Contingency planning is essential in 2020 as “synchronised slowdown” continues

The IMF has now confirmed that the world economy has moved into the synchronised slowdown that I forecast here a year ago. Its analysis also confirms the importance of the issues highlighted then, including “rising trade barriers and increasing geopolitical tensions”, a sharp decline in manufacturing, contraction in the auto industry and structural forces such as the impact of ageing populations.

Capacity Utilisation (CU%) data from the American Chemistry Council has therefore once again proved to be the best leading indicator for the global economy. It has been far more reliable than stock markets, where valuations continue to be massively distorted by central bank stimulus. And unfortunately, the latest data shows no sign of any improvement as the chart confirms, with November’s CU% now back at November 2012’s level at 81.7%.

Of course, it remains very easy to ignore the warning signs. ‘Business as usual’ is always the most popular forecast, as we saw a year ago when the consensus assumed a sustainable economic recovery was finally underway. And it would be no great surprise if, in a year’s time, consensus opinion starts to claim that “nobody could have seen recession coming”.

This is why it seems likely that businesses will now start to divide into Winners and Losers. As the IMF note in their analysis, the current situation is “precarious”, with a number of potential downsides starting to crystallise. On a macro view, these include the growing supply chain risks created by Brexit, where the UK expects to leave the EU at the end of this month.

Anyone with experience of trade negotiations knows that these normally take years rather than months to complete. No Deal is therefore the most likely outcome in a year’s time at the end of the transition period.

This will have a major impact on industries with complex and highly integrated downstream value chains like autos, chemicals and aerospace. Contingency planning is therefore on the critical path for any company that currently relies on product flowing seamlessly and tariff-free across the UK-EU27 border.

Of course, potential Losers will continue to nurse the hope that the UK government might reverse its refusal to accept the 2-year extension offered by the EU. But anyone who followed the recent UK election campaign knows this is an unlikely outcome.

The chemical industry also has its own specific challenges to face, given the growing impact of US shale gas-based expansions in the polyethylene area. This is no great surprise, as I have been warning about the likely consequences of these supply-led expansions since they were first announced in 2014 . But unfortunately, the combination of stock market euphoria over the shale gas revolution and the Federal Reserve’s easy money policy meant that the core assumptions were never properly challenged.

Euphoria remained the rule even after the oil price collapse at the end of 2014 disproved the assumption that prices would always be above $100/bbl. And it continued despite President Trump’s election. As a self-confessed “tariff man”, his policies were always likely to upset the idea that plants could be sited half-way across the world from their markets.

Warning signs were also obvious around the assumption that China’s growth would remain at double-digit rates, creating an ongoing need for major imports. And more recently, concerns over climate change and plastic waste issues have created further question marks over the outlook for single-use plastic demand.

Incumbents are often slow to understand the likely impact of potentially disruptive developments on their businesses. Business discussions around the boardroom and water cooler can often take place in a parallel universe to those that happen outside the office with friends and family.

The upstream oil industry is currently providing a classic example of this phenomenon as it promotes the idea that despite mounting concerns over the role of fossil fuels in climate change, chemicals can somehow replace lost oil demand into transport. Yet as former Saudi Oil Minister Yamani warned back in 2000, “the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil”.

Unfortunately, therefore, it seems likely that 2020 will see today’s synchronised slowdown continuing to challenge consensus optimism. Contingency planning around recession risks should therefore be top of the agenda, particularly for companies with high debt levels.

But at the same time, better placed companies have a once in a generation opportunity to take advantage of the paradigm shifts now underway, as adoption rates accelerate up the typical S-curve. These Winners are likely to discover that their best days still lie ahead of them, given the range and scale of the new opportunities that are emerging.

Please click here to download my full 2019 Outlook (no registration necessary).

Portugal shows the way to climate neutrality by 2050

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do”. The Irish proverb’s logic shows us the way forward on the greatest challenge that we face today, of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

As the President of the European Petrochemical Association, Marc Schuller, highlighted last month when issuing a ‘call to action’:

“The Youth of the the world is calling for ambition and transformation. There is a new sense of urgency and as business leaders we should ensure that we embrace it and that our response as an industry is keeping up with this new pace of change and level of ambition.”

Governments also have a major role to play.  And it is important that they speak in language that ordinary people can understand.

This is why Portugal’s Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality 2050 is so important.  As the chart shows, it positions climate neutrality as an opportunity. Most people, after all, would prefer to be up with the peleton – challenging for the yellow jersey and the lead, not stuck at the back.

