Author Argus

In this episode, David Appleton, Esther Phua and Frances Goh discuss the current market situation in LPG in Asia-Pacific.

They will be focusing on how the Propane Dehydrogenation (PDH) segment is performing and what the potential impact of overcapacity will be in 2024.



David: Welcome back to "Global LPG Conversations," Argus's podcast in which we look at various supply demand and pricing dynamics around the world of LPG. Today, we are focusing on Asia Pacific, in particular China, and in particular within that, the petrochemical sector, which is obviously very important to the global balance and global pricing and so forth. So, today, I have with me senior editor Esther Phua, based in Singapore. Hello, Esther.

r: Hi David.

David: And we also have our editor, Frances Goh, also in Singapore. Hello, Frances.

Frances: Hello.

David: And these are our real experts on the Asian markets. I'm sure a lot of our listeners know these two ladies personally from various meetings and so forth. So, we thought we'd check back in about what's been going on in Asia and get an overview on that. So, let's get straight into it. So Esther, let's start with you. We are just getting to the end of the third quarter. Can you just characterize the pricing trend in Asia in both propane and butane at the moment? What's driving that?

Esther: Well, it is our view that the trend from here, at least for the next couple of months, is going up for sure. Mostly, we are seeing the impact of the OPEC cuts. And, you know, most of us would agree that we're seeing some effect to the extent of about two to four VLGC reduction of LPG volumes per month. You know, say, for example, from Southeast APC, we're seeing that kind of volume cutback in terms of the spot availability in the market, then that's making an impact. And we think that that is gonna continue till the end of this year.

Having talked about production and export cutback, cost-wise, we are seeing high freight rates. As everybody knows, we're kind of at the record high for freight rates now. And we're not expecting to see that freight rates easing off until at least maybe Q2 next year. And so, with less volume, high cost, we really don't see how prices will come down dramatically from here. And, you know, with lots of exports and production coming from the U.S. as well, you know, we do see a lot of flow on the waters, and that's another factor that will keep freight rates up. And not forgetting, you know, the sporadic Panama Canal delays that we see on the market that's got the, you know, bullish factor on the price as well. So, all that is kind of very consistent with, you know, price continuing to have the kind of support that we're seeing right now.

And just one more factor to add in on the demand side, China is still very much the driving force. We're still seeing and expecting...I mean, we've seen about four new PDH come up already in China in the first half of this year, and we're expecting another maybe six new PDH to come up for the rest of this year and another four next year. So I would say demand is pretty healthy from, you know, China just based on the number of projects that they have already scheduled coming on stream.

David: Brilliant. Okay, so if I'm just to summarize the way you characterize the market, we've obviously seen...Q2, we saw some really low prices, but things have picked up then with the high accrued price and the lack of supply or the lower supply due to OPEC, and then obviously freight is really becoming more important at the moment. And then you mentioned PDH.

Esther: That's right.

David: Yeah. You mentioned PDH continue to absorb volumes, and over the past, sort of, year, two years, we've seen a continuation in the growth of that sector, although it has obviously, as we've covered, I think, in publications extensively, been a situation with a lot of negative margins and so forth. So if I just move to you, Frances, like, what's the latest on that, and how is that going for PDH at the moment?

Frances: I guess for Chinese import volume for this year, it seems on target to reach 32 million tons compared to 25 million tons last year. All thanks to these new builds of PDH. So, and having looked at the cargo premiums that buyers had paid for this year, they were all in positive territory except for in August. So, I mean, based on simply import volumes and where the cash differentials has been trading so far this year, it actually bodes quite well for how Chinese demand has behaved. So, the Chinese PDH sector had done quite okay in Q2 when prices of propane took a dive after the winter season was over. And so margins turned positive when the import prices fell. So last month, we saw pretty high PDH run rates, and we believe that the Chinese importers has stocked up in Q2 when prices were low, and they were still utilizing those products as of last month. So far, the overall Chinese demand has been strong.

