Day of reckoning approaches for US polyethylene expansions, and the European industry

Planning for future demand in petrochemicals and polymers used to be relatively easy during the BabyBoomer SuperCycle. The team would consult the latest IMF forecast for global and regional growth, and then debate the right ratio to use to calculate product demand.

For polyethylene (PE), the ratio was generally just above GDP at around 1.1x, on the basis that relatively more plastic was likely to be needed as the economy grew.

So when the US shale gas opportunity came along, producers were very confident that it would provide them with major cost advantage over most other Regions. And they were under major pressure to use the ethane that might be produced from the new natural gas production, as it is explosive when mixed with air in concentrations between 3% – 12.4%.

Essentially this meant the ethane was a distressed product, and had to be used in ethylene production, as there are no other major applications.

Since those early days, the US polyethylene expansions have been “an accident waiting to happen”, as I first argued when the plans were still being finalised in March 2014:

“US ethylene producers need to work out where all the new ethylene production is going to be sold before embarking on the planned frenzy of cracker construction”.

Unfortunately, the pressures from Wall Street to exploit the apparent opportunity were too great. One by one, companies gave in to peer pressure and announced expansion plans, as shown in the ICIS graphic – and were rewarded by sharp increases in their share price. As one CEO said to me at the time:

“You may be right, but every time I mention shale on an earnings call, the share price goes up $5.”

Our major Study, ‘Demand – the New Direction for Profit’, jointly produced with ICIS, took the analysis a stage further in March 2016, warning that:

“The supply-led business model – build capacity and wait for demand to catch up – will no longer work in today’s low- or-no-growth marketplace.”

And it really did seem obvious then that the key assumptions behind the expansions were wrong:

  • Oil prices were no longer above $100/bbl and so US gas-based producers didn’t have a major cost advantage
  • Global growth hadn’t returned to SuperCycle levels; China was starting to move towards self-sufficiency and would not longer need need vast import volumes
  • Globalisation was being replaced by protectionism, and plants could no longer be sited half-way across the world from their markets

But companies went ahead anyway, due to the pressure from upstream gas producers to dispose of the product, and the enthusiastic support provided by investors.

The terrible hurricanes in 2017 postponed the moment of reckoning, as plants were delayed for months due to the damage.  But then, construction picked up again and most of the new capacity is now in place – and linked to new polyethylene capacity.

Polyethylene is the largest volume polymer, and the expansions are adding 40% (6.5 million tonnes) to US capacity between 2017 – 2019.  Other Regions are of course also expanding – particularly China, as it seeks to become more self-sufficient as a result of President Trump’s trade war. The ICIS price charts therefore show a depressing picture:

  • Asian HDPE CFR prices have fallen from $1350/t to $900/t over the past year
  • US HDPE prices have fallen from 64c/lb to 53c/lb over the same period
  • And European HDPE prices have started to tumble, down from $1150/t in June to $950/t today

The reason is not hard to find, as the charts from Trade Data Monitor confirm.   Total H1 ethylene exports in the shape of PE, PVC, styrene, EDC, ethylene and other derivatives almost doubled to 4 million tonnes. And suddenly, Europe has become the main importer, with volume up from 420kt in 2018 to 1.05MT.  Most of the volume is in PE, which doubled to 3MT on a global basis.

And there is still more volume to come, with ExxonMobil now starting its new 650kt plant and LyondellBasell starting its new 500kt plant in Q4. That’s more than 1MT of new  PE output which will have to be exported into an already over-supplied market.

In addition, it is clear that public opinion and the new EU Circular Economy directive are already starting to have a major impact on demand for single use plastics. Unfortunately, over 50% of  PE output goes into this application, along with nearly a third of polypropylene.

Volume is already disappearing as consumers make the shift to more sustainable forms of packaging. It is clear that recycled material now has the potential to replace virgin product as the feedstock of choice in the future.

In turn, these paradigm shifts are creating Winners and Losers.  Next year is likely to prove very difficult for US PE exporters, as they face up to the fact that export demand has not grown as expected, and they do not have a major cost advantage.

