Stormy weather ahead for chemicals

Four serious challenges are on the horizon for the global petrochemical industry as I describe in my latest analysis for ICIS Chemical Business and in a podcast interview with Will Beacham of ICIS.

The first is the growing risk of recession, with key markets such as autos, electronics and housing all showing signs of major weakness. Central banks are already talking up the potential for further stimulus, less than a year after they had tried to claim victory for their post-Crisis policies.

Second is oil market volatility, where prices raced up in the first half of last year, only to then collapse from $85/bbl to $50/bbl by Christmas, before rallying again this year. The issue is that major structural change is now underway, with US and Russian production increasing at Saudi Arabia’s expense.

Third, there is the unsettling impact of geo-politics and trade wars. The US-China trade war has set alarm bells ringing around the world, whilst the Brexit arguments between the UK and European Union are another sign that the age of globalisation is behind us, with potentially major implications for today’s supply chains.

And then there is the industry’s own, very specific challenge, shown in the chart. Based on innovative trade data analysis by Trade Data Monitor, it highlights the dramatic impact of the new US shale gas-based cracker investments on global trade in petrochemicals.

The idea is to capture the full effect of the new ethylene production across the key derivatives – polyethylene, PVC, styrene, EDC, vinyl acetate, ethyl benzene, ethylene glycol – based on their ethylene content. Even with next year’s planned new US ethylene terminal, the derivatives will still be the cheapest and easiest way to export the new ethylene molecules.

The cracker start-ups were inevitably delayed by the hurricanes in 2017. But if one compares 2018 with 2016 (to avoid the distortions these caused), there was still a net increase of 1.7 million tonnes in US ethylene-equivalent trade flows.

This was more than 40% of the total production increase over the period, as reported by the American Chemistry Council. And 2019 will see further major increases in volume with 4.25 million tonnes of new ethylene capacity due to start-up, alongside full-year output from last year’s start-ups.

The problem is two-fold. As discussed here in 2014 (ICB, US boom is a dangerous game, 24-30 March), it was never likely that central bank stimulus policies could actually return demand growth to the levels seen in the Boomer-led SuperCycle from 1983-2000:

“Shale gas thus provides a high-profile example of how today’s unprecedented demographic changes are creating major changes in business models. Low-cost supply is no longer a guarantee of future profitability.”

This was not a popular message at the time, when oil was still riding high at over $100/bbl and the economic impact of globally ageing populations and collapsing fertility rates were still not widely understood. But it has borne the test of time, and sums up the challenge now facing the industry.

Please click to download the full analysis and my podcast interview with Will Beacham.

$60bn opportunity opens up for plastics industry as need to eliminate single-use packaging grows

150 businesses representing over 20% of the global plastic packaging market have now agreed to start building a circular economy for plastics with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

As a first step, Coca-Cola has revealed that it produced 3MT of plastic packaging in 2017 – equivalent to 200k bottles/minute, around 20% of the 500bn PET bottles used every year.  Altogether, Coke, Mars, Nestlé and Danone currently produce 8MT/year of plastic packaging and have now committed to:

  • Eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reusable packaging
  • Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025
  • Create a circular economy in plastic by significantly increasing the volumes of plastic reused or recycled into new packaging.

The drive behind the Foundation’s initiative is two-fold:

  • To eliminate plastic waste and pollution at its source
  • To capture the $60bn opportunity to replace fossil fuels with recycled material

Encouragingly, over 100 companies in the consumer packaging and retail sector have now committed to making 100% of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Perhaps even more importantly, they plan to actually use an average of 25% recycled content in plastic packaging by 2025 – 10x today’s global average.  This will create a 5MT/year demand for recycled plastic by 2025.  And clearly, many more companies are likely to join them. As I noted a year ago (Goodbye to “business as usual” model for plastics):

“The impact of the sustainability agenda and the drive towards the circular economy is becoming ever-stronger. The initial catalyst for this demand was the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on ‘The New Plastics Economy’, which warned that on current trends, the oceans would contain more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050 – a clearly unacceptable outcome. 2017’s BBC documentary Blue Planet 2, narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough, then catalysed public concern over the impact of single use plastic in packaging and other applications.”

