Ether cryptocurrency, a victim of blockchain success

Ether has slid 20 percent in value, taking a further hit from comments made by Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, which powers the cryptocurrency. (AFP)
Updated 23 September 2018
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Ether cryptocurrency, a victim of blockchain success

  • Ether has slid 20 percent in value, taking a further hit from comments made by Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, which powers the cryptocurrency
  • Buterin has previously spoken about ‘scalability’ probably being the number one challenge facing the sector

LONDON: For all the attention afforded bitcoin, it is its rival ether that is hitting the headlines, with the popularity of its blockchain technology Ethereum driving concerns that have sent investors fleeing.
Virtual currencies have struggled across the board this month after US investment banking giant Goldman Sachs pulled back from its plans to open a trading desk for bitcoin, damaging sentiment for the entire sector.
Ether has slid 20 percent in value, taking a further hit from comments made by Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, which powers the cryptocurrency.
Earlier this month, the 24-year-old Russian-Canadian programmer told Bloomberg that “the (Ethereum) blockchain space is getting to the point where there’s a ceiling in sight.”
A blockchain is essentially a ledger for recording transactions, which is both open to all who use it but extremely secure, and has enabled the rise of cryptocurrency trading.
A multimillionaire thanks to Ethereum, Buterin has previously spoken about “scalability” probably being the number one challenge facing the sector.
Unlike bitcoin’s blockchain, which carries out transactions involving only the cryptocurrency, Ethereum can host different virtual tokens and also enable certain digital applications and so-called smart contracts.
Such programs can for example automatically trigger payments without the use of a third party when pre-defined conditions are met, such as winning a sports bet.
Ethereum is also home to two-thirds of initial coin offerings (ICOs), essentially a fundraising tool for companies which issue the tokens against cryptocurrencies much like issuing shares on a stock market.
An explosion in the number of ICOs in 2017, two years after ether’s launch, resulted in the cryptocurrency’s price rocketing 160 times in value over a 12-month period.
The craze surrounding ICOs has also caused congestion to Ethereum’s network, contributing to ether’s price collapse beginning in January.
“The more it’s demanded, the more likely you are to clog the network,” said Jerome de Tychey, president of Asseth, an association promoting the use of Ethereum.
A clogged Ethereum results in higher charges for clients wanting their transactions prioritized — and average fees briefly hit a record $5.50 in July according to bitinfocharts.com. Generally, though, fees fluctuate around a few cents.
Delays to a planned overhaul of Ethereum’s scalability have meanwhile likely discouraged some investors from using the blockchain, according to de Tychey.
Naeem Aslam, an analyst at traders Think Markets, said Buterin “isn’t doing the job which he is supposed to do” — that is, to make companies “trust the technology and provide them (with) what they need.”
The plunge in the value of ether has indeed been dramatic. Since the start of August, it has lost more than half its value.
Going back to May, the drop is 75 percent, with the total value of the virtual currency tumbling to about $23 billion from $82.5 billion.
Yet the huge drop has only taken ether back to its value of a little over a year ago, at some $220 for one token.
Another factor weighing on ether’s price has been the success of ICOs. The companies which raised funding in ether with ICOs now need to sell to them to cover operating expenses in fiat currencies.
According to sector analysts Diar the companies that raised funding before the price boom at the end of last year have sold off some 20 percent of their ether holdings since April, weighing on its price.


Asia’s refining profits slump as Mideast exports surge

Updated 23 February 2019
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Asia’s refining profits slump as Mideast exports surge

  • Since 2006, the Asia-Pacific has been the world’s biggest oil-consuming region, led by industrial users South Korea and Japan along with rising powerhouses China and India
  • However, overbuilding of refineries and sluggish demand growth have caused a jump in fuel exports from these demand hubs

SINGAPORE: Asia’s biggest oil consumers are flooding the region with fuel as refining output is exceeding consumption amid a slowdown in demand growth, pressuring industry profits.
Since 2006, the Asia-Pacific has been the world’s biggest oil-consuming region, led by industrial users South Korea and Japan along with rising powerhouses China and India.
Yet overbuilding of refineries and sluggish demand growth have caused a jump in fuel exports from these demand hubs.
Compounding the supply overhang, fuel exports from the Middle East, which BP data shows added more than 1 million barrels per day (bpd) of refining capacity from 2013 to 2017, have doubled since 2014 to around 55 million tons, according to Refinitiv.
Car sales in China, the world’s second-biggest oil user, fell for the first time on record last year, and early 2019 sales also remain weak, suggesting a slowdown in gasoline demand.
For diesel, China National Petroleum Corp. in January said that it expected demand to fall by 1.1 percent in 2019. That would be China’s first annual demand decline for a major fuel since its industrial ascent started in 1990.
The surge in fuel exports combined with a 25 percent jump in crude oil prices so far this year has collapsed Singapore refinery margins, the Asian benchmark, from more than $11 per barrel in mid-2017 to just over $2.
Combine the slumping margins with labor costs and taxes and many Asian refineries now struggle to make money.
The squeezed margins have pummelled the stocks of most major Asian petroleum companies, such as Japan’s refiners JXTG Holdings Inc. or Idemitsu Kosan, South Korea’s top oil processor SK Innovation, Asia’s top oil refiner China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. and Indian Oil Corp., with some companies dropping by about 40 percent over the past year. Jeff Brown, president of energy consultancy FGE, said the surge in exports and resulting oversupply were a “big problem” for the industry.
“The pressure on refinery margins is a case of death by a thousand cuts ... Refinery upgrades throughout the region are bumping up against softening demand growth,” he said.
The profit slump follows a surge in fuel exports from China, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Refinitiv shipping data shows fuel exports from those countries have risen threefold since 2014, to a record of around 15 million tons in January.
The biggest jump in exports has come from China, where refiners are selling off record amounts of excess fuel into Asia.
“There is a risk for Asian market turmoil if (China’s fuel) export capacity remains at the current level or grows further,” said Noriaki Sakai, chief executive officer at Idemitsu Kosan during a news conference last week.
But Japanese and South Korean fuel exports have also risen as demand at home falls amid mature industry and a shrinking population. Japan’s 2019 oil demand will drop by 0.1 percent from 2018, while South Korea’s will remain flat, according to forecasts from Energy Aspects.
In Japan, oil imports have been falling steadily for years, yet its refiners produce more fuel than its industry can absorb. The situation is similar in South Korea, the world’s fifth-biggest refiner by capacity, according to data from BP.
Cho Sang-bum, an official at the Korea Petroleum Association, which represents South Korean refiners, said the surging exports had “triggered a gasoline glut.”
That glut caused negative gasoline margins in January.