China may open crude futures to foreign investors
* China's plan for crude futures gains momentum -officials
* Could allow foreigners with no local subsidiary to participate
* Benchmark to be of medium, sour crude mostly from Mideast
* Investors suspicious of price control; Import control remains hurdle
By Chen Aizhu
BEIJING, Dec 14 (Reuters) - A plan to launch a crude futures contract in China that would allow foreign investors to trade in commodities markets without a local subsidiary for the first time is gaining momentum and may get the nod early next year, officials and executives said.
China is the top global consumer of raw materials and has some of the fastest growing and most liquid commodities futures markets, but state restrictions to limit international money flows have prevented contracts gaining global prominence.
The plan for a crude futures contract is championed by the head of China's securities regulator Guo Shuqing, a reform-minded official believed to be a top candidate for the role of Central Bank governor. It has won support from other government agencies and state oil giants, industry officials said.
"If it takes off... we are talking about a possible daily turnover in billions of dollars," said a senior industry official with direct knowledge of the plan.
The Shanghai Futures Exchange (SHFE) would host the contract and try to establish it as a regional oil pricing benchmark. Exchange officials toured London, New York and Singapore earlier this year on road shows, and last month went to Riyadh.
"I give it my full and strong support," Cai Xiyou, vice president of Sinopec Corp in charge of marketing and trading, told Reuters last month. "The key is to design the right product to attract investors from all over the world to participate."
SHFE is awaiting Beijing's final approval to launch the contract, which may come after March when China's new leaders take charge.
The exchange is one of the biggest in Asia, with liquidity in base metals and steel contracts which have made them regional, if not global, benchmarks.
A successful launch could pave the way for the opening of other Chinese commodities futures to more foreign investment such as copper and zinc.
China's growing oil consumption make it potentially fertile ground for a benchmark contract. Crude imports into China are likely to rise to 9 million barrels per day by 2020, according to industry estimates. Imports in November were 5.69 million bpd, or about 6 percent of global supply.
Contract lots would be relatively small at 100 barrels, a tenth of the size of lots for both global oil benchmarks -- Europe's Brent and the U.S. crude WTI. The size may make the contract attractive for retail investors, the sources said. (For more details on the contract see FACTBOX )
The contract would be for the type of medium sour crude China most commonly imports.
"For years Chinese companies have been stumbling and learning in markets designed by others," said a senior trader with one Chinese oil giant. "This would be the first one tailor-made for China's buyers, so we will have better understanding and interpretation."
To attract international investors, the SHFE will, however, need to overcome some old suspicions. For some traders, the concern is that China's end game is to exert control over benchmark prices.
"The impression I got is they want foreign oil traders and banks to create liquidity for them," said Kho Hui Meng, Asia chief of Vitol, the world's largest oil trader.
"When they say they want their own benchmark, it's quite dangerous because it means they want control. That's a wrong starting point. Then nobody will come."
Deeper reforms in China's tightly controlled oil import and refining sectors would be needed to lure the world's top producers, traders, refiners and investors, sources said.
China has only a few state picked buyers of crude. That may make investors reluctant to trade the crude contract for fear those buyers could have strong influence over pricing.
A duopoly of Sinopec Corp and PetroChina together handle 90 percent of China's imports, with the remainder split among a handful of other state energy traders.
Sinopec is Asia's largest refiner and processes some three quarters of the total imports. PetroChina trails behind with a still sizeable 15 percent. Most of China's small independent refiners are not permitted to buy crude.
While China's oil giants say they back the contract, they already use WTI and Brent to price imports and hedge risks. They may be reluctant in reality to change that and move into an untested contract.
"Unless the government has the drive to make it a compulsory element in pricing China's crude oil imports, then few people will be genuinely interested," said an executive with a European bank, who had been briefed by the SHFE on the new contract.
Despite concerns, traders and investors hope China will take a step toward opening its huge oil market with the contract.
"The long-term hope is to see this new crude futures leading to eventual and material loosening up of China's oil import control," said a trader with Mercuria Energy.
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