An offshore oil platform near Angola. Picture: THINKSTOCK
An offshore oil platform near Angola. Picture: THINKSTOCK

London — Angola, a key provider of oil to China, has suffered its slowest trading month in 2019 as poor refining margins, high freight rates and subdued demand amid the trade war between Beijing and Washington curbed its sales.

Angolan crude had been selling out easily each month, with heavier grades especially coveted since similar Iranian and Venezuelan varieties evaporated due to US sanctions.

But a surplus of eight cargoes struggled to find buyers as a new August programme was released on Monday — the first overhang of the year, traders said.

China typically purchases about two-thirds of Angolan barrels each month, making Africa’s second-biggest oil exporter an important barometer of the Chinese market.

Industrial output growth in China unexpectedly slowed to a more than 17-year low and investment cooled, official statistics showed on Friday, and crude oil imports slipped 8% in May from an all-time high the month before.

Asked if signs of slowing growth in China and a sluggish global economy were stinging demand, a top seller of Angolan oil said: “That’s inevitably part of it. The longer the trade war drags on, demand will inevitably be hit. Then again, a resolution to that could lead to a speedy turnaround.”

Crude purchases, especially among Chinese independent refineries, slowed down, East Asian market sources said, as they continued to digest inventories purchased in previous months.

“May data has thus far pointed to sluggish demand, with imports contracting sharply and this is before the new round of bilateral [US-China] tariffs kick in,” consultancy Energy Aspects wrote in a note, which still put demand up at 500,000 barrels a day on the year, despite the weakening outlook.

China ramped up imports of Iranian oil in April before cutting them off due to tougher US sanctions, and Energy Aspects said it expected new commercial storage to come online.

“The global economy and trade issues are a bit macro for us,” one Chinese buyer said, noting July purchases closer to home than Angola, such as from Gulf producers. But anything signalling lower growth and demand, none of this geopolitical stuff is good.”

Margins on the kind of refined products made from heavier Angolan crude such as jet fuel plunged to a six-week low of $12.93 a barrel over Dubai crude at the end of May before recovering to $14.50 this week. The premium of Brent crude to Dubai also reached its highest levels in more than a year, making Middle East oil a more attractive prospect, before settling down again.

China’s lack of interest became clear early in the trading cycle as Chinese state oil trader Unipec declined to make any bids, setting the stage for a price slide that has now prompted some buying by Chinese state and independent refiners.

More worrying for sellers, China repeatedly sought to sell West African cargoes it was assigned through long-standing agreements with producers via the publicly visible Platts Window instead of shipping them home. But it attracted little enthusiasm.

All last week Unipec offered a cargo of Mostarda from Angola’s new offshore stream and finally discounted it to dated Brent minus 80c, a plunge from offers for the grade of about $1.20 in late May.

“Sellers are nervous about Angolan [oil], as they sensed the lower demand from the Chinese was not fake … but rather a real pullback,” a West African trader said.

Differentials for some top Angolan crude grades like Dalia remained near all-time highs, but attempts by sellers to push them higher in the absence of Iran and Venezuela’s barrels and new shipping fuel standards set for next year have floundered. “Sellers got too greedy,” the trader added.