SINGAPORE - Asian oil demand will hit a record in April just as global crude values are lifted to levels not seen in three years by Middle East supply risks and top exporter Saudi Arabia withholding output and noisily pushing for prices at $80 to $100 per barrel.
Most analysts have pointed to escalating Middle East conflicts, a crisis in Venezuela, and the supply cuts of Saudi Arabia and other producers as the main drivers taking global benchmark Brent and U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures this week to their highest since late 2014 at almost $75 and $70 a barrel, respectively.
Yet a much more fundamental reason has also sparked oil's bull run: Asian demand, which Goldman Sachs said this week points to an average price of $80 a barrel in 2018.
"Rising tensions in the Middle East have likely played a role in oil price strength, but we believe a tight physical market is the key driver," U.S. investment bank Jefferies said on Friday in a note to clients.
Trade data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows seaborne imports of crude oil by Asia's main buyers will hit a record this month, a big portion going to slake China's voracious thirst.
By end-April, China will likely have taken in more than 9 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude, its most ever. That's nearly 10 percent of global consumption and more than a third of Asia's overall demand. At $75 a barrel, it implies monthly import costs for China of more than $20 billion.
The record comes despite maintenance season, which usually dents imports at this time of year, and indicates that China's oil requirement is bigger than expected.
"Chinese demand points to strong growth," said U.S. bank Goldman Sachs in a note to clients, adding that it may be "higher than currently estimated".
RE-STOCKING, TEAPOTS, RESERVES
Michal Meidan of consultancy Energy Aspects said Chinese buyers were re-stocking after running down inventories late last year.
Much of China's new demand also comes from the advent of non-state refiners - often called teapots - as crude importers, resulting in record refining throughput.
"A number of teapots are starting new Crude Distillation Unites (CDUs) and secondary units, pulling in more crude," Meidan said, adding that there may also be some purchases of Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPRs).
Beyond re-stocking and teapots, analysts said China's economic performance has also been stronger than expected.
"Chinese growth of 6.8 percent in Q1 is higher than its target of 6.5 percent for the year. The supportive growth environment in China is one key reason for a supported oil demand story in general," said Barnabas Gan, analyst at Singapore's OCBC Bank.
Suresh Sivanandam of energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said he expected China's overall oil demand to grow by 370,000 bpd this year to 12.78 million bpd.
Adding in other regions, Goldman said global oil demand in the first quarter of 2018 is likely to post the strongest year-on-year growth since the last quarter of 2010.
A tighter market is also showing up in rising costs for crude deliveries to Asia as Middle East producers raise their official selling prices (OSPs).
The OSPs for Abu Dhabi's Murban and Saudi Arabia's Light crudes are currently showing their highest premiums to Dubai since 2014.
With demand growing all around, some analysts say there is little reason to expect anything but further price increases.
Standard Chartered Bank said this week there were "no bears left in this oil town".
So far, refineries in Asia are still operating at high levels to meet strong demand, despite rising crude feedstock prices eating into profit margins.
"Refiners are not likely to reduce imports or trim down run rates despite the price increase," said Lee Dal-seok, senior research fellow at state-run think tank Korea Energy Economics Institute.
Still, some dark clouds loom.
China's Sinopec, Asia's largest refiner, plans deep cuts to its May crude imports as its biggest refinery - the 460,000 bpd Zhenhai Refining and Chemical Company - goes into major overhaul.
Several traders said more such outages are due in May and June, likely reducing China's crude imports in coming months.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) this week also released its World Economic Outlook in which it warned that rising U.S.-China trade restrictions threatened global growth.
"The prospect of trade restrictions and counter-restrictions threatens to ... derail growth prematurely," said IMF Chief Economist Maurice Obstfeld.
Goldman Sachs does not share the IMF's concerns.
Worries about "trade wars and fears that higher oil prices will start to weigh on demand growth ... are overdone," it said.