As the picture of Fido the dog illustrates, polymer producers are the ‘flea on the tail of the oil/gas markets’:

  • Producers integrated into US natural gas production, or EU refineries, will be able to ‘roll through’ margins to the wellhead and refinery as prices go lower
  • But non-integrated European players have much less protection. Their margins will get squeezed, at the same time as demand patterns shift away from the use of virgin product

Now is therefore the time for these producers to start accelerating moves to using recycled feedstock for their production.  In another 12-18 months, if prices and margins keep on falling at current rates, it may well be too late.

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.

Ethane price hikes, China tariffs, hit US PE producers as global market weakens

Sadly, my July forecast that US-China tariffs could lead to a global polyethylene price war seems to be coming true.

As I have argued since March 2014 (US boom is a dangerous game), it was always going to be difficult for US producers to sell their vastly increased output.  The expansions were of course delayed by last year’s terrible hurricanes, but the major plants are all now in the middle of coming online.  In total, these shale gas-based expansions will increase ethylene (C2) capacity by a third and polyethylene (PE) capacity by 40% (6 million tonnes).

ICIS pricing reports this weekend confirm my concern, following China’s decision to retaliate in response to President Trump’s $200bn of tariffs on US imports from China:

Even worse, as the chart above confirms, is that US ethane feedstock spreads versus ethylene have collapsed during 2018, from around 20c/lb to 5c/lb today.   Ethane averaged 26c/gal as recently as May, but spiked to more than double this level earlier this month (and even higher, momentarily) at 55c/gal.

The issue appears to be that US producers had calculated their ethane supply/demand balances on the basis of the planned US expansions, and never expected large volumes of ethane to be exported.  Yet latest EIA data shows exports doubling from an average 95kbd in 2016 to 178kbd last year. And they are still rising, with Q2 exports 62% higher at 290kbd.

 The second chart from the latest pH Report adds a further concern to those of over-capacity and weak pricing power.

It focuses attention on the weak state of underlying demand. Even the prospect of higher oil prices only led to modest upturns earlier this year in the core olefins, aromatics and polymers value chains as companies built inventory. Polymers’ weak response is a particularly negative indicator for end-user demand.

This concern is supported by recent analysis of the European market by ICIS C2 expert, Nel Weddle.  She notes that PE is used in packaging, the manufacture of household goods, and also in the agricultural industry and adds:

“Demand has been disappointing for many sellers in September, after a fairly weak summer.  “I don’t see a big difference between now and August,” said one, “for both demand and pricing. Customers are very very quiet.”  All PE grades were available, with no shortage of any in evidence.

“The market is generally quieter than many had expected, and the threat of imports from new capacities in the US looms large – particularly with the current trade spat between the US and China meaning that product may have to find a home in Europe sooner than expected.
US producers, as would be expected, remain optimistic.  Thus LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel has suggested that:

“Trade patterns are shifting as China sources from other regions and [US producers] are shifting to markets that are vacated.  Supply chains are adjusting but there is a bit of inventory volatility as a result. Where product has landed [in China] and has to be redirected, there is price volatility. But we think that is [transitory].”

But the detail of global PE trade suggests a more pessimistic conclusion. Data from Trade Date Monitor shows that China was easily the largest importer, taking a net 11.9 million tonnes. Turkey was the second largest importer but took just 1.7 million tonnes, around 14% of China’s volume.  And given Turkey’s economic crisis, it is hard to see even these volumes being sustainable with its interest rates now at 24% and its currency down 60% versus the US$.

As the 3rd chart confirms, the US therefore has relatively few options for exporting its new volumes:

  • Total net exports have increased 29% in January-July versus 2016, but were still only 1.8 million tonnes
  • Latin America remained the largest export market at 939kt, taking 52% of total volume
  • China volume had doubled to 524kt, but was only 29% of the total
  • Europe was the next largest market at 369kt, up 40%, but just 20% of the total
  • Other markets remain relatively small; S Africa took the largest volume in Africa at just 12kt

China’s US imports will now almost certainly reduce as the new tariffs bite.  And the onset of the US trade war is likely to further boost China’s existing aim of increasing its self-sufficiency in key areas such as PE.  Its ethylene capacity is already slated to increase by 73% by 2022, double the rate of expansion in 2012-2017 and from a higher base.  The majority of this new volume will inevitably go into PE, as it is easily the largest derivative product.

