After proving to be a thorn in the side of the planned merger between Japanese refiners Idemitsu and Showa Shell Sekiyu since 2016, the family of Idemitsu’s founder Sazo Idemitsu has now acquiesced to the wishes of Idemitsu’s board and dropped its opposition to the merger. This paves the way for the latest merger in the Japanese refining business, as the industry – once a global titan – prepares for a future of shrinking domestic demand.
The merger was first announced in 2016, the first planned merger in Japanese refining since an initial wave of consolidation in the 2000s. But opposition from the Idemitsu founding family – which hold a considerable stake in the company – meant that the merger remains uncompleted, while the Nippon Oil and Mitsubishi Oil and the JX Holdings and TonenGeneral mergers sped ahead, even though they were announced later. The completion of the Idemitsu-Showa Shell Sekiyu merger will slash the number of Japanese refiners from six to three, a trend backed by the Japanese government, which sees consolidation as the only way forward to optimise the industry. Although Idemitsu – Japan’s second-largest refiner – claims that no refineries will be closed post-merger, it seems inevitable; Japanese fuel demand peaked in the late 2000s and its decline is accelerating. From a peak of 4.6 mmb/d in refining capacity, consolidation means that Japanese capacity could halve to 2.3 mmb/d by 2030 – mainly by shuttering the country’s aging simple refineries. While this will increase Japan’s fuel product import bill, the Japanese government seems fine with this, given that the downstream companies will merely be swapping crude imports for product imports.
But back to the Idemitsu-Showa Shell Sekiyu merger. There were legitimate concerns from the Idemitsu family regarding the logic of the merger. They argued that cultural differences between the management of both companies and geopolitical factors – Idemitsu is a major importer of Iranian crude, while Saudi Aramco owns part of Showa Shell – were insurmountable. With the US now re-imposing sanctions on Iran crude, the latter has once again come into prominence. But even when Iranian crude returned to the world market in 2016, the Idemitsu family went as far as to increase its stake in the firm – in response to a strategic share dilution designed to reduce their veto power – to derail the merger. But the show went on despite their opposition – Idemitsu bought a 33% stake in Showa Shell in 2016, and since 2017 deepened ties through an exchange of directors and combining operations. A merger was always inevitable, and now even the Idemitsu clan has seen that. Even the family’s most strident voice, Shosuke Idemitsu, has fallen, agreeing on the condition that the new company ‘respect the values and principles that have guided Idemitsu since 1917.’ Two seats for the family on the board of the combined company have also been demanded.
The new merged company could be formed as early as the end of 2018. Since both firms are operating on a level just short of a full-merger, it seems almost a formality. But it is necessary. The JX-TonenGeneral merger was completed last April, now the country’s dominant player. Idemitsu-Showa Shell may form 30% of the domestic fuels market, but that is 30% of a shrinking market. As its rivals speed ahead, Idemitsu-Showa Shell can now begin to catch up.
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When it was first announced in 2012, there was scepticism about whether or not Petronas’ RAPID refinery in Johor was destined for reality or cancellation. It came at a time when the refining industry saw multiple ambitious, sometimes unpractical, projects announced. At that point, Petronas – though one of the most respected state oil firms – was still seen as more of an upstream player internationally. Its downstream forays were largely confined to its home base Malaysia and specialty chemicals, as well as a surprising venture into South African through Engen. Its refineries, too, were relatively small. So the announcement that Petronas was planning essentially, its own Jamnagar, promoted some pessimism. Could it succeed?
It has. The RAPID refinery – part of a larger plan to turn the Pengerang district in southern Johor into an oil refining and storage hub capitalising on linkages with Singapore – received its first cargo of crude oil for testing in September 2018. Mechanical completion was achieved on November 29 and all critical units have begun commissioning ahead of the expected firing up of RAPID’s 300 kb/d CDU later this month. A second cargo of 2 million barrels of Saudi crude arrived at RAPID last week. It seems like it’s all systems go for RAPID. But it wasn’t always so clear cut. Financing difficulties – and the 2015 crude oil price crash – put the US$27 billion project on shaky ground for a while, and it was only when Saudi Aramco swooped in to purchase a US$7 billion stake in the project that it started coalescing. Petronas had been courting Aramco since the start of the project, mainly as a crude provider, but having the Saudi giant on board was the final step towards FID. It guaranteed a stable supply of crude for Petronas; and for Aramco, RAPID gave it a foothold in a major global refining hub area as part of its strategy to expand downstream.
But RAPID will be entering into a market quite different than when it was first announced. In 2012, demand for fuel products was concentrated on light distillates; in 2019, that focus has changed. Impending new International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations are requiring shippers to switch from burning cheap (and dirty) fuel oil to using cleaner middle distillate gasoils. This plays well into complex refineries like RAPID, specialising in cracking heavy and medium Arabian crude into valuable products. But the issue is that Asia and the rest of the world is currently swamped with gasoline. A whole host of new Asian refineries – the latest being the 200 kb/d Nghi Son in Vietnam – have contributed to growing volumes of gasoline with no home in Asia. Gasoline refining margins in Singapore have taken a hit, falling into negative territory for the first time in seven years. Adding RAPID to the equation places more pressure on gasoline margins, even though margins for middle distillates are still very healthy. And with three other large Asian refinery projects scheduled to come online in 2019 – one in Brunei and two in China – that glut will only grow.
The safety valve for RAPID (and indeed the other refineries due this year) is that they have been planned with deep petrochemicals integration, using naphtha produced from the refinery portion. RAPID itself is planned to have capacity of 3 million tpa of ethylene, propylene and other olefins – still a lucrative market that justifies the mega-investment. But it will be at least two years before RAPID’s petrochemicals portion will be ready to start up, and when it does, it’ll face the same set of challenging circumstances as refineries like Hengli’s 400 kb/d Dalian Changxing plant also bring online their petchem operations. But that is a problem for the future and for now, RAPID is first out of the gate into reality. It won’t be entering in a bonanza fuels market as predicted in 2012, but there is still space in the market for RAPID – and a few other like in – at least for now.
RAPID Refinery Factsheet:
Tyre market in Bangladesh is forecasted to grow at over 9% until 2020 on the back of growth in automobile sales, advancements in public infrastructure, and development-seeking government policies.
The government has emphasized on the road infrastructure of the country, which has been instrumental in driving vehicle sales in the country.
The tyre market reached Tk 4,750 crore last year, up from about Tk 4,000 crore in 2017, according to market insiders.
The commercial vehicle tyre segment dominates this industry with around 80% of the market share. At least 1.5 lakh pieces of tyres in the segment were sold in 2018.
In the commercial vehicle tyre segment, the MRF's market share is 30%. Apollo controls 5% of the segment, Birla 10%, CEAT 3%, and Hankook 1%. The rest 51% is controlled by non-branded Chinese tyres.
However, Bangladesh mostly lacks in tyre manufacturing setups, which leads to tyre imports from other countries as the only feasible option to meet the demand. The company largely imports tyre from China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan.
Automobile and tyre sales in Bangladesh are expected to grow with the rising in purchasing power of people as well as growing investments and joint ventures of foreign market players. The country might become the exporting destination for global tyre manufacturers.
Several global tyre giants have also expressed interest in making significant investments by setting up their manufacturing units in the country.
This reflects an opportunity for local companies to set up an indigenous manufacturing base in Bangladesh and also enables foreign players to set up their localized production facilities to capture a significant market.
It can be said that, the rise in automobile sales, improvement in public infrastructure, and growth in purchasing power to drive the tyre market over the next five years.
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 14 January 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$51/b
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