World Aromatics Conference focuses on key industry challenges

Our 16th World Aromatics and Derivatives conference takes place on Wednesday/Thursday in Amsterdam.

Co-organised with ICIS, it provides an excellent opportunity for delegates to meet and exchange views in the critical end-of-year period.  Amsterdam smallIt features the usual strong line-up of speakers:

Ronald Doesburg, GM for Shell’s Base Chemicals business, will describe how innovation is driving new patterns of supply and demand.
Pieter Platteeuw, Global Business Director, aromatics, for DowDuPont , will ask whether current business optimism can be sustained.
Eric Bischof, VP Corporate Sustainability for Covestro, will identify key issues in creating a more sustainable market.

Other leading speakers including Klaus Ries, VP Global Business Management Styrenic Foams for BASF; Erik Nijhuis, Sales Manager for Vopak and Rhian O’Connor from ICIS will give their views on the major issues along the value chain.

In addition, I will be looking at key macro challenges for the industry – The Trump effect and the move towards protectionism, Brexit and its implications for Europe, and today’s increasingly volatility in energy markets and their geopolitical implications.

For more details, and to register, please click here.

The post World Aromatics Conference focuses on key industry challenges appeared first on Chemicals & The Economy.

Hurricane Harvey will turbocharge move to the circular economy

Harvey Oct17a

300,000 homes and half a million cars have been destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.  And in terms of business, it is often forgotten that Houston is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any other metro area than New York.  The damage will take years to repair, as families have to regroup and re-establish their lives – as I describe in my new feature article for ICIS Chemical Business, and in the above video interview with ICB Deputy Editor, Will Beacham.

The hurricanes are also likely to have a longer-term impact on the chemicals industry.  Regulatory concerns may well be increased, given the prominent reporting of the potential for toxic run-off from the two dozen Superfund sites in the area. There will also be increased pressure on the industry to rethink its basic business model and increase the priority given to sustainability.

Even before the hurricanes, consumer concern was mounting over the impact of plastic waste on the oceans and the environment. Now, the devastation they have caused will likely turbo-charge the move towards renewables and the circular economy. Fear is a strong motivator, and millions will take another look at climate change.

This development will, of course, create opportunities as well as challenges for farsighted companies. It is never easy to move away from a “business as usual” mind-set. But the increased need to adopt key elements of the circular economy agenda creates an opportunity to develop major new sources of revenue and profit for the future.

In a decade’s time, therefore, we will not simply remember today’s devastation. We will likely also recognise that it marked the moment when sustainability stopped being simply an item in the Annual Report, and instead opened the door to a new era for the industry and those who work and invest in it.

Please click here to download the feature article for ICIS Chemical Business, and click here to view the video interview.

Plastics demand is peaking as circular economy arrives

Plastic waste Jul17The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.  Similarly, coal is being left in the ground because we no longer need it any more.  And the same is happening to oil, as Saudi Arabia recognised last year in its Vision 2030:

“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil“.

And so now the debate is moving on, to products such as plastics that are made from oil.

The move began several years ago with the growing concern over plastic bags.  Consumers decided they no longer wanted to live in a world filled with waste bags.  Now, in a landmark new Study*, the debate is evolving to focus on the question of ‘What happens to plastic after we have used it?’   As the chart shows:

  The world has produced 8.3bn tonnes of plastic over the past 60 years
  Almost all of it, 91% in fact, has since been thrown away, never to be used again
  But it hasn’t simply disappeared, as plastic takes around 400 years to degrade
  Instead, the Study finds, 79% is filling up landfills or littering the environment and “at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink

Nobody is claiming that this waste was created deliberately.  Nobody is claiming that plastics aren’t incredibly useful – they are, and they have saved millions of lives via their use in food packaging and other critical applications.  The problem is simply, ‘What happens next?’  As one of the Study authors warns:

“We weren’t aware of the implications for plastic ending up in our environment until it was already there. Now we have a situation where we have to come from behind to catch up.