Back in May, I used the chart above to highlight how the coming price war would likely create Winners and Losers in olefin and polymer markets.  Unfortunately, developments since then make this conclusion more or less certain.  I fear that complacency based on historical performance will confirm my 2014 warning about the dangers that lie ahead.

 

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US ethylene prices near all-time lows as over-capacity arrives

US ethylene spot prices are tumbling as the major new shale gas expansions come on line, as the chart based on ICIS pricing data confirms:

  • They began the year at $617/t, but have since more than halved to $270/t on Friday
  • They are only around 10% higher than their all-time low of $240/t in September 1998
  • WTI crude oil was then $15/bbl and ethane was $0.15c/gal
  • On Friday, WTI closed at $70.5/bbl and ethane was $0.25c/gal

The collapse in margin has been sudden, but is hardly unexpected.  It is, of course, true that downstream polyethylene plants associated with the crackers were delayed by the hurricanes.  So ethylene prices may recover a little once they come online.  But unfortunately, that is likely to simply transfer the problem downstream to the polymer markets.

The issue is shown in the second chart, based on Trade Data Monitor data:

  • It shows annual US net exports of polyethylene since 2006
  • They peaked in 2009 at 2.6 million tonnes as China’s stimulus programme began
  • China’s import demand doubled that year to 1 million tonnes, but then fell back again
  • Net exports have actually fallen since 2016 to 1.9 million tonnes last year

The problem, of course, was that companies and investors were fooled by the central bank stimulus programmes.  They told everyone that demographics didn’t matter, and that they could always create demand via a mix of money-printing and tax cuts.  But this was all wishful thinking, as we described here in the major 2016 Study, ‘Demand – the New Direction for Profit‘, and in articles dating back to March 2014.

Unfortunately, the problems have multiplied since then.  President Trump’s seeming desire to launch a trade war with China has led to the threat of retaliation via a 25% tariff on US PE imports.  And growing global concern over the damage caused by waste plastics means that recycled plastic is likely to become the growth feedstock for the future.

In addition, of course, today’s high oil price is almost certainly now causing demand destruction down the value chains – just as it has always done before at current price levels.  People only have so much money to spend.  If gasoline and heating costs rise, they have less to spend on the more discretionary items that drive polymer demand.

COMPANIES HAVE TO REPOSITION FAST TO BECOME WINNERS IN THIS NEW LANDSCAPE As I suggested with the above slide at last month’s ICIS World Polymers Conference, today’s growing over-capacity and political uncertainty will create Winners and Losers:

  • Ethylene consumers are already gaining from today’s lower prices
  • Middle East producers will gain at the US’s expense due to their close links with China
  • Chinese producers will also do well due to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)

As John Richardson has discussed, China is in the middle of major new investment which will likely make it a net exporter of many polymers within a few years.  And it has a ready market for these exports via the BRI, which has the potential to become the largest free trade area in the world.  As a senior Chinese official confirmed to me recently:

“China’s aim in the C2/C3 value chains is to run a balanced to long position. And where China has a long position, the aim will be to export from the West along the Belt & Road links to converters / intermediate processors.”

The Losers will likely be the non-integrated producers who cannot roll-through margins from the well-head or refinery.  They need to quickly find a new basis for competition.

Luckily for them, one does exist – namely the opportunity to develop a more service-led business model and work with the brand owners by switching to use recycled plastics as a feedstock.  As I noted in March:

Producers and consumers who want to embrace a more service-based business model therefore have a great opportunity to take a lead in creating the necessary infrastructure, in conjunction with regulators and the brand owners who actually sell the product to the end-consumer.”

Time, however, is not on their side.  As US ethylene prices confirm, the market is already reacting to the reality of over-capacity.  H2 will likely be difficult under almost any circumstances.

The industry made excellent profits in recent years.  It is now time for forward thinking producers – integrated and non-integrated – to reinvest these, and quickly reinvent the business to build new revenue and profit streams for the future.

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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.

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.