An oil pump outside Scheibenhard, near Strasbourg, France. Picture: REUTERS/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN
An oil pump outside Scheibenhard, near Strasbourg, France. Picture: REUTERS/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN

Seoul — Oil prices climbed on Wednesday as China reported its lowest daily number of new coronavirus cases since late January, stoking investor hopes that fuel demand in the world’s second-largest oil consumer may begin to recover from the epidemic.

Brent crude was up 98c, or 1.8%, at $54.99 per barrel at 0335 GMT. US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) rose 81c, or 1.4%, to $50.65 a barrel.

According to data on Tuesday, the growth rate of new coronavirus cases in China has slowed to the lowest since January 30. Still, international experts remained cautious about forecasting the date that the outbreak might reach a peak. Travel restrictions to and from China and quarantines have cut fuel usage. The two biggest Chinese refiners have said they will reduce their processing by about 940,000 barrels per day (bpd) as a result of the consumption drop, or about 7% of their 2019 processing runs.

“As the growth rate of new cases has decreased ... that has improved the [market] sentiment,” said Kim Kwang-rae, commodities analyst at Samsung Futures in Seoul.

The demand concerns from the outbreak pushed Brent and WTI to their lowest in 13 months on Monday. Both benchmarks are down more than 20% from highs reached in January. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Tuesday cut its global oil demand growth forecast for 2020 by 310,000 bpd as the virus outbreak crimps oil consumption in China.

Demand worries flipped the oil market into a contango last week, a market structure where prices for near-term contracts are lower than those for later contracts, indicating ample supplies. Contango spread in Brent is unchanged at 15c per barrel from a week earlier, while the WTI contango is at 24c a barrel, from 17c last week.

“Front month prices are down around 20% since the start of the outbreak, with Brazilian, West African and Russian crudes — all popular with independent [Chinese] refiners in Shandong — under pressure,” said Roger Diwan, vice-president of financial services at IHS Markit, in a note.

On the supply side, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and its allies including Russia, known as Opec+, recommended a further cut of 600,000 bpd last week to stem the oil price fall. However, Russia has been hesitant to commit to the additional cut, while Saudi Arabia wanted global major oil producers to agree on a quick oil supply cut.

US crude inventories rose by 6-million barrels in the week to February 7 to 438.9-million barrels, beating analysts’ expectations for an increase of 3-million barrels, data from industry group the American Petroleum Institute showed.

Official EIA data is due on Wednesday at 1530 GMT.

Reuters