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Analysis: India pushes diesel exports as economic woes create problem of plenty

Singapore — A slowdown in economic growth is increasingly taking a toll on India's domestic consumption of diesel, which has witnessed negative year-on-year growth for two consecutive months, creating a problem of plenty and prompting refiners to find buyers for their surplus cargoes in overseas markets.

Higher-than-usual monsoon rains and an extended period of slowing auto sales have added to the woes for diesel, which alone accounts for more than one-third of the overall oil product demand in India. Analysts believe that the domestic diesel demand would only witness a modest recovery in the last quarter of 2019, if at all.

"Diesel consumption has been dampened by a slowing economy, coupled with flooding across northern India," said Lim Jit Yang, adviser for oil markets at S&P Global Platts Analytics. "With diesel posting negative growth for the second consecutive month in September, it has pulled down the average growth in diesel consumption in the first nine months of this year."

India's demand for diesel fell 3.3% year on year to 5.83 million mt in September, and was down by 4.7% from the August consumption level of 6.12 million mt. For the January-September period, diesel demand rose by 1.8% over the year-ago period, latest provisional data from the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell showed.

India diesel demand

"The Indian economy is in the midst of a more-than-anticipated slowdown where weakness in the manufacturing sector and stress in the financial sector are feeding into each other," said Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at CRISIL, a unit of S&P Global.

"The global environment is not helping either. This slowdown is also atypical, in the sense that it is accompanied by the cleaning up of the financial sector -- something that's happening after almost 20 years. That has the potential to stretch the economic slowdown," he added.

"India's slump is deeper and more broad-based than we expected. The negative surprises of recent quarters will continue to weigh on private domestic demand. So while some recovery is likely, growth may remain below potential for some time," S&P Global Ratings said in a recent Asia-Pacific Quarterly research report.

MODEST RECOVERY LIKELY

Platts Analytics expects India's diesel demand to post a year-on-year increase of 50,000 b/d in the fourth quarter of 2019, partly due to a weak base last year. Demand will also find some support from bunker fuel switching to marine gasoil as the IMO 2020 deadline to switch to cleaner fuels draws closer.

"India's economic growth has continued to slow, while some key sectors, such as autos, remain notably negative," Lim of Platts Analytics said.

Sales of passenger Vehicles declined by 23.6% in April-September, from the year-ago period, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. Sales of commercial vehicles registered a decline of 23% year on year in the same period. Two-wheeler sales registered a year-on-year decline of 16.2% in April-September.

Higher taxes and insurance costs have dampened vehicle ownerships in India amid a slowing economy, but the pace of decline in auto sales has accelerated as a liquidity crunch in the shadow banking sector has dried up lines of credit to both auto dealers and potential car buyers, Lim added.

"Going forward, vehicle sales may take another hit closer to April 2020 as India is set to implement Euro 6 equivalent fuel specifications, just like what happened in China," he added.

"On the diesel supply side, refiners are expected to boost runs to meet seasonal demand in Q4 with lighter refinery turnarounds, as much upgrading works had been completed to get ready for IMO 2020 and the new mandate of tighter product specs in April," Lim said.

FINDING ANSWERS IN EXPORTS

As India's domestic demand slowed, refiners aimed to export more. Diesel exports in September were 3.48 million mt, up 23.6% year on year. It was 47.5% higher from the August export level, PPAC data showed.

"Higher diesel exports are mainly a reflection of weakness in domestic consumption. Domestic diesel demand has been quite weak due to several macroeconomic factors, exacerbated by higher-than-usual monsoon rains this year," said Senthil Kumaran, consultant at Facts Global Energy.

"We do not expect a sharp recovery in diesel demand, except for some seasonal increases. We can expect higher exports over the next few months as refiners return from maintenance and as they look to run at higher rates to maximize margins in the IMO environment," he added.

Most refiners have completed upgrading and maintenance works and were preparing for specification changes to meet the April deadline. "During the transition to Euro 6 products, there could be a possibility that some Euro 4 products get exported as they clear inventories," Kumaran added.

Platts Analytics expects India's diesel exports to be slightly higher in Q4 than the average of the first three quarters.

-- Sambit Mohanty, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Shashwat Pradhan, shashwat.pradhan@spglobal.com