And then, of course, if we compare propane to propylene, the margins look very bad minus $100, $150 in discount in the red. However, if you would look at propane to polypropylene, I believe that the losses are far smaller. I mean, like we did a comparison last week, it was around minus $30, $50. So, for many of these Chinese PDH, they have this fully-integrated system, so it's not merely just a propane to propylene, but the full chain. So they're actually not doing as badly than what we see on paper. Yeah. So maybe the smaller PDH outfits were unfully integrated will suffer. But for the bigger mega projects, they're doing fine.

David: Okay. Understood. And then, as Esther mentioned just now about the...and yourself about the continuation, the rise in imports into China, I think one of the big questions that we see in the market is, is there gonna be this continuing over-capacity in 2024? Ultimately, it may be that those margins aren't quite so badly integrated, but they're still negative. And when you talk to the market every day, is there a big concern about this?

Frances: Yes, to everybody, there has been a big concern, but then, to put it very simply and crudely, sometimes we ask, you know, are we testing how deep the Chinese pockets are? I mean, from what we are hearing, right, it seems to be the PDH and crackers in Japan and Korea, Southeast Asia, and Pakistan that could be taking a hit. The projects there, right, seems to be delaying their new startups or discontinuing, or perhaps even selling out their crackers or units because they're not able to compete with Chinese PDH and the new mega crackers who are now selling into markets that previously sold into Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. You know, I mean, actually, such over-capacity talk has been about since three years ago, right, when we hear of all these projects coming on stream, but it has yet to happen.

David: Okay, understand. So, basically, in a way, the answer is yes, lots of concern, but this is concern that we've seen over a number of years, and there's still growth in this market.

Frances: Yes.

David: Okay, and then if I can move just to finish up, Esther, just in terms of the pricing and so forth, last year we did a podcast, which focused on the Argus CFR Ningbo Price or Argus Ningbo Index, ANI. And we talked about why we launched that and the rationale between having an alternative tool to the obviously widely used AFEI Argus Far East Index. Are there any updates on that price?

Esther: Well, I have to say that since that last podcast I did with you, and we talked about the reasons and the rationale for the new index, we've done a lot of work with the support from the market. We have gone out and consulted and basically made amendments and updates to the existing contract, the Argus Ningbo Contract, with the support and help from the market participants. We were able to, you know, finish the latest version of the Argus Ningbo Contract version 3.0, which we just, you know, made available to the market two weeks ago. And it is published and available on our website to anyone who wishes to download it. We believe that the contract is relevant, and it is, you know, relevant to how the Chinese market is trading today.

As a result, we also have seen a few key Chinese importers and stakeholders indicating for the Argus Ningbo Index as part of the pricing formula in the term and spot tenders. And we have confirmed sellers who have made offers based on the Argus Ningbo Index. So, we believe that it is a matter of time that this index will be utilized, we hope. And also just to add that the ANI, the Argus Ningbo Index, is already listed as a paper swap with ICE exchange. And yeah, so we are very hopeful that, slowly but surely, the index and the contract will eventually get used in the near future. And I would just like to add, we have the Argus LPG Forum coming up in November 2nd in Shanghai. And we'll take the chance at the time to speak more about the index and the contract directly to our Chinese customers and buyers. Yeah.

David: Brilliant. Thanks very much, Esther, for that. And yeah, just to note on that forum, so just to recap, that is the 2nd of November in Shanghai. That is a completely free event. So anybody who wants to come along, I expect, will have very good turnouts to that, from both the local market and also from the international market as well. So it'd be great to see as many of our listeners there, and we'll be happy to catch up with you in person.

Esther: Yes, hopefully

David: Great. Okay, well, thank you very much. We'll stop there today, so, and I'm sure we'll check in again on the latest on the Asian market. So bye-bye to Esther and Frances, and we'll see you again soon.

Esther: Thanks, David.