Singapore — Bullish expectations at the end of 2018 for this year have largely proved to be unfounded as capacity increases in the first half of the year brought global paraxylene prices lower.
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Asian paraxylene prices fell 20.4% over the second quarter to $838/mt CFR on June 28. The fall coincided with Hengli Petrochemical starting operations at its integrated crude-to-petrochemical refining complex in Dalian.
The complex has two paraxylene production lines, each with a capacity of 2.25 million mt/year, which provide captive feedstock to three purified terephthalic acid lines, each with a capacity of 2.2 million mt/year.
Hengli is one of the world's largest producers of PTA, which goes into the making of polyester products. It has traditionally been a major buyer of spot paraxylene, but spot PX delivery to Dalian has drastically decreased since April.
The complex is yet to reach 100% run rate, but market participants said a large fall in spot paraxylene demand from Dalian following the startup and the subsequent ramp-up of Hengli's PX production has upset the Asian supply-demand balance.
Asian aromatics refining margins have also narrowed post the Hengli startup. The spread between CFR Taiwan/China paraxylene over feedstock CFR Japan naphtha physical sank to $279.88/mt on May 17, the lowest since March 30, 2015.
Asian PX-naphtha margins averaged $559.41/mt in the first quarter, but fell to $369.57/mt in Q2 due to ballooning Chinese domestic supply. The fall was exacerbated by a weak Asian benzene market in H1, forcing Northeast Asian aromatics producers to announce operating rate cuts from May.
In Japan, JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy announced a 20% reduction in PX production from May to August because of the narrow PX-naphtha margin, S&P Global Platts reported earlier.
Non-integrated aromatics' units running on isomer-grade mixed xylene feedstock were among the worst hit in Q2, said market participants, adding that a spread of $160-$180/mt between PX and isomer-MX was needed for a typical breakeven.
The spread between PX and isomer-MX hit a year-to-date low of $108.67/mt on June 26, down from $466.67/mt as recently as March 12.
Northeast Asian producers were also hit by the discontinuation of Iran sanctions waivers sharply increasing the feedstock costs for condensate splitter-based PX producers.
South Korea has been the largest buyer of Iranian South Pars Condensate (SPC) since 2016. It imported 12.74 million mt of SPC in 2017, accounting for 45% of the country's total condensate imports, customs data showed.
South Korea's Lotte Chemical was heard mulling lowering its operating rate at two PX units in Ulsan with a combined capacity of around 750,000 mt/year, if the PX-MX spread keeps narrowing.
Another Korean producer, Hyundai Cosmo, was considering adjusting its run rate at its 1.18 million mt/year PX plant in Daesan if the negative margins continue, Platts reported earlier.
Elsewhere, China's Qingdao Lidong Chemical cut rates at its plant in northern Shandong province by 30% from June as margins for paraxylene fell. The plant can produce 1 million mt/year of PX and about 270,000 mt/year of benzene.
Market participants expect PX-MX margins to fall further as the second half of the year looks set to bring further PX capacity expansions, such as the 1 million mt/year Sinopec Hainan No. 2 plant. The market also expects restarts at major MX-feed paraxylene production units, such as S-Oil's No.2 plant and Formosa's No.3 plant, in the third quarter.
In Southeast Asia, the start of operations at the Hengyi Brunei PMB integrated petrochemical complex is imminent after the company carried out its comprehensive test "smoothly," Platts reported earlier.
The first phase of the project expects to see crude processing capacity of 8 million mt/year, producing 1.5 million mt/year of paraxylene and 500,000 mt/year of benzene. In the second phase, the refinery will add 14 million mt/year of crude processing capacity and 2 million mt/year of paraxylene.
The plant will move paraxylene from Brunei to Hengyi's domestic downstream enterprises in Zhejiang, China, thereby reducing spot PX demand from Ningbo, said sources.
Spot demand from Ningbo is expected to fall further in the fourth quarter, coinciding with the expected startup of Zhejiang Petrochemical's 4 million mt/year PX capacity integrated petrochemical complex in Zhoushan.
PTA FUNDAMENTALS TO STAY STRONG ON LIMITED CAPACITY GROWTH
Downstream, H2 outlook for the Asian PTA market looks positive amid limited new capacity, despite uncertainties around demand from downstream polyester and textile sectors.
Active PTA capacity in Asia increased to 67.1 million mt/year by the end of June, after the restart of China's Fuhaichuang Petroleum and Petrochemical's 1.5 million mt/year No.3 line, South Korea's Hanwha General Chemical's 450,000 mt/year No.2 unit, and the commissioning of China's Sichuan Shengda Chemical's 1 million mt/year PTA plant in H1, Platts data showed.
China's Dushan Energy Ltd. (Xinfengming)'s new 2.2 million mt/year PTA plant is expected to come online in September. The plant will start up on schedule with at least two monthly term PX contracts for H2 already agreed, sources said.
Chinese PTA fundamentals are expected to stay strong, with balanced-to-tight supply. PTA prices may be pressured by the startup of Xinfengming and the restart of the Fuhaichuang plant after turnaround, sources said.
Startups for Yisheng Petrochemical's 3.3 million mt/year No.5 PTA line in Ningbo and Hengli Petrochemical's 2.5 million mt/year No. 4 PTA unit in Dalian are likely to be delayed to early 2020, sources said.
Xinfengming is one of the biggest polyester producers in China with an existing capacity of 3.7 million mt/year. The new PTA production will be used entirely for internal consumption.
In India, JBF Industries' 1.25 million mt/year PTA plant in Mangalore is unlikely to start in the foreseeable future, said market sources. Neighboring ONGC Mangalore Petrochemicals will continue to export PX volumes that were originally planned for JBF's new PTA plant.
Meanwhile, Indian Oil Corp.'s 553,000 mt/year PTA plant remains shut without any clear start-up timeline, a source close to the company said, following a planned six-week maintenance that began mid-February.
Therefore, Indian PTA buyers have been actively seeking PTA imports amid tight domestic supply.
Some Indian polyester manufacturers approached Northeast Asian PTA producers to negotiate term contract for supply in H2.
However, Asian demand sentiment is generally weak further down the polyester chain for H2, especially in China, due to the US-China trade tensions and slowing economic growth, sources said.
Nevertheless, the Chinese market is unlikely to see chronic PTA length in H2, sources said, as major PTA producers may adjust operations in response to the market.
PROMPT SUPPLY TIGHT IN EUROPE AS PRODUCERS CUT RUN RATES
European paraxylene spot activity is expected to be thin in H2, with spot prices tracking the Asian market.
As in H1, European producers may continue to limit production to contractual volumes only. Capacity reductions of around 30% could continue as producers cope with excess supply, said sources. However, spot cargoes were hard to find despite excess supply, European traders said.
European FOB ARA spot pricing is, on average, at a $100/mt discount to the Platts CFR Taiwan/China marker for forward laycans. However, a lack of transparency in the European spot market could create opportunities for traders to make higher margins on spot trades, thereby lifting prices for prompt cargoes.
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