PLASTICS INDUSTRY NOW HAS TO SOLVE THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGES

The issue now is around making this happen. It’s relatively easy for the consuming companies to issue declarations of intent. But as we note in the latest pH Report, it’s much harder for plastics producers to come up with the necessary solutions:

“The problem is that technical solutions to the issue do not currently exist. It is possible to imagine that new single-layer polymers can be developed to replace multi-layer polymer packaging, and hence become suitable for mechanical recycling. It is also possible to believe that pyrolysis technologies can be adapted to enable the introduction of chemical recycling. But the timescale for moving through the development stage in both key areas into even a phased European roll-out is very short.”

Already, however, Borealis and Indorama have begun to set targets for using recycled content. Indorama plans to increase its processing of recycled PET from 100kt today to 750kt by 2025.  And as Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said last week:

“The industry needs to tackle this ocean waste and develop ways to reuse plastics. There are no deniers out there that we have a plastics-waste issue. The challenge is that the plastics industry has developed around a linear value-chain. A line connects the hydrocarbons from the wellhead to either the environment or to landfills once consumers discard them. The discarded plastic does not re-enter the chain.

“The industry needs to adopt a circular value-chain, in which the waste is reused. For this to be successful, some kind of value needs to be attached to plastic waste. Without this, consumers have little incentive to recover plastic waste in a form that would be useful to manufacturers.”

As McKinsey’s chart shows, this is potentially a $60bn opportunity for the industry.  It is also likely, as I noted back in June, that the ‘Plastics recycling paradigm shift will create Winners and Losers‘:

“For 30 years, plastics producers have primarily focused upstream on securing cost-competitive feedstock supply. Now, almost overnight, they find themselves being forced by consumers, legislators and brand owners to refocus downstream on the sustainability agenda. It is a dramatic shift, and one which is likely to create Winners and Losers over a relatively short space of time.”

The Winners will be those companies who focus on the emerging opportunity to eliminate the physical and financial waste created by single use packaging. As the European Commission has noted, it is absurd that only 5% of the value of plastic packaging is currently retained in the EU economy after a single use, at a cost of €70bn-€105bn annually.

On a global scale, this waste is simply unaffordable, as the UN Environment Assembly confirmed on Friday when voting to “significantly reduce” the volume of single-use plastics by 2030.

The plastics industry now finds itself in the position of the chlorine industry 30 years’ ago, over the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer. The Winners will grasp the opportunity to start building a more circular economy.  The Losers will risk going out of business as their licence to operate is challenged.

Ageing Perennials set to negate central bank stimulus as recession approaches

The world’s best leading indicator for the global economy is still firmly signalling recession.  That’s the key conclusion from the chart above, showing latest data on global chemical industry Capacity Utilisation (CU%) from the American Chemistry Council.

The logic behind the indicator is compelling:

  • Chemicals are one of the world’s largest industries, and also one of the most diverse
  • Every country in the world uses relatively large volumes of chemicals
  • And their applications cover virtually all sectors of the economy
  • They include plastics, energy and agriculture as well as detergents and textiles

If you want to know the outlook for the global economy, the chemical industry will provide the answers.

It also has an excellent correlation with IMF data, and benefits from the fact it has no “political bias”. It simply tells us what is happening in real-time in the world’s 3rd largest industry.

And now it is telling us that the CU% is continuing to fall. It was down at 83.1% in January, well below the long-term average of 86.5%.  In fact, it has fallen sharply from that level since December 2017.

Ironically, it was exactly a year ago that the world’s major central banks were congratulating themselves on the success of their policies. “Yes”, they said, “it had taken longer than expected, but we can finally declare victory for our post-2008 stimulus policies”.

Unfortunately, however, this confidence was misplaced as the second chart suggests.

It shows there was a brief rebound in 2010 after the 2008 Crisis as the first round of stimulus took place. But then growth fell back again.

Instead of learning the lesson, the banks decided to do more of the same.  But repeating the same action in the hope of a different result is not terribly sensible.  And so it has proved.

Next month will see the IMF’s new estimate for 2018’s GDP growth (black line). Chemical industry CU% data (the red line) suggests it will have to be revised downwards, once again.

Already, it seems, the central banks are preparing their next round of stimulus. They have finally recognised the slowdown underway in the key areas of the economy such as autos, housing and electronics:

  • China has already panicked, with January seeing record levels of loans
  • Similarly the US Federal Reserve has promised it will go slowly with any further interest rate rises, or might even reduce them
  • The Bank of Japan’s former deputy governor has warned of recession as global demand weakens
  • Most recently, the European Central Bank has completely reversed course, after suggesting as recently as December that strong growth meant further stimulus was unnecessary

As the 3rd chart shows, the key aim for the western central banks is simply to support stock markets such as the S&P 500. They are determined to keep them moving steadily upwards, in the belief this will stimulate growth. But this, of course, is wishful thinking.  As the Financial Times reported last week, the combined result of stimulus and President Trump’s tax cuts has been that:

“US companies handed their shareholders a record-shattering $1.25tn through dividends and buybacks last year, lifting the post-crisis bonanza to nearly $8tn.”

