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Analysis: China's faltering car sales crimp petrochemical, gasoline demand

Singapore — Chinese gasoline and petrochemical demand growth is under pressure from decelerating automobile sales that are expected to worsen this year, exacerbated by a slowing economy, and the currency and trade dispute with the US.

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The slowdown threatens the margins of key petrochemical producers in China and other parts of Asia, and paves the way for a growing glut of gasoline supplies flooding regional markets, weighing down on prices and refining margins.

Chinese motor vehicle sales in the first half of 2019 plunged 14.35% year on year to 12.18 million units, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics, reigniting worries of a second consecutive year of falling sales.

China's wholesale car sales dropped 7.8% on year to 1.73 million units in June, despite retailers offering discounts of up to 30% to destock inventories of cars with old emissions standards. Sales are expected to fall 11% on year in 2019, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.

"As such, we estimate passenger vehicle wholesales will continue dropping by 13% year on year in 3Q19. The decline will likely ameliorate to -2.7% year on year in 4Q19 on the back of year-end discount offered by retailers," Platts Analytics said in its latest China oil market forecast.

"There is no sign of recovery in the Chinese car industry anytime soon amid the US-China trade war, which has extended into the currency war now," Eun Young Lee, equity research vice president, at DBS said.

The International Energy Agency said that while worldwide car sales could drop by 5% this year as the economy slows, the decline will be particularly pronounced in China, which represents a third of global car sales.

The bleak outlook for Chinese car manufacturers is having a direct impact on gasoline and petrochemical demand.

BEARISH ABS AND SBR MARKETS

"Together with a strong increase in production capacity and a general slowdown in economic activity, the sharp drop in automobile sales explains part of the difficulties currently experienced by the petrochemical sector," the IEA said in its latest monthly report.

It added that carmakers use a lot of plastic and petrochemical products, and petrochemical feedstock demand has been particularly weak in recent months, with global naphtha demand under pressure since March and LPG/ethane demand barely recovering to last year's levels.

There is a bearish impact on Asian acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) and styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) markets, both of which are used for car manufacturing, and prices have already fallen.

ABS prices hit a three-year low of $1,370/mt CFR China August 7, while prices for SBR for the 1502 grade -- commonly used in passenger vehicle tires -- also dipped to an eight-month low of $1,290/mt CFR SEA August 8, according to Platts assessments.

Should car sales dip further, ABS demand over one year could shrink by around 768,000 mt, market sources said.

Some SBR producers, such as China's Zhejiang Transfar Chemicals Group, China Shenhua Energy Co. Ltd. and Thailand's Bangkok Synthetic Co., have already announced plant maintenance shutdowns in response to the negative margins.

With July's SBR margins averaging minus $105.53/mt, basis CFR China, several SBR sources have also warned of more cuts in following months should negative margins continue.

GASOLINE EXPORTS SHRINK

Lower car sales are also stifling gasoline demand growth and worsening the already persistent domestic oversupply in China, prompting higher exports in coming months.

"China's gasoline demand growth has been on a slow decline. Year-on-year growth for 2019 is expected to be around 75,000 b/d, down 29% from the previous year," Anthony Tso, senior analyst at Platts Analytics, said.

"Dampened domestic demand may become more apparent in 2H19, which will encourage more gasoline exports, up to 400,000 b/d (approx. 1.4 million mt) on average for the rest of the year," he added.

China's gasoline exports in May and June were at a relatively low level of 848,000 mt and 998,000 mt, respectively, but analysts said exports in July and August could top 1 million mt/month, with at least one Singapore-based analyst projecting exports of 1.5 million mt.

Oil companies only consumed 42.7%, or 6.78 million mt, of their year-to-date gasoline export quotas in H1, leaving at least 9.11 million mt quota available for rest of the year, Platts data showed.

Fundamentals in the Chinese domestic gasoline market have been weak as large-scale private refineries, like the 400,000-b/d Hengli Petrochemical (Dalian) Refinery have flooded the market, even as China works on a long-term shift away from internal combustion engine or ICE vehicles to electric vehicles.

China's total gasoline, gasoil and jet fuel exports in the first half of 2019 rose 11.1% year on year to 27.21 million mt, accounting for 48.6% of the 55.994 million mt export quota awarded for the year, customs data showed.

-- Michelle Kim, michelle.kim@spglobal.com

-- Mark Tan, mark.tan@spglobal.com

-- Elizabeth Low, elizabeth.low@spglobal.com

-- Regina Sher, regina.sher@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Manish Parashar, manishparashar@spglobal.com