There is also very little doubt that climate change is taking place.  After all, as the chart on the right shows, the global population has more than trebled since 1950, from 2.5bn to 7.8bn today.  An increase of this size must have a major impact on the world in which we live.

The chart on the left shows one aspect of this impact in terms of the rise in surface temperatures from 1960, versus 1850-1900.  We have good data for both periods, and so the data’s reliability is high.

Of course, correlation doesn’t always equal causation. And no doubt there are a range of other factors involved – some positive, some negative. But given the observable risks of climate change today, it makes no sense to ignore the issue and hope it will go away.

This is why voters are telling their leaders that climate change is important.  After all, what is the point of a better standard of living, if at the same time you worry that you might get flooded out of your home – or it might be burnt to cinders?

Portugal’s response is an excellent example of a government taking a lead, within the framework of the European Green Deal to be launched early next year. As the chart shows, it is focused on the key areas and aims to carry the population with it:

  • “Eliminating coal-based power generation by 2030 and achieving full decarbonization of the power generation system by 2050
  • Decarbonizing mobility by strengthening public transport, decarbonizing fleets and reducing the carbon intensity of sea and air transport
  • Expanding conservation and precision agriculture and reducing emissions associated with livestock and fertilizer use
  • Preventing waste generation, increasing recycling rates and reducing waste disposal in landfill
  • Applying carbon tax, changing consumption and production patterns, environmental education and awareness
  • Promoting skills development towards new economic opportunities” 

Of course, nobody likes change. But as the chart above shows, the world is already changing.

As I discussed last month,  the world’s population is now expanding because people are living longer, not because women are having lots of babies.

  • Nearly a third of the world’s High Income population, those earning at least $12k/year, are in the Perennials 55+ generation. Their incomes decline as they retire, and so Sustainability is critically important for them as a way of doing more with less
  • Younger people, the Millennials,  still want mobility, but owning a car doesn’t excite them. Similarly, they want the benefits provided by plastics, but they don’t want the waste and pollution generated from applications such as single-use packaging

As Portugal has realised, most people – given the choice – would like to be at the front of the pack. We all want to enjoy the opportunities that the rise of the sustainability agenda will provide.

Corporate leaders need to respond – unless they want to risk finding themselves on their own, at the back of the pack.

Markets face major paradigm shifts as recession approaches

Major paradigm shifts are occurring in the global economy, as I describe in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business

Over the past 25 years, the budget process has tended to assume that the external environment will be relatively stable. 2008 was a shock at the time, of course, but many have now forgotten the near-collapse that occurred. Yet if we look around us, we can see that a number of major paradigm shifts are starting to occur in core markets – autos, plastics and others – which mean that ‘business as usual’ is highly unlikely to continue.

In turn, this means we can no longer operate a budget planning cycle on the assumption that demand will be a multiple of IMF GDP forecasts. Our business models will have to change in response to today’s changing demand patterns. Of course, change on this scale is always uncomfortable, but it will also create some major new opportunities.

Chemical companies in particular are clearly best placed to develop the new products and services that will be needed in a world where sustainability and affordability have become the key drivers for market success.

The transition periods created by paradigm shifts are never easy, however, due to the level of risk they create. The table gives my version of the key risks – you may well have your own list:

■ Global auto markets are already in decline, down 5% in January-August versus 2018, whilst the authoritative CPB World Trade Monitor showed trade down 0.7% in Q2 after a 0.3% fall in Q1

■ Liquidity is clearly declining in financial markets as China’s slowdown spreads, and Western political debate is ever-more polarised

■ The US$ has been rising due to increased uncertainty, creating currency risk for those who have borrowed in dollars; geopolitical risks are becoming more obvious

■ Some of the main “bubble stocks” such as WeWork, Uber and Netflix have seen sharp falls in their valuations, leading some investors to worry about “return of capital”

■ Chemical industry capacity utilisation, the best leading indicator for the global economy, has been in decline since December 2017, suggesting recession is close, and that bankruptcies among over-leveraged firms will inevitably increase

AUTOS PARADIGM SHIFT

The paradigm shift now underway in the global auto industry typifies the scale of the potential threat to sales and profits. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will likely be lost over the next 5-10 years in auto manufacturing and its supply chains as consumers transition to electric vehicles (EVs). The issue is that EVs have relatively few parts . And because there is much less to go wrong, many servicing jobs will also disappear.