And as the independent Pew Research Center reported last year:

“Today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.”

YOU CAN’T PRINT BABIES – AND IT IS PEOPLE THAT CREATE DEMAND

The final chart highlights the “problem” for the central banks.  Their financial models, and all their thinking, are based on the experience of the post-1945 BabyBoomer SuperCycle.

The vast numbers of babies born between 1946-70 first created massive inflation in the 1960s-70s, as demand outstripped supply. But then they created more or less constant growth as the Boomers moved into the workforce. They turbo-charged demand as Western women stopped having enough children to replace the population after 1970, and instead went back into the workforce – creating the two-income family for the first time in history.

But after 2000, this growth began to weaken as the oldest Boomers moved out of the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group, when consumption peaks along with earnings.  And today’s “problem” is really that, wonderfully, we now have a entirely new generation of Perennials aged 55+.

They will soon be over one-fifth of the global population, double the percentage in 1950.  In the developed western economies, they are already a third of the population, due to the collapse of fertility rates.  This is great news for us as individuals. But it is bad news for economic growth as Perennials already own most of what they need, and their earnings reduce as they retire.

The S&P 500 and other asset markets are already rising due to central bank promises of more support.

But one thing is certain. Third time around, the main result of more stimulus will again be to increase today’s already high levels of debt and inequality.  It cannot return us to SuperCycle levels of growth.

Déjà vu all over again for oil markets as recession risks rise

Back in 2015, veteran Saudi Oil Minister Ali  Naimi was very clear about Saudi’s need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:

“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.

As Naimi recognised, high oil prices created a short-term win for Saudi’s budget between 2011-4.  But they also allowed US frackers to enter the market – posing a major threat to Saudi’s control – whilst also reducing overall demand.  And his “boss”, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) agreed with him, saying:

“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil. We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”

Today, however, Saudi oil policy has reversed course, with MbS now trying to push prices towards the $80/bbl level assumed in this year’s Budget.

Saudi’s dilemma is that its growing population, and its need to diversify the economy away from oil, requires increases in public spending. As a result, it has conflicting objectives:

  • Its long-term need is to defend its market share, to guarantee its ability to monetise its vast oil reserves
  • But its short-term need is to support prices by cutting production, in order to fund its spending priorities

The result, as the chart above confirms, is that prices are now at levels which have almost always led to recession in the past.  It compares the total cost of oil* as a percentage of global GDP with IMF data for the economy, with the shaded areas showing US recessions. The tipping point is when the total cost reaches 3% of global GDP. And this is where we are today.

The reason is that high oil prices reduce discretionary spending.  Consumers have to drive to work and keep their homes warm (and cool in the summer).  So if oil prices are high, they have to cut back in other areas, slowing the economy.

CENTRAL BANK STIMULUS MADE OIL PRICES “AFFORDABLE” IN 2011-2014

There has only been one occasion in the past 50 years when this level failed to trigger a recession. That was in 2011-14, when all the major central bank stimulus programmes were in full flow, as the left-hand chart shows.

They were creating tens of $tns of free cash to support consumer spending.  But at the same time, of course, they were creating record levels of consumer debt, as the right-hand chart shows from the latest New York Federal Reserve’s Household Debt Report.  It shows US household debt is now at a record $13.54tn. And it confirms that consumers have reached the end of the road in terms of borrowing:

“The number of credit inquiries within the past six months – an indicator of consumer credit demand – declined to the lowest level seen in the history of the data.

SAUDI ARABIA IS NO LONGER THE SWING SUPPLIER IN OIL MARKETS

Oil prices are therefore now on a roller-coaster ride:

  • Saudi tried to push them up last year, but this meant demand growth slowed and Russian/US output rose
  • The rally ran out of steam in September and Brent collapsed from $85/bbl to $50/bbl in December

Now Saudi is trying again. It agreed with OPEC and Russia in December to cut production by 1.2mbd – with reductions to be shared between OPEC (0.8 million bpd) and its Russia-led allies (0.4 million bpd).  But as always, its “allies” have let it down.  So Saudi has been forced to make up the difference. Its production has fallen from over 11mbd to a forecast 9.8mbd in March.

