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Strong olefins margin, weak gasoline lead to overhang in Asia

By Michelle Kim, Wen Yin Wong and Marcus Pang in Singapore

April 04, 2014 - Profitable Olefin Margins in Q1 2014

Attractive margins for olefins and a weak gasoline market in Asia, triggered an overhang in the Asian aromatics market in the first quarter of this year.

"The bullish ethylene and propylene markets prompted refiners to keep high operating rates at naphtha splitters so as to produce more light naphtha for steam crackers [for producing ethylene and propylene]," a trader said.

Analysis continues below...

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Asian ethylene and propylene margins against naphtha remained in positive territory through the first quarter, data showed.

The FOB Korea weekly ethylene margin hit an year-to-date high of $185/mt on January 17, and FOB Korea propylene margin also touched an year-to-date high of $263.63/mt on the same day, Platts data showed.

The FOB Korea weekly ethylene margin was assessed at $1,375/mt March 28 and FOB Korea propylene margin was assessed at $1,325/mt March 31.

The Asian ethylene market found support in the first quarter from lack of supply from the Middle East and massive turnarounds at regional plants, according to market sources.

Aromatics languish on over supply

The naphtha splitters refine full-range naphtha into light and heavy naphtha in a 55:45 ratio.

As splitter operating rates were increased to produce more light naphtha, volume of heavy naphtha being produced also increased.

But, there was not enough consumption of heavy naphtha as demand for most aromatics - which are produced from heavy naphtha - remained lackluster in Asia in the first quarter.

"In an effort to consume the heavy naphtha stocks, many refiners kept run rates at reformers at high levels [producing more aromatics and] ... in turn, [putting] pressure on aromatic prices," the trader said.

Run rates at reformers were also kept high to produce benzene, which found strong support during the first quarter from strong demand from the US.

Asian isomer-grade mixed xylene, paraxylene and toluene prices fell during the quarter.

Isomer-MX FOB Korea W2

Isomer-MX prices were down 10.9% from $1,201/mt FOB Korea on January 2 to $1,070.50/mt FOB Korea March 31, while Asian PX and toluene prices were down 12.8% and 9.3% respectively.

Benzene also fell, but relatively less -- down 6.6% over the period.

Benzene FOB Korea W2

Another factor pulling down aromatics was weak gasoline demand which meant reformate was being used to produce aromatics instead of being blendedwith gasoline, according to market sources.

This further increased aromatics supply in Asia in the first quarter. "A bearish gasoline market in Asia led refiners to [produce] more reformate to [be used for producing aromatics] rather than to blend gasoline," a trader said.

Bearish gasoline demand had resulted in high reformate inventory at refineries. But as refiners can still make a slight profit by "producing aromatics" from the reformate instead of gasoline, "they are still running aromatics plants at high rates," a refinery source said.

Next article: Asian natural rubber prices fall 30% on year on glut in Chinese supply

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