Oil prices weaken after China’s crude imports plummeted in December

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Oil futures lost ground on Thursday, en route to consecutive losses as investors reacted to data showing a slowdown in December in the pace of Chinese crude imports. West Texas Intermediate crude for February delivery CL.1, -0.59% CLG21, -0.59% fell 33 cents, or 0.6%, to $ 52.58 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. March Brent BRN00 crude, -0.78% BRNH21, -0.78%, the global benchmark index fell 40 cents, or 0.7%, to $ 55.66 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe.

China’s crude imports fell to a 27-month low of 9.096 million barrels per day in December, news reports said, although 2020 total imports rose 7% to 10.86 million barrels per day. The fall sounded “alarm bells,” Eugen Weinberg, a commodities analyst at Commerzbank, said in a note. “It is quite possible, as with base metals, that Chinese traders and refiners imported more crude oil than they needed, partly for strategic storage reasons and partly for speculative reasons, and that imports, therefore, they will slow down this year, “he said in a note. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, in a monthly report, left its forecast for global oil demand growth in 2021 unchanged from its December estimate. The cartel expects crude demand to recover only partially from the 9.8 million barrel drop suffered in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. OPEC said it expects demand growth to rise to 95.9 million barrels per day this year, an increase of 5.9 million barrels per day.