Japanese oil demand in March fell sharply to 4.30 mb/d, lower y/y by 0.397 mb/d, the steepest decline since July 2009 and broadly in line with our expectation for a 0.3 mb/d y/y drop. The data confirm early indications from the top 10 Japanese utilities, which showed sharp declines in crude and fuel oil burn. While part of the weakness was due to a softer economic backdrop and higher coal burn, the extent of the y/y decline was aggravated by a much warmer winter. Unsurprisingly, demand for fuels used in heating saw the sharpest declines, with crude burn down y/y by 87 thousand b/d to 0.2 mb/d, its lowest level since July 2012, and fuel oil demand down y/y by 0.1 mb/d at 0.42 mb/d, the lowest levels since October 2011. After three months when kerosene demand averaged 0.67 mb/d, March demand fell to 0.39 mb/d, also the lowest since October 2012 and down y/y by 0.11 mb/d. Once the weather anomalies ease, we expect declines to be less potent than in recent months, and expect 2013 declines to average 0.1 mb/d.
Japanese refinery runs fell to 3.58 mb/d, lower y/y by 0.1 mb/d as Kyokutu Petroleum's 0.175 mb/d Chiba refinery and the 0.22 mb/d Kosan Chiba refinery were both in maintenance. Runs are set to remain low between April and June, on planned turnarounds and voluntary run cuts due to weak demand. Imports experienced a sharp 0.6 mb/d m/m pickup in March to 4.16 mb/d, despite remaining marginally lower y/y by 45 thousand b/d. Imports from Saudi Arabia were above 1 mb/d again at 1.17 mb/d, while Iranian imports were higher m/m by 69 thousand b/d at 0.28 mb/d, the highest since February 2012. With higher imports and lower runs, crude inventories built m/m by a large 12.4 mb, but were only 1.1 mb above the five-year average.