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Oil demand outlook should worry investors, analysts warn

Holly Ellyatt

Oil prices may have risen since the start of the month, but analysts believe the lackluster outlook for global demand – amid a shaky global growth environment and stubborn oversupply - should be more of a concern for investors.

"One consideration (in the near-term) that we think is going to be more relevant is on the demand side, rather than supply," Marc Kofler, research analyst at Jefferies, told CNBC Monday.

"We are coming into what we expect to be a heavy refinery maintenance season in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) and we would expect that to limit the amount of crude oil that you're seeing being bought by these refineries and that could actually have some near-term negative momentum around the oil price," he added.

Prices have risen more than 10 percent since the start of the month as speculation has mounted about potential action by oil producer group OPEC when it meets on the sidelines of an energy conference in Algeria next month.

Prices rose by around 2 percent on Monday, with Brent crude futures (Intercontinental Exchange Europe: @LCO.1) trading at around $47.95 a barrel and U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI (New York Mercantile Exchange: @CL.1)) at $45.40 a barrel when European stock markets closed. An extra fillip came after Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said he was consulting with Saudi Arabia and other countries to "achieve oil market stability," according to comments from the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, reported by Reuters.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious with the International Energy Agency (IEA) revising its global oil demand growth forecasts for 2017 downwards last week amid an uncertain global growth outlook with mixed signals from the likes of China and the U.S.

In addition, comments about potential OPEC/non-OPEC cooperation over market stability have been made in the past to no effect and analysts are again skeptical that OPEC's informal meeting next month will produce any concrete action - given that the group remains wary of conceding market share amid signs of more output coming online from non-OPEC producers.

Recent data show that the U.S. rig count and crude oil inventories are rising – signaling that the nascent rebound in oil prices is encouraging producers to re-open rigs and that production is still outpacing demand. Kopler noted that "inventories are still going up, less so on the crude side but more so on the product side."

"We think there is a certain amount now of floating product off-shore in Europe, so it's still very much a well-supplied market and we imagine that will continue until the year-end," he added.

Kopler was also skeptical about the forthcoming OPEC meeting: "It's always very difficult when it comes to talking about OPEC and in the past, the precedent has always been for a lot of expectations then perhaps the reality being someway below that," he said.

"We're expecting to be reasonably sanguine around that event, principally because we still hear rhetoric around coordinated action between OPEC and non-OPEC and that feels someway off for us. Secondly, even if there is a production freeze, at current levels recently we've had Saudi, UAE (United Arab Emirates), Kuwait all producing at record levels and so we question how effective any freeze may be," he added.

He was not alone in his reticence with Michael Wittner, head of oil market research at Societe Generale, also saying in a note Monday that "we are skeptical that anything concrete will happen" at the OPEC meet.

"Similar to April, a freeze would only be a boost to market sentiment" but would not change the remaining imbalance in global oil supply and demand, he said.

"Russia, Iraq, and Iran are maxed out (in terms of production) or are close to it, and Saudi output will go down anyway after the summer peak. So a freeze would not have any impact on actual crude supply," he added.

The French bank's forecast for demand also trended towards the bearish side, rather than the bullish side of the spectrum.

It said the global economic outlook, seasonal declines in demand, the revision downwards of global demand growth forecasts by the IEA last week and weak refining runs and margins were all reasons to err on the side of caution in terms of the oil demand outlook.

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