* Sinopec's crude imports in 2013 estimated at near $150 bln
* Unipec to target price of $1/bbl discount to avg of benchmark crude
* May lead to Unipec hedging more, buying more Iraqi oil
By Chen Aizhu and Judy Hua
BEIJING, March 4 China's Sinopec Corp is seeking to buy crude oil at a lower price starting from April, trade sources said, as Asia's biggest refiner aims for savings after spending nearly $150 billion on crude shipments last year.
The move comes amid a push by Beijing to make bloated state behemoths more efficient and as Sinopec attempts to restructure to add value for investors. Two weeks ago Sinopec announced it will partially privatize its marketing arm.
Sinopec has asked its trading arm China International United Petroleum and Chemical Co. Ltd., or Unipec, to target a purchase price of $1 per barrel discount to the weighted average of benchmark crude Brent, Dubai and WTI on free-on-board basis, said three traders with direct knowledge of the matter.
Sinopec has previously tried to rein in crude costs but the latest plan is seen as more aggressive, with one company trader putting the cost-saving target at nearly $1.5 billion a year.
The move is unlikely to impact China's oil import volumes or weigh significantly on global oil prices that have drawn support for a good part of the past decade from the country's ballooning consumption.
But it may make Unipec, one of the world's biggest crude buying companies, tap the swaps and futures market actively to hedge costs and drive it to buy more cost-competitive crudes such as Iraqi Basra Light.
The new plan was mooted by Sinopec's refining department, which has over the past few years pressed Unipec to curb costs. But this time the plan has won the backing of Sinopec Chairman Fu Chengyu, two company traders said.
"The message from Sinopec's management is clear: to squeeze more profits from the markets, setting a higher standard for the Unipec traders," said a crude trader who is a former Sinopec procurement official.
State-owned Sinopec currently does not have a target price for its crude buying. It was not immediately clear how the new target price compares with last year's actual buying cost.
Sinopec and Unipec officials were not immediately available to comment.
Sinopec, formally known as China Petroleum & Chemical Corp , spent nearly $150 billion on its crude imports in 2013, according to Reuters estimates based on customs data. It is China's largest crude oil importer, taking up roughly two-thirds of its total imports that averaged 5.6 million barrels per day (bpd) last year.
Sinopec operates 35 refineries in China and procures most of the nearly 4 million bpd foreign crude via Unipec, but also uses state traders such as Sinochem Corp and Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp as import agents.
Despite signing up with Iraq for higher term imports, Unipec may be tempted to buy more Iraqi Basra oil from the spot market as the Middle Eastern exporter offers flexible contract terms and thus more room for discounts, said another trader.
There are hurdles, however, for Sinopec.
Unipec traders may not be motivated enough as the company does not provide incentive schemes that are as attractive as those offered by western trading houses, traders said.
"Nor would they have the stomach for speculation in the paper markets, as this is still a big taboo for state traders," said the third trader, who has close dealings with Unipec.
But Unipec's new chief Simon Chen will be under pressure to make the plans work. Chen, formerly head of the firm's crude trading, replaced Dai Zhaoming, previously a refinery manager and planning official as Unipec president around mid-2013.
Unipec was founded in 1993, initially as a joint venture of Sinopec and the then monopoly state-trader Sinochem. Since 2004, Sinopec took full control of the trading vehicle and has expanded it to a global operation with offices in London, Hong Kong, Singapore and New York. (Addtional reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in SINGAPORE; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)