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Asia Petrochemicals Outlook 2015

A News & Data Feature

MTBE seen bearish as supply outweighs demand

March 2, 2015 -- By Genevieve Soong in Singapore

Asia's MTBE market is widely expected to remain under pressure this year, amid uncertainties over blending demand given the slowdown in economic growth across the region and the start-up of new plants, industry sources said last week.

The regional market could also no longer look to China as a main support, given that import demand from Asia's largest consumer has already taken a hit, following the rollout of a new consumption tax structure in September 2014.

Small independent gasoline blenders there have found themselves grappling with higher blending costs and widening losses after the government raised consumption taxes.

Together with lower domestic oil prices, some blenders have shut operations, leaving Asia awashed with MTBE supplies.

Independent blenders -- located in eastern Shandong and southern Guangdong provinces -- were also hard hit by China's crackdown on low-quality gasoline and gasoil between February and June.

Several of them, especially the bigger ones, have already suspended operations in early February while smaller oil blenders are still operating sporadically.

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Although they are not illegal entities, the blenders produce most of the low-quality oil products and transport fuels that do not meet the country's specifications.

Net MTBE importer China may even turn net exporter, as more capacity comes onstream.

Yantai Wanhua will start up a new 700,000 mt/year MTBE plant in Shandong during the third quarter of the year, and could potentially export 30,000 mt each month to Northeast Asia.

And with Asia's gasoline consumption unlikely to see any sharp increase given the slowdown in economic growth this year, the region may not be able to fully absorb the surplus supply.

Adding to this, the start-up of new refineries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, could potentially see traders divert more gasoline cargoes away from the Middle East into Asia -- curbing blending activities in the process.

"It [will be] easier to purchase the finished gasoline product instead of buying MTBE for blending purposes," a regional trader.

Seasonal demand to help Q2

Although the MTBE market is unlikely to see robust demand throughout this year, a MTBE seller said Asia will still continue to see small pockets of demand such pre-summer driving season stockbuild in the second quarter, spring refinery turnaround season, as well as temporary improvements in blending margins.

South Korea for one, is seeking more cargoes for April delivery -- after having bought around 10,000 mt for March delivery -- to offset shortfalls from the spring refinery turnaround season.

The country rarely imports MTBE.

And current low inventories in China could prompt Chinese blenders to return to the market for March-delivery cargoes.

According to a Chinese trade source, China is facing a shortage of MTBE as most plants were operating at low rates earlier because of weak blending demand and high feedstock costs, as well as production problems at Shandong Yuhuang Chemical's major 500,000 mt/year MTBE plant.

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