FEATURE: South Korean refiners in 'emergency' mode after earnings tumble
Seoul (Platts)--20Aug2012/513 am EDT/913 GMT
South Korean oil refiners are in "emergency" mode and tightening their
belts after their earnings tumbled in the quarter ended June 30, but with
uncertainty in the global outlook lingering and their home market saturated,
their hoped-for recovery in the current quarter is not guaranteed.
Industry analysts have forecast the refiners' earnings to improve in the
third quarter, driven by higher oil prices and fewer petroleum products coming
from European rivals, but the mounting pressure at home to cut domestic oil
prices could still hurt.
The country's biggest refiner, SK Innovation, which posted its first
quarterly loss in nine years for the most recent completed quarter, has
formed a team to monitor oil prices and currency rates. Both were blamed for
impacting its earnings in the second quarter and leading to the loss.
"We are monitoring more closely foreign exchanges rates, oil prices and
other variables," an SK Innovation company official said. The refiner is also
reviewing investment plans and looking for growth projects in the renewable
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SK Innovation and other South Korean refiners that import almost all of
their crude requirements are especially vulnerable to changes in crude prices
and the dollar-won exchange rate. SK Innovation suffered a Won 58.8 billion
($51.9 million) loss on currency exchange alone in the second quarter.
That loss combined with borrowing costs of Won 64.9 billion -- along
with inventory-related losses due to "a dramatic drop in global oil prices"
-- yielded the refiner's net loss of Won 305.3 billion in the April-June
period. The last time the refiner reported a quarterly loss was in Q2 2003.
SK Innovation also reported an operating loss of Won 105.3 billion in Q2
despite a 10% year-on-year rise in revenue to Won 18.9 trillion.
The company's mainstay petroleum segment posted an operating loss of Won
459.7 billion for Q2 despite its revenue increasing 21.2% to Won 14.56
trillion. The company described the operating loss in the petroleum segment
as "the worst in its 50-year history."
SK Innovation, which imported 115,000 b/d of crude from Iran, accounting
for 10% of its total imports, has halted Iranian crude purchases since late
June following US and EU sanctions.
It plans to resume Iranian imports in September, but volumes would be
reduced, which means the refiner will still have to make up the shortage from
alternative sources and the spot market at higher prices. Iranian crudes
typically cost less than those from Saudi Arabia and other Middle East
countries, the most likely alternative sources.
RESTRUCTURING, STREAMLINING, COST-CUTTING
The country's second-biggest refiner GS Caltex has also launched a team
tasked with coping with the emergency situation. The refiner has been
undertaking restructuring programs, streamlining organizations and laying off
"The company is seeking ways to boost its competitiveness to cope with
the unfavorable conditions," a GS Caltex official said.
GS Caltex's net profit plunged 79.2% year on year to Won 66.8 billion in
Q2, and it posted an operating loss of Won 249.2 billion as revenue dipped
2.4% to Won 11.8 trillion.
The company transferred its oil and gas development and power generation
segments to its sister company GS Energy in June to sharpen the
competitiveness of its mainstay refining and petrochemicals businesses.
No. 3 refiner S-Oil has taken more drastic measures to get through the
troubles, staging massive cost-saving campaigns. "We aim to cut costs as much
as Won 100 billion a year," an S-Oil official said.
S-Oil swung to a net loss of Won 161.9 billion in Q2 and an operating
loss of Won 161.2 billion, despite a 9.6% rise in revenue to Won 8.8 trillion.
The smallest refiner, Hyundai Oilbank, has also been under "emergency"
management since June. CEO Kwon Oh-Gap recently held an executive meeting in
which he called for cutting costs by 20% to offset tumbling margins.
Hyundai Oilbank, which imported about 70,000 b/d of crude from Iran in
2011, accounting for 18% of its total crude imports, has also halted crude
imports from Iran since late June, which could likewise affect its Q3
earnings. It plans to post its Q2 earnings results later this month.
PRESSURE ON DOMESTIC PRICES
In the face of shrinking liquidity due to poor performances, three of
the refiners have also issued bonds to secure cash. Last month, GS Caltex and
Hyundai Oilbank each sold bonds worth Won 300 billion, and S-Oil plans to
raise Won 500 billion by selling bonds.
Market analysts still say they expect the refiners' earnings to improve
in Q3 on higher oil prices and the cost-saving efforts.
"Refining margins are on the rise thanks to lower operating ratios of
European refiners and power shortages in India," said Park Yon-Joo, analyst
at KDB Daewoo Securities. "If this trend remains unchanged, South Korean
refiners are likely to post better-than-expected earnings."
But refiners are also under pressure to bring down domestic oil prices,
with the the government putting in place a set of measures to weaken the
"oligopoly" of the four refiners.
The government has set up discount fuel stations that receive fuel
directly from state-owned Korea National Oil Corp. at lower prices than the
refiners can import or produce it. There are now more than 600 discount
stations across the country, and the government has promised to turn 10% of
the nation's 13,000 fuel stations into discount centers by 2015.
In another bid to encourage competition, the country launched an online
spot market. As well, former Cabinet ministers, former corporate executives,
lawyers and civic leaders have moved to establish a "civic oil firm" to
counter the existing refiners, with the aim of providing oil products at
retail prices 20% lower than those offered by the refiners.
In the face of the growing challenges, refiners said they are looking
for new growth engines, other than fossil fuels, such as lithium-ion
batteries, solar modules and business related to other renewable sources.
--Charles Lee, email@example.com
--Edited by Wendy Wells, firstname.lastname@example.org