Critically however, as the WSJ chart shows, it has lost its role as the world’s swing supplier:

Of course, geo-politics around Iran or Venezuela or N Korea could always intervene to support prices. But for the moment, the main support for rising prices is coming from the hedge funds.  As Reuters reports, their ratio of long to short positions in Brent has more than doubled since mid-December in line with rising stock markets.

But the hedge funds did very badly in Q4 last year when prices collapsed. And so it seems unlikely they will be too bold with their buying, whilst the pain of lost bonuses is so recent.

Companies and investors therefore need to be very cautious.  Saudi’s current success in boosting oil prices is very fragile, as markets are relying on more central bank stimulus to offset the recession risk. If market sentiment turns negative, today’s roller-coaster could become a very bumpy ride.

Given that Saudi has decided to ignore al-Naimi’s warning, the 2014-15 experience shows there is a real possibility of oil prices returning to $30/bbl later this year.

 

*Total cost is number of barrels used multiplied by their cost

BASF prepares its UK supply chain for Brexit

BASF has been working with Ready for Brexit (the online platform I co-founded last year) as part of its programme to prepare its UK supply chain for Brexit.  Here, Ready for Brexit’s editor, Anna Tobin,  reports on the workshops that BASF has been running this month for SMEs.

The world’s largest chemical business, BASF, has a large network of companies in the UK. Over the last few weeks, it has run a series of workshops for those working in its supply chain to ensure that its UK infrastructure is as ready as possible for Brexit.

Of all the UK’s industrial sectors, the chemical industry is likely to be one of the worst hit by a no-deal Brexit. It contributes £15bn annually to the UK economy and it is the UK’s largest manufacturing exporter, with 60% of its exports going to the EU. As the lynchpin of this industry, BASF is doing everything it can to prepare the UK’s chemical industry for Brexit. Working with the Government and in collaboration with every link in its supply chain has been the focus of BASF’s Brexit preparations.

BASF has worked closely with Ready for Brexit to highlight key areas for attention to its SME partners. Over the last month, it has run a series of workshops for SMEs in its supply chain involving presentations and question and answer sessions with Government advisors, senior figures at BASF, logistics and customs experts.

Logistics
Bill Bowker, director of transport and warehousing company Bowker Group, which has been working with BASF since 1986, headed one workshop. He explained to his audience that as part of his Brexit contingency planning he has increased his storage space and staffing, obtained ECMT permits and ensured that his drivers have international driving licences and green cards; while he is advising his customers to increase their stock levels and ensure that all shipping information is correct to minimise delays.

Abram Op de Beeck, BASF’s customs and foreign trade manager, advised attendees to get an EORI number as soon as possible, to sign up for Transitional Simplified Procedures for customs and to consider appointing a customs agent to simplify the management of their customs declarations.

DEFRA
Alun Williams, who is working on EU exit for chemicals and pesticides at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), explained that the Government is working to ensure that any new UK regulatory systems will mirror the existing EU systems as far as possible to minimise costs to industry. He also said that they were endeavoring to minimise disruption to integrated supply chains for chemicals, will continue to monitor and evaluate chemicals in the UK to reduce the risk posed to human health and the environment; and that they would be maintaining existing standards of protection for human health and the environment.

He conceded that businesses looking to operate in the UK and EU markets will have to work with two regulatory systems. To maintain access to the EEA market, UK REACH registration holders will need to transfer their registrations to an EEA-based organisation. And to maintain UK market access to existing UK-based REACH, registrants must sign up to the new UK IT system in the first 120 days of the UK leaving the EU. The other alternative is to ask your EU/EEA supplier to appoint a UK-based Only Representative to ensure UK REACH compliance.

Williams explained that to register a new chemical for the EEA market, UK companies must register with ECHA via an EEA-based customer or Only Representative. To register a new chemical for the UK market, UK companies must set up an account on UK REACH IT and register the new chemical.

BEIS
Fiona Hitchiner, senior policy advisor chemicals at the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), pointed people towards the Government’s tariff checker and advised them to review their contracts and International Terms and Conditions of Service to show that they are now an importer/exporter and to establish responsibilities with their suppliers and customers. She also reminded attendees to check whether they could save money and help cash flow by using a duty relief or deferment scheme and reiterated the need to obtain an EORI number and to register for Transitional Simplified Procedures.

The day-long workshops were full on, but that is why BASF has put on these events. It wants to get the message across that there is a lot to do to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, and that preparation is vital to minimise the expected ill-effects.