The auto industry itself was the product of such a paradigm shift in the early 19th century, when the horse-drawn industry mostly went out of business. Now it is seeing its own shift, as battery costs start to reach the critical $100/kWh levels at which EVs become cheaper to own and operate than an internal combustion engine (ICE) on a total cost of ownership basis.

China currently accounts for two-thirds of global EV sales and sold nearly 1.3m EVs in 2018 (up 62% versus 2017). They may well take 50% of the Chinese market by 2025, as the government is now focused on accelerating the transition via the rollout of a national charging network. Importantly, though, Europe is likely to emerge as the main challenger to China in the global EV market.

VW is likely to be one of the winners in the new market. It plans to spend €80bn to produce 70 EV models based on standardised motors, batteries and other components. This will enable it to cut costs and accelerate the roll-out:

■ Its new flagship ID.3 model will go on sale next year at a mid-market price of €30k ($33k)

■ Having disrupted that market segment, it will then expand into cheaper models

■ And it expects a quarter of its European sales to run on battery power by 2025

The risk for suppliers to the auto industry is that the disruption caused creates a new playing field. Those who delay making the investments required are almost certain to become losers. The reason is simple – if today’s decline in auto sales accelerates, as seems likely, the investment needed for EVs will become unaffordable for many companies.

Nothing lasts forever. ‘Business as usual’ was a great strategy for its time. But it is clear that future winners will be those who recognise that the disruptive paradigm shifts now underway require new thinking and new business models. Companies who successfully transition to focus on sustainability and affordability will be the great winners of the future.

Please click here if you would like to read the full analysis

Auto markets set for major disruption as Electric Vehicle sales reach tipping point

Major disruption is starting to occur in the world’s largest manufacturing industry.  Hundreds of thousands of jobs will likely be lost in the next few years in auto manufacturing and its supply chains, as consumers move over to Electric Vehicles (EVs).

As the chart from Idaho National Laboratory confirms, EVs have relatively few parts – less than 20 in the drive-train, for example – versus 2000 for internal combustion engines (ICEs).  There is much less to go wrong, so many servicing jobs will also disappear.

The auto industry itself was the product of such a paradigm shift in the early 19th century, when the horse-drawn industry mostly went out of business.  Now it is seeing its own shift, as battery costs start to reach the critical $100/kWh levels at which EVs become cheaper to own and operate than ICEs.

Unfortunately, this paradigm shift is coming at a time when global sales and profits are already falling. As the chart shows, sales were down 5.4% in January-August in the Top 7 markets versus 2018. And in the Top 6 markets, outside China, they were only 4% higher than in 2007, highlighting the industry’s current over-dependence on China:

  • India is suffering the most, with sales down 15% this year
  • But China’s woes matter most as it is the largest global market; its sales were down 13%
  • Europe was down 3% YTD, but on a weakening trend with August down 8%
    • All the major countries were negative in August, with Spain down 31%
  • Russia was down 2%, despite the economic boost provided by today’s relatively high oil prices
  • The USA and Japan were marginally positive, up 0.4% and 0.6% respectively
  • Only Brazil was showing strong growth at 9%, but was still down 28% versus its 2011 peak

EV sales, like those of used cars, are heading in the opposite direction. China currently accounts for 2/3rds of global EV sales and sold nearly 1.3m EVs in 2018 (up 62% versus 2017). They may well take 50% of the Chinese market by 2025, as the government is now focused on accelerating the transition via the rollout of a national charging network.

Interestingly, it seems that Europe is likely to emerge as the main challenger to China in the global EV market. The US has Tesla, which continues to attract vast investment from Wall Street, but it is only expected to produce a maximum of 400k cars this year. Europe, however, is ramping up EV output very fast as the Financial Times chart confirms:

  • The left-hand scale shows EV prices v range (km) for EVs being released in Europe
  • The right-hand scale shows the dramatic acceleration in EV launches in 2019-21

One key incentive is the manufacturers’ ability to use EV sales to gain “super-credits” in respect of the new mandatory CO2 emission levels. These are now very valuable given the loss of emission credits due to the collapse of diesel sales.

2020 is the key year for these “super-credits” as they are the equivalent of 2 cars, before scaling down to 1.67 cars in 2021 and 1.33 cars in 2022.  Every gram of CO2 emissions above 95g/km will incur a fine of €95/car sold. And as Ford’s CEO has noted:

“There’s only going to be a few winners who create the platforms for the future.”

