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Updated to Q4 2019
Toluene supply increased slightly early in the fourth quarter, as integrated aromatics producers were still extracting more toluene on squeezed downstream toluene disproportionation (TDP) production spreads – despite the slight improvement in benzene prices. However, availability was cut towards December 2019 on better internal demand usage by refineries on healthy gasoline blending margins.
Demand came from India mostly, on the back of tighter domestic supply there and wide margins for distributors to engage in back-to-back business activity. Southeast Asian demand was strong in October and November on replenishment activities from distributors, but it tapered off towards December as the monsoon season started. Chinese demand was weak throughout the whole quarter on sufficient domestic supply and poor distributor margins.
Patchy supply from several plants going into the fourth quarter – due to maintenance or some supply on allocation, be it in northwest or southern Europe – did not, as expected, majorly impact availability. For example, one supplier understood to have maintenance in early Q4 was able to offer toluene and xylenes from another of its plants. As expected, a central European maintenance in the fourth quarter did not significantly affect western European market balance.
Higher than expected blending demand persisted throughout Q4, keeping premiums over gasoline firm when they might have seasonally slipped for blending. Premiums for chemical products were softer. Downstream chemical demand was weak on a Q4 maintenance at BASF’s major downstream toluene diisocyanate (TDI) plant in Germany, carrying on from the automotive sector’s weak summertime performance. Demand from benzene was non-existent on paper: spreads were firmly negative (based on a 1.2 ratio) after a brief positive spell in 2019.
Supply lengthened during the fourth quarter amid healthy refinery rates as refiners prepared for the impending 2020 International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations on high-sulphur bunker fuels and amid imports from Asia. Expanding capacity in Asia has added to US supply, making it increasingly dependent on imports. Meanwhile, consumption was negatively impacted by depressed margins for toluene disproportionation units.
Demand decreased in the fourth quarter as a low season and a global economic slowdown hurt demand for downstream products. Lengthening supply put downward pressure on the market, pushing prices closer to the blend value, and discouraging producers from extracting it from the gasoline blending pool for sale in the chemical market. The economics for toluene disproportionation started off poor but improved in December as spot benzene prices moved up.
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