UPDATE 2-Saras expects boost from Rosneft-Morgan Stanley deal
* Clarity on cooperation with Rosneft in trading in summer
* Q4 core earnings beat expectations
* Expects gradual improvement in refining margins in 2014
* Margins to be boosted by Libya, Iran
MILAN, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Italian refiner Saras said its business should get a boost if its partner Rosneft goes through with plans to buy part of the oil-trading operations of U.S. bank Morgan Stanley.
"It's an important development for Rosneft and a sign of their more proactive commercial approach. We'll have to wait till summer for clarity on how we'll move together," Saras Managing Director Dario Scaffardi said in a conference call on Friday.
Saras, controlled by the Italian Moratti family, is partly owned by Rosneft, Russia's state-controlled oil giant, with which it has a joint venture for trading and processing crude oil and selling refined products.
Last December, Rosneft agreed to buy much of Morgan Stanley's physical oil-trading business. Rosneft head Igor Sechin previously said the group was looking to raise its stake in Saras.
Italy's No. 2 refiner, whose main Sarroch refinery in Sardinia has a capacity of 300,000 barrels-per-day (bpd), is counting on Rosneft to help diversify feedstocks and boost profitability.
Earlier on Friday Saras said improvement in its refinery business helped its core earnings more than triple in the fourth quarter to 64.4 million euros from 17.6 million a year before. The result topped an analysts' consensus forecast provided by the company of 21 million euros.
"These were much better than we expected," a Milan-based analyst said.
Chairman Gian Marco Moratti said in the results statement the Saras expected a gradual improvement in refining margins this year as Libyan crude production recovers and sanctions against Iran are eased.
The Italian refiner imported sweet Iranian crude before the U.S-led embargo was imposed. It was also a big buyer of Libyan crude before conflict interrupted supplies there.
"We have done well at finding replacements with crudes from West Africa, the Caribbean area and North America," Scaffardi told analysts.
A recovery in economic growth and demand for petrol products will also bolster refining margins, Saras said.
European refining margins remain under pressure because of over-capacity and increased competition from the Middle East and Asia. Declining local demand and older, less-efficient plants in Europe has also held back growth.
The company also announced it had delayed planned maintenance at the gasoline production unit of the Sarroch plant from the first quarter to the third and fourth quarters of this year.
At 1635 GMT, Saras shares were up 1 percent, while the European oil and gas sector was up 0.7 percent.
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