Global oil demand is set to suffer its largest slump in history this year due to COVID-19. Asia will also see a sharp downturn as oil demand in both China and India, the twin engines of growth in the region, has been slashed following the coronavirus outbreak.
The pandemic triggered a collapse in passenger transportation-related oil demand due to the enforcement of lockdowns, starting with China in late January and February and extending to the rest of the world in March and April, as countries around the world tried to mitigate the virus spread.
A catastrophic economic deterioration ensued almost immediately after the lockdowns. Many activities were curbed, not just in the tertiary sectors but also in manufacturing, affecting freight-related and industrial and feedstock-related oil demand.
S&P Global Platts Analytics expects Asian demand to drop by an unprecedented 1.7 million b/d in 2020, down from growth of 680,000 b/d in 2019 and posting the first decline since 2008, during the global financial crisis. But in 2021, led by demand recovery in China and India, Asia is expected to return to growth of 1.6 million b/d.
Globally, oil demand is expected to contract by 8.1 million b/d in 2020, with the more severe demand destruction already having happened in the second quarter. A rebound is then expected in 2021 with growth of 6.3 million b/d, but this will not wholly compensate for the decline this year: oil demand in 2021 will still be at least 1.8 million b/d lower than the 2019 level.
China bounces back
The Asia-Pacific region, fueled by growing populations, urbanization and rising disposable incomes, has seen its oil demand expand rapidly in recent years. The region accounted on average for about two-thirds of global oil product demand growth between 2011 and 2019.
The growth was unsurprisingly concentrated in the region’s most populous nations, China and India, which together accounted for more than half of global growth over the period. As a result of the strong growth, Asia’s share of global oil demand rose from 31% in 2010 to 36% in 2019. Nevertheless, 2020 will mark an interruption of the recent sustained rise in oil demand, as the coronavirus crisis leaves virtually no territory unscathed.
To paraphrase a popular saying, when China sneezes, the rest of Asia catches a cold. This is certainly the case for oil demand, as China now accounts for close to 40% of regional consumption, and contributed nearly 60% of demand growth in the region over 2011-19.
China was the first country to be hit by COVID-19, with its oil product demand plunging year-on-year by 1.2 million b/d in Q1 2020. But it recovered quickly with the lifting of lockdown and demand rose again by 670,000 b/d year on year in Q2.
China avoided a recession after its economy grew by 3.2% in Q2, following a 6.8% contraction in the first quarter. The country’s oil demand for the whole year is projected to fall by some 95,000 b/d or 0.6%, the smallest percentage decline among all major countries around the world.
The situation is not helped by falling demand in India, the other main center of growth in the region, where consumption plunged by 2.1 million b/d year on year in April, amid a nationwide lockdown. Demand recovered strongly in May and June, but still dropped by a massive 1.1 million b/d on average in Q2. July oil demand was lower month on month by 240,000 b/d, with consumption hit by localized lockdowns, coupled with the monsoon season and higher fuel prices.
Platts Analytics expects India’s oil demand recovery to slow in H2 due to localized lockdowns following an uptick in coronavirus cases, with demand for the whole year forecast to contract by 505,000 b/d versus 2019.
India is now the second-worst-hit nation in the world, behind only the US, and the worst in Asia, with over 4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, the number of new daily cases surging after the lifting of the nationwide lockdown in late May.
The rest of Asia is expected to register a decline in oil demand of 1.1 million b/d in 2020, with falls in both developed and emerging economies. Japan’s oil demand is expected to drop by 330,000 b/d this year, after the nation imposed a state of emergency that lasted until late May.
South Korea will not be spared either, despite its effective containment of the coronavirus outbreak, with a drop of 55,000 b/d. Southeast Asian oil demand is expected to drop by 520,000 b/d. The Philippines became the epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic in Southeast Asia as new daily cases surged in late July and early August, overtaking Indonesia in the total number of COVID-19 cases.