VW NOW HAVE BATTERY COSTS AT BELOW $100/kWh
VW is likely to be one of the Winners in the new market.  It is planning an €80bn spend to produce 70 EV models based on standardised motors, batteries and other components.  This will enable it to reduce costs and accelerate the roll-out:

  • Its new new flagship ID.3 model will go on sale next year at a typical mid-market price of €30k ($34k)
  • Having disrupted that market segment, it will then expand into cheaper models
  • And it expects a quarter of its European sales to run on battery power by 2025.

The key issue, of course, is battery cost. $100/kWh is the tipping point at which it becomes cheaper to run an EV than an ICE. And now VW are claiming to have achieved this for the ID.3 model.

Once this becomes clearly established, EV sales will enter a virtuous circle, as buyers realise that the resale value of ICE models is likely to fall quite sharply.  Diesel cars have already seen this process in action as a result of the “dieselgate” scandal – they were just 31% of European sales in Q2, versus 52% in 2015 .

One other factor is likely to prove critical. The media hype around Tesla has led to an assumption that individuals will lead the transition to battery power.  But in reality, fleet owners are far more likely to transition first:

  • They have a laser-like focus on costs and often operate on relatively regular routes in city centres
  • They don’t have the “range anxiety” of private motorists and can easily recharge overnight in depots

The problem for auto companies, their investors and their supply chain, is that the disruption caused by the paradigm shift will create a few Winners – and many Losers – as Ford warned. 

Those who delay making the investments required are almost certain to become Losers.  The reason is simple – if today’s decline in auto sales accelerates, as seems likely,  the investment needed for EVs will simply become unaffordable for many companies.

 

 

Europe’s auto sector suffers as Dieselgate and China’s downturn hit sales

Trade wars, Dieselgate and recession risk are having a major impact on the European auto industry, as I describe in my new video interview with ICIS Chemical Business deputy editor, Will Beacham.

One key pressure point is created by the downturn in China’s auto industry. As the chart shows, it has been a fabulous growth market in recent years due to China’s stimulus policies, with sales growing nearly five-fold from 550k/month in 2008 to a peak of 2.5m/month last year. And German car exports did incredibly well as a result, due to their strong reputation amongst consumers.

But the start of the US/China trade war last year – plus the $2tn taken out of China’s speculative shadow banking sector over the past 2 years by the government’s deleveraging campaign – means sales have been in decline for almost a year. 2018 saw the first downturn in the market since 1992, and since then the pace of decline has been accelerating with May volumes down 17%.

European car sales have also been falling since September as the second chart confirms. And unfortunately, the industry is confronted by a near-perfect storm of problems, which make it likely that the current downward trend will continue and probably accelerate.

The most immediate issue is the slowdown in the EU economy, with consumers becoming nervous about making high-ticket car purchases. Added to this, of course, are concerns over Brexit – which led sales in the UK (the 2nd largest market) to hit a 6-year low in the normally buoyant sales month of March, 14.5% below the 2017 level.

And then, of course, there are concerns over China’s slowdown, particularly for Germany’s export-oriented manufacturers such as BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Porsche – plus rising concerns over the potential for a European trade war with the USA.

But the real concern arises from the continuing fall-out from Dieselgate, which led diesel’s share of the EU market to fall by 18% in 2018 versus 2017 to 5.59m. Diesel cars accounted for only 35% of EU auto sales, the lowest level since 2001. And in turn this is wrecking the industry’s plans for meeting the new EU rules on CO2 emissions, which VW estimates has already cost it around €30bn, at a time when all the carmakers are also having to invest heavily in EV technology.

As the European Environment Agency (EEA) noted last month:

“For the first year since 2009, petrol cars constituted the majority of new registrations in 2017 (53 %). New diesel cars, which were on average around 300kg heavier than new petrol cars, emitted on average 117.9g CO2/km, which is 3.7g CO2/km less than the average petrol car. The average fuel efficiency of new petrol cars has been constant in 2016 and 2017, whereas the fuel-efficiency of new diesel cars has worsened compared to 2016 (116.8 g CO2/km). If similar petrol and diesel segments are compared, new conventional petrol cars emitted 10%-40% more than new conventional diesel cars.”

