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 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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China’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.
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.
The 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.
Worryingly, 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.
Many commentators were shocked by China’s weak trade data on Monday – with imports falling 12.5% versus July 2015, and January – July imports down 10.5%. But they were no surprise to anyone focused on developments in the chemical industry, which has once again confirmed its status as the most reliable leading indicator for the economy.
The chart shows net trade data in H1 2009 – 2016 for PVC – one of the most traded chemical products, used in construction for doors, windows, cables and other key areas. China’s own production has almost doubled over the period to 8.3 million tonnes, whilst its demand has only increased by around a third. As a result:
□ China has swung from being the world’s largest importer in 2009 to one of the leading exporters in 2016
□ NE Asia has been the main loser, with its exports to China falling by two-thirds to 187kt: NAFTA exports have fallen by more than a third to 130kt
□ China’s own exports have also started to surge, up from just 30kt in 2009 to 575kt this year
The data also confirms that China is now well on the way to reaching its ambitious targets for self-sufficiency (as set out in the current 5-Year Plan to 2020). For ethylene (the raw material for PVC, alongside chlorine) the aim is to reach 62% by 2020, compared to 49% in 2014.
Unfortunately, however, many commentators still remain in denial about these developments. Their shocked reactions to the trade data confirm their continuing failure to appreciate that China’s economic policies have never been based on Western concepts of cost-curves and corporate profitability.
As the chart above suggests, China is instead focused on avoiding social unrest, and preserving the Communist Party’s hold on power. It follows Deng Xiaoping’s policy, which aimed to keep living standards rising in order to maintain the Party’s role in government.
This policy makes perfect sense for China, as it seeks to avoid a return to the chaos of Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’:
□ It means that maintaining employment is a key objective, along with steady growth in incomes
□ Western concepts of focusing on corporate profitability and shareholder value are much less important
□ Productivity improvement is therefore critical to economic progress. New data shows, for example, that factory workers now have an average of 10 years schooling, compared to 8 years just a decade ago, helping to enable productivity to double over the same period
The other key change in recent years has been President Xi’s decision to move away from the stimulus policies followed between 2009 – 2013, in response to the financial crisis. China had provided around half of the total stimulus during this period. Inevitably, therefore, this triggered the Great Unwinding of global stimulus.
Unfortunately, as shown by this week’s reaction to China’s trade data, consensus thinking still fails to recognise the impact of these New Normal developments. But this failure also creates a major opportunity for those individuals, companies and investors who prefer to trust their own judgement on the outlook for China and the global economy .
Difficult times lie ahead for global polymer markets. It would be bad enough that downstream users have been busy building stock in recent weeks as the oil price rose, as Linda Naylor reports on polypropylene (PP) for ICIS:
“PP demand is slow, slower than many expected, and the strong growth of recent months is now considered to be partially down to stock building. “The market appears to have gone long quickly,” said one buyer. Some sources thought that inventories along the chain were higher, and concerns over working capital were leading to destocking.”
Now these stocks are likely to be unwound, as oil prices return to more normal levels with Iran and Iraq (and probably others) ramping up production just as demand weakens seasonally.
But there are more fundamental reasons for concern in the polymer markets themselves. As the chart above shows:
- China’s PP production is up 38% in January-April versus 2014 levels, and its imports are down 28%
- NE Asia and the Middle East have been badly hit, with their volumes down 10% and 38%
In turn, this is now starting to pressure the US market, as these producers seek to replace lost volumes. US imports from both regions have jumped to 25kt this year from 9kt in January-March 2015 (US Customs data is a month later than China’s). There are likely to be further increases through the year as China’s imports continue to reduce.
A further problem was a further 25kt of PP imports from Latin America – up from just 1kt in 2015 – as China’s slowdown forces LatAm producers to seek new markets. Unfortunately, US demand is also slowing, and so US inventories are now back at April 