RT Jul17
The good news is that potential solutions are being developed.  As the video shows, Recycling Technologies, for example (where I am a director), is now trialling technology that will recycle end-of-life plastic into virgin plastic, wax and oils.  Other companies are also hard at work on different solutions.  And more and more effort is focused on finding ways of removing plastic from the sea, as I noted last year:

 “95% of plastic packaging material value is currently lost after just a short first-use cycle
  By 2050, there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish by weight, if current policies continue
  Clearly, this state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.”

SUSTAINABILITY IS REPLACING GLOBALISATION AS A KEY DRIVER FOR THE ECONOMY
But there is another side to this debate that is just about to move into the headlines.  That is the simple question of “How do we stop putting more and more plastic into the environment?”  Cleaning up the current mess is clearly critically important.  But the world is also starting to realise that it needs to stop creating the problem in the first place.

As always, there are a number of potential solutions potentially available:

  The arrival of 3D printing dramatically reduces the volume of plastic needed to make a finished product.  It operates on a very efficient “additive basis”, only using the volume that is needed, and producing very little waste
  Digitalisation offers the opportunity to avoid the use of plastics – with music, for example, most people today listen via streaming services and no longer buy CDs made of plastic
  The ‘sharing economy’ also reduces demand for plastic – new business models such as car-sharing, ride hailing and autonomous cars enable people to be mobile without needing to own a car

The key issue is that the world is moving to adopt the principles of the circular economy as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation notes:

“Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural and social capital.”

This paradigm shift clearly creates major challenges for those countries and companies wedded to producing ever-increasing volumes of plastic.  OPEC has an unpleasant shock ahead of it, for example, as its demand forecasts are based on a belief that:

“Over one-third of the total demand increase between 2015 and 2040 comes from the road transportation sector (6.2 mb/d). Strong growth is also foreseen in the petrochemicals sector (3.4 mb/d)”

They are forgetting the basic principle that, “What cannot continue forever, won’t continue“.  After all, it took just 25 years for cars to replace horses a century ago.  More recently, countries such as China and India went straight to mobile phones, and didn’t bother with landlines.  And as I noted last year, underlying demand patterns are also now changing as a result of today’s ageing populations:

  In the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle, the growing population of young people needed globalisation in order to supply their needs. And they were not too worried about possible side-effects, due to the confidence of youth
  But today’s globally ageing populations do not require vast new quantities of everything to be produced. And being older, they are naturally more suspicious of change, and tend to see more downside than upside

Services Jul17Of course, change is always difficult because it creates winners and losers.  That is why “business as usual” is such a popular strategy.  It is therefore critically important that companies begin to prepare today to be among the winners in the world of the circular economy. As we all know:

There is no such thing as a mature industry, only mature firms. And industries inhabited by mature firms often present great opportunities for the innovative”.

As the 3rd chart shows, the winners in the field of plastics will be those companies and countries that focus on using their skills and expertise to develop service-based businesses.  These will aim at providing sustainable solutions for people’s needs in the fields of mobility, packaging and other essential areas. The losers will be those who bury their heads in the sand, and hope that nothing will ever change.

 

* The detailed paper is in Science Advances, ‘Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made

Sinopec’s results confirm China’s focus on employment and self-sufficiency, not profit

Sinopec May17China’s strategies for oil, refining and petrochemical production are very different from those in the West, as analysis of Sinopec’s Annual and 20-F Reports confirms.  As the above chart shows, it doesn’t aim to maximise profit:

□  Since 1998, it has spent $45bn on capex in the refining sector, and $38bn in the chemicals sector
□  Yet it made just $1bn at EBIT level (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) in refining, and only $21bn in chemicals

As I noted last year:

Clearly no western company would ever dream of spending such large amounts of capital for so little reward. But as a State Owned Enterprise, Sinopec’s original mandate was to be a reliable supplier of raw materials to downstream factories, to maintain employment. More recently, the emphasis has changed to providing direct support to employment, through increased exports of refined products into Asian markets and increased self-sufficiency in petrochemicals”.