Manufacturers have no easy options. They can, of course, aim to accelerate Electric Vehicle (EV) sales in order to gain “super-credits” towards the new limits. But EVs are currently less than 2% of the EU market, so the scope for a major ramp-up in volume is very limited, and their profit margins are much lower due to the battery cost. UBS therefore suggest that automakers earnings per share will be badly hit, with PSA down 25%, VW down 13%, Renault down 10%, Daimler down 9% and BMW down 7%.

The saga highlights how the diesel makers’ decision to cheat on reported emission levels in order to maximise short-term profit has led to major long-term damage for many manufacturers. FCA’s need to enter a “pooling arrangement“ with Tesla to reduce its potential fines, and to exit sales of its most heavily polluting models, highlights the scale of the problems.

In turn, as I discuss, this is all very bad news for major suppliers to the auto industry such as the petrochemical sector.  Please click here if you would like to see the full interview.

The End of “Business as Usual”

In my interview for Real Vision earlier this month, (where the world’s most successful investors share their thoughts on the markets and the biggest investment themes), I look at what data from the global chemical industry is telling us about the outlook for the global economy and suggest it could be set for a downturn.

“We look at the world and the world economy through the lens of the chemical industry. Why do we do that? Because the chemical industry is the third largest industry in the world after energy and agriculture. It gets into every corner of the world. Everything in the room which you’ll be watching this interview is going to have chemicals in it. And the great thing is, we have very good, almost real time data on what’s happening.

“Our friends at the American Chemistry Council have data going back on production and capacity utilization since 1987. So 30 years of data, and we get that within 6 to 8 weeks of the end of the month. So whereas, if you look at IMF data, you’re just looking at history, we’re looking at this is what’s actually going on as of today.

“We look, obviously, upstream, as we would call it, at the oil and feedstocks markets, so we understand what’s happening in that area. But we also– because the chemical industry is in the middle of the value chain, you have to be like Janus. You have to look up and down at the same time, otherwise one of these big boys catches you out.

“And so we look downstream. And we particularly look at autos, at housing, and electronics, because those are the big three applications. And of course, they’re pretty big for investors as well. So we see the relative balance between what’s happening upstream, what’s  happening downstream, where is demand going, and then we see what’s happening in the middle of that chain, because that’s where we’re getting our data from.

“As the chart shows, our data matches pretty well to IMF data. It shows changes in capacity utilization, which is our core measurement. If if you go back and plot that against history from the IMF, there is very, very good correlation. So what we’re seeing at the moment– and really, we’ve been seeing this since we did the last interview in November— is a pretty continuous downturn.

“One would have hoped, when we talked in November, we were talking about the idea that things have definitely cooled off. Some of that was partly due to the oil price coming down. Some of that was due to end of year destocking. Some of that was due to worries about trade policy. Lots of different things, but you would normally expect the first quarter to be fairly strong.

“The reason for this is that the first quarter– this year, particularly– was completely free of holidays.  Easter was late, so there was nothing to interrupt you there. There was the usual Lunar New Year in China, but that always happens, so there’s nothing unusual about that.

And normally what happens is, that in the beginning of the new year, people restock. They’ve got their stock down in December for year end purposes, year end tax purposes, now they restock again. And of course, they build stock because the construction season is coming along in the spring and people tend to buy more cars in that period, and electronics, and so on.

“So everything in the first quarter was very positive. And one wouldn’t normally be surprised to start seeing stock outs in the industry, particularly after a quiet period in the fourth quarter. And unfortunately, we haven’t seen any of that. We’ve seen– and this is worth thinking about for a moment– we’ve seen a 25% rise in the oil price because of the OPEC Russia deal, but until very recently we haven’t seen the normal stock build that goes along with that.”

 

As we note in this month’s pH Report, however, this picture is now finally changing as concern mounts over oil market developments – where unplanned outages in Venezuela and elsewhere are adding to the existing cutbacks by the OPEC+ countries. Apparent demand is therefore now increasing as buyers build precautionary inventory against the risk of supply disruption and the accompanying threat of higher prices.

In turn, this is helping to support a return of the divergence between developments in the real economy and financial markets, as the rise in apparent demand can easily be mistaken for real demand. The divergence is also being supported by commentary from western central banks.  This month’s IMF meeting finally confirmed the slowdown that has been flagged by the chemical industry since October, but also claimed that easier central bank policies were already removing the threat of a recession.

We naturally want to hope that the IMF is right. But history instead suggests that periods of inventory-build are quickly reversed once oil market concerns abate.

Please click here if you would like to see the full interview.