The Philippines’ economy contracted by 16.5% year on year during the second quarter, its deepest fall on record, while Indonesia reported its first economic contraction in more than Asia manufacturing PMI by country two decades after Q2 GDP shrank by 5.3% from a year earlier.
Transport fuels worst hit
In terms of demand for key products, only LPG is expected to grow this year. This growth will be driven by demand from propane dehydrogenation plants in China and ethylene plants in Asia as LPG becomes a cost-effective feedstock from time to time, coupled with residential consumption in India as the government gives out free LPG cylinder refills to lowincome households.
The pandemic has weighed heavily on demand for gasoline and jet fuel. Consumption of both products is tied to discretionary travel, which is severely curtailed by government measures such as quarantines, lockdowns, border closures, school and office closures and limited social gatherings, among others, as well as people changing their behavior due to fears of contracting the disease. Platts Analytics expects Asian kerosene/jet fuel and gasoline demand this year to drop by 970,000 b/d and 490,000 b/d, respectively.
According to Amap, by mid-August congestion in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak of China’s first wave of COVID-19, was back to normal levels seen over the last four years. Except for Beijing, where road traffic had still not recovered following a re-emergence of COVID-19 cases in the middle of June, major cities including Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen were all close to normal levels at the time of writing.
Data from Apple’s Mobility Index points to further improvement in driving activity among Asian countries outside China. Weighted against the baseline of January 13, 2020, the index indicates regional driving activity was back to 100% of that level as of mid-August. Activity in most countries has been on an upward trend since the April lows.
These mobility index trends are highly consistent with the latest developments in coronavirus lockdown measures. Almost all economies in the region either ended or severely relaxed restrictions by the end of May. June saw the index up by 23% from the May average, with the pace of improvement slowing to 13% in July. The mobility index has lagged in countries that have been less effective in dealing with the pandemic, such as India and the Philippines.
Gasoil/diesel is the more resilient of the main refined products because it is used in many different sectors, including energy-intensive industrial and manufacturing, in addition to transportation. In times of crisis, governments will do whatever it takes to keep economic activity going, such as the introduction of various stimulus packages in the region, which will help to support gasoil/diesel demand. As a result, the decline of Asian gasoil/diesel demand is expected to be less severe at 290,000 b/d.
China’s economy has clearly been on a V-shaped recovery path so far as headline macroeconomic numbers continued to come in strong and above expectations in recent months, as reflected by leading indicators such as the manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index. But most other Asian countries are still in the recovery stage, and even China is facing headwinds to further growth for the rest of the year due to the weakened global economy, the ongoing restriction of international travel and China’s own stimulus programs possibly running out of steam.
On a positive note, Asia is expected to bounce back in 2021, led by demand recovery in China and India, with growth pegged at 565,000 b/d and 535,000 b/d for the two countries, respectively. Barring any second-wave outbreaks, Asia’s oil demand is expected to grow by 1.6 million b/d in 2021 as economic activity continues to resume, but it will not be a return to business as usual for some sectors, particularly aviation.
For 2021, Platts Analytics still sees Asian kerosene/ jet fuel demand 590,000 b/d lower than that of 2019 whereas gasoline and gasoil/diesel demand is likely to surpass 2019 levels. Taking all products together, Asia’s oil demand in 2021 will still be 115,000 b/d lower compared to the level in 2019.
However, the recovery is not guaranteed. With COVID-19 cases continuing to increase globally as well as in Asia, and the resumption of international travel proceeds slowly, the prospects for 2021 demand recovery still face some headwinds and uncertainties.
The end of the summer driving season and falling temperatures will not only mark the start of the lower demand season – the onset of the northern hemisphere’s winter will also make it increasingly challenging to keep social distance for human activities in order to limit the spread of coronavirus.
The extent to which another serious wave of the COVID-19 pandemic can be avoided this winter remains unclear, even as the world looks ahead to a more lasting improvement in 2021.