Commentary on China’s apparent growth in oil imports confirms the confusion this creates.  Western markets cheered last year as China’s oil imports appeared to increase, hitting a record high. But they were ignoring key factors:

□   China’s crude imports were indeed 14% higher at 7.6 million bpd – nearly a million bpd higher than in 2015
□   But 700 kbpd of these imports were one-off demand as China filled its strategic storage
□   And at the same time, China’s refineries were pumping out record export volume: its fuel exports were up around one-third during the year to over 48 million tonnes

As Reuters noted:

This broadly suggests China’s additional imports of crude oil were simply processed and exported as refined products.”  In reality, ”China’s 2016 oil demand grew at the slowest pace in at least three years at 2.5%, down from 3.1% in 2015 and 3.8% in 2014, led by a sharp drop in diesel consumption and as gasoline usage eased from double-digit growth.”

The issue was simply that Premier Li was aiming to maintain employment in the “rust-belt provinces”, by boosting the so-called “tea-pot refineries”.  He had therefore raised their oil import quotas to 8.7 million tonnes in 2016, more than double their 3.7 million tonne quota in 2016.  As a result, they had more diesel and gasoline to sell in export markets.

China OR May17

The same pattern can be seen in petrochemicals, as the second chart confirms.  It highlights how Operating Rates (OR%) for the two main products, ethylene and propylene, remain remarkably high by global standards.  This confirms that Sinopec’s aim is not to maximise profit by slowing output when margins are low.  Instead, as a State Owned Enterprise, its role is to be a reliable supplier to downstream factories, to keep people employed.

□   Its OR% for the major product, ethylene, hit a low of 94% after the start of the Financial Crisis in 2009, but has averaged 102% since Sinopec first reported the data in 1998
□   Its OR% for propylene has also averaged 102%, but has shown more volatility as it can be sourced from a wider variety of plants. It is currently at 100%

Understanding China’s strategy is particularly important when forecasting demand for the major new petrochemical plants now coming online in N America.  Conventional analysis might suggest that China’s plants might shutdown, if imports could be provided more cheaply from US shale-based production.  But that is not China’s strategy.

Communist Party rule since Deng Xiaoping’s famous Southern Tour in 1992 has always been based on the need to avoid social unrest by maintaining employment.  There would therefore be no benefit to China’s leadership in closing plants.  In fact, China is heading in the opposite direction with the current 5-Year Plan, as I discussed last month.

The Plan aims to increase self-sufficiency in the ethylene chain from 49% in 2015 to 62% in 2020.  Similarly in the propylene chain, self-sufficiency will increase from 67% in 2015 to 93% in 2020.

It is therefore highly likely that China’s imports of petrochemicals and polymers will continue to decline, as I discussed last month.  And if China follows through on its plans to develop a more service-based economy, based on the mobile internet, we could well seen exports of key polymers such as polypropylene start to appear in global markets.

China’s increase in chemicals self-sufficiency will hit US shale gas expansions

China C2,C3 May17Some years ago, when China was well on the way to becoming the world’s largest importer of chemicals, a reporter asked the chairman of Sinochem, China’s largest chemical company if China intended to keep increasing its imports?  ”Not at all” was Su Shulin’s reply, “This is temporary.  It is not our strategy.  We will become self-sufficient.

China’s current 13th Five Year Plan, covering 2016 – 2020, confirms his analysis.  Wherever possible, China is now moving to increase its self-sufficiency as the above chart confirms:

  In the ethylene chain, it intends to increase self-sufficiency from 49% in 2015 to 62% in 2020
  In the propylene chain, self-sufficiency will increase from 67% in 2015 to 93% in 2020
  Detailed investment plans are already being implemented to fulfill this strategy

China PTA May17Ethylene and propylene are following the pattern set in other major product areas.  In 2014, China was the world’s largest importer of PTA, the key raw material for polyester fibre and PET bottles, as the second chart confirms:

  It imported 1.7 million tonnes in January – March 2014.  But then a series of major new world-scale plants began to come online, and China has since become a net exporter
  NE Asian producers have lost 97% of their export volume to China and SE Asian producers have lost 90%
  NEA and SEA are also now starting to face competition from China in Middle Eastern import markets

China PX May17PTA is not alone in seeing this transition.  There has really only been one major exception, paraxylene (PX) – the raw material used to make PTA.  As the third chart shows, the new PTA plants have had to depend on PX imports for their feedstocks.  The reason is that PX became the target of public concerns over environmental pollution and safety, causing expansion plans to be put on hold for some years.

  China PX imports have risen by a third over the past 3 years to 2.7 million tonnes in Q1 this year
  NE Asia has been the main supplier, with S Korea, Japan and Taiwan all moving major volumes
  This, of course, has helped to compensate for the loss of their PTA exports

But now the logjam on new PX plants in China has been broken, and capacity is set to double from 13.6 MT to 29.7MT over the next 3 years.  This expansion will not only support new downstream capacity in PTA, but will likely also lead to modest exports of PX as well.

This is further evidence, if more was needed, that the 4.5 million tonnes of new US polyethylene capacity will likely have major problems in finding a market, as it comes online later this year.  As I noted back in March, the scope for disappointment with these projects is very high.  US polyethylene exports had already fallen 50% since their 2009 peak – even before China began to increase its self-sufficiency

 

European petrochemical output still below 2004 – 2007 levels

EU Olefins May17The financial crisis began a decade ago, yet production of the key “building block products” for the European petrochemical industry has still not recovered to its pre-Crisis peak, as the chart shows (based on new APPE data):

  Combined production of ethylene, propylene and butadiene (olefins) peaked at 39.7 million tonnes in 2007
  A decade later, 2016 olefin volume was 4% lower at 38.1MT, and lower than in the 2004 – 2007 subprime period

Olefins are used in a very wide variety of applications including plastics, detergents, textiles and paints across the European economy.   The data therefore highlights the slow and halting timeline of the recovery – despite all the trillions of money-printing by the European and other central banks, and all the government stimulus programmes.

ACC EU May17Worryingly, new data from the American Chemistry Council suggests that a new downturn may be underway in W Europe, as the second chart shows:

  Output had been growing steadily at around 3%/year from 2014 to early-2016
  But then it began to slide.  It was just 0.5% in May, and only recovered to 2% in January – normally one of the seasonally strongest months in the year

This report is confirmed by Q1 results from BASF, the world’s largest chemical company.  It cautioned that volumes were only slightly up compared to Q1 2016, despite “a sharp increase in prices for raw materials” due to the rise in oil prices.  This is particularly worrying as demand was artificially inflated in Q1, due to many companies building inventory as the oil price rose following November’s OPEC/non-OPEC deal.

The issue is that oil prices are a critical factor along the entire value chain.  Even retailers follow the oil price very closely, and every purchasing department aims to second-guess its direction, whether upwards or downwards. They buy ahead when they believe prices are rising, and leave purchases as late as possible when prices are falling.

This behaviour has a counter-intuitive impact on the market. Instead of demand reducing when prices rise, it actually appears to be increasing as companies build inventory. Thus producers are lulled into a false sense of security as price increases appear to have no impact on demand. But when oil prices are thought to have stabilised, volume then starts to reduce as buyers reduce their inventory to more normal levels.

The impact over a full cycle is, of course, neutral. But on the way up, apparent demand can often increase by around 10% and then fall by a similar amount on the downside, accentuating the basic economic cycle.

The European economy already faces a number of major headwinds due to the rise of the Populists and the UK’s Brexit decision to leave the European Union.  Now the APPE and ACC data suggests that overall demand has actually been slowing for the past 9 months. And it is likely that underlying demand today is now slowing even more as companies along the value chain destock again as the oil price weakens.

Prudent CEOs and investors will no doubt already be preparing for a potentially difficult time in H2 this year.