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Asian oil importers on alert for ripples from tanker attacks

Gold price climbs to four-month high as investors seek safe haven assets

TOKYO/SEOUL -- Countries in Asia are paying close attention to risks related to the recent attacks near the Hormuz Strait on two oil tankers headed for Thailand and Singapore.

The Strait of Hormuz is the world's most important energy passageway for Asian economies, which are largely net importers of crude oil. Japan imports around 80% of its oil from the Middle East, while Indonesia has become a net importer of crude despite producing oil in its territory.

"We'll keep a close and concerned eye on this matter," said Hiroshige Seko, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, on Friday, stressing that he would discuss the matter at the Group of 20 meeting of energy ministers that will be held on Saturday in Japan.

South Korea's ministry of trade, industry and energy said that it hosted a meeting with oil refineries today to check on their situations. Oil refiners SK Energy, GS Caltex, S-Oil and Hyundai Oilbank attended the meeting along with state-run Korea National Oil Corp. and Korea Gas Corp.

The ministry said that the companies had seen no direct impact from the tanker incidents. The Seoul government and the local oil industry have agreed to monitor developments relating to the attack carefully and ensure safety.

The government said that it had a contingency plan in place in case of any emergency. The country has stocks of oil, petrochemical products and gas to cope with any political changes in the Middle East.

The government of Thailand meanwhile said it had been monitoring the situation in the Middle East closely and was working with PTT, the country's oil and gas conglomerate, in order to ensure it has ample oil and gas supply for the coming months despite disruptions to global oil and gas logistics from the attack.

Siri Jirapongphan, energy minister, said the Thai government was ensuring that PTT and other oil refineries, as well as oil retailers, had stocked up on crude oil, adding that the energy ministry would closely monitor and manage the use of oil stocks in order prevent any local disruption.

"We have ample oil inventories that can serve domestic demand for around 50 days," said Siri.

Indonesian oil and gas group Pertamina on Thursday launched a trial run for what it calls the B30 program, in which 30% of a diesel mix produced by the company comes from biodiesel originating from palm oil. This follows the implementation of its B20 policy in September last year, under which all diesel mixes sold in the country must consist of 20% biodiesel. Indonesia is the world's largest producer of palm oil.

The government has enforced the program to curb imports amid a widening current-account deficit and the fall in value of the rupiah. A Pertamina spokesperson on Friday said both the B20 and B30 programs were part of the country's efforts to increase energy security in the face of external risks -- including the recent attacks on oil tankers.

Malaysia, in a statement by the foreign ministry, condemned the "destructive acts on civilian commercial ships" but said it was "premature" to name perpetrators.

The Hormuz Strait incident has had a limited impact on oil prices due to a supply glut in the U.S., but there is still a possibility that oil prices will rise.

West Texas Intermediate, the global oil benchmark, was at $52.2 per barrel on Friday, almost flat from the previous day's close. On Thursday the price rose to $52.28, up 2.22% from Wednesday's close after the attack was reported.

Experts estimate that the glut in the U.S. market has absorbed the impact. "There is a gap between oil supply and demand in the American market and that limited the price hikes," said Tatsufumi Okoshi, senior economist at Nomura Securities.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported on Wednesday that American crude oil inventories increased by 2.1 million barrels in the week to June 7. The International Energy Agency is expected to lower the global oil demand outlook, due for publication on Friday.

Tsao Mihn, president of Formosa Petrochemical, the petrochemical unit of Taiwan's largest industrial conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group, told the Nikkei Asian Review that the oil tankers attack in the Gulf of Oman appeared to have been an isolated political incident and he did not think the oil price could continue to rise as a result of it.

"The oil price could be up temporarily because of political unrest and it could also be up and down because of any of President [Donald] Trump's words," said Tsao. "Now we are more concerned about the whole world's economic outlook and the uncertainties ahead, rather than some fluctuation brought by one event."

However, the price of gold was close to $1,357 per ounce during Friday's off-hours trading, up 1% from the previous day's close, and representing a nearly four-month high. Investors are seeking safe haven assets as tensions between Iran and the U.S. are likely to intensify and geopolitical risks are more pronounced, according to gold market analyst Itsuo Toshima. The U.S. has alleged that Iran is responsible for the attacks on the tankers.

In equity markets, shares of Japanese oil exploration and production companies rose on Friday. The share price of JXTG Holdings rose 1.5% in morning trading to 513.9 yen. Idemitsu Kosan also rose 2% on Friday from the previous day's close.

Shares in shipping companies stumbled meanwhile as investors showed their concerns about geopolitical risks. Shares of NYK Group, Japan's largest shipping company, fell 1.73% from the previous day. Shares in Mitsui O.S.K. Lines dipped 0.42%.

Amid concerns over shipping risks near the Strait of Hormuz, major Japanese insurance companies are also raising their premiums.

Experts say that these moves could lead to increased oil shipping costs and could eventually result in price rises of petroleum products.

Nikkei staff writers Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok, Cheng Ting-Fang in Taipei and Erwida Maulia in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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