More evidence is emerging that oil demand in China is fizzling - and that China's economy is fizzling too.
The oil analyst Paul Ting emails that China's December oil demand declined by 4 percent. This is the sharpest monthly demand decline in the past decade and the second consecutive monthly demand decline, Ting says. Ting notes that Chinese petroleum inventories have been increasing and that actual demand might have dropped by even more than 4 percent.
This is startling news because China was supposed to be the engine of growth for worldwide oil demand. Less than two years ago, in July 2007, the International Energy Agency was forecasting an increase of half a million barrels a day of oil demand in China every year through 2012. Earlier this month, the IEA predicted that China's oil demand would grow 1.1 percent this year, or about 80,000 barrels a day.
This has important implications for the oil market. OPEC and other oil exporters have long assumed stagnant oil demand in the United States and Europe, but they have been counting on fast growth in emerging markets to fuel demand growth - and high prices.
Now one reason for a slowdown in Chinese oil demand is the elimination of subsidies in June last year. But greater fuel efficiency isn't the only thing happening here.
Sagging Chinese oil demand provides further evidence that China's economy has not just slowed down, but may actually be in reverse. China announced 6.8 percent growth from December 2007 to December 2008. But given how much faster the annual growth rate was early in 2008, simple math would indicate that the economy actually contracted late in the year. New York University economics professor Nouriel Roubini commented on this over the weekend: "Indeed if one were to convert the 6.8 percent y-o-y [year over year] figure in the more standard quarter over quarter annualized figure Chinese growth in Q4 [the fourth quarter] would be close to zero if not negative," he wrote. "Other data confirm that China was in a borderline recession in Q4 and that it may be in an outright recession in Q1: production of electricity plunged 7.9 percent in y-o-y basis."
Paul Ting said much the same thing when he responded to an email I sent him last week. "The GDP growth rate shows an 'accelerating slippery slope,'" he said. "4Q was lower than 3Q, 3Q lower than 2Q, and so on.
Indeed, although China does not release numbers on monthly GDP growth, the industrial value added monthly data would suggest that throughout the fourth quarter, economic activity level fell, with December being the lowest. Thus, the oil demand data showing the sharpest decline in December is consistent with the fact that GDP growth was also the slowest in that month."
Treasury Secretary-to-be Timothy Geithner testified the other day that China has been manipulating its currency to make its exports more attractive. Getting it to do otherwise seems like a tougher task than ever now that the economy is in trouble.