapore, said arbitrage for the North Sea and U.S. oil to Asia has been possible due to the OPEC-led cuts, and these routes "may continue depending on freight and price spreads."
Benchmark Middle-East to Japan freight rates for supertankers (VLCC) are at 71 points on a so-called Worldscale rate based on 100, compared to a long-term average rate of around 76 over the last 10 years.
"The whole reason arb opportunities are there is because of weak freight," said Matt Stanley, a fuel broker at Freight Investor Services in Dubai.
It's not clear how long this arb window will remain open.
Strong Petroleum's Berentsen said that despite the OPEC cuts "there is still oversupply, but the market will probably balance in the third quarter. Then we'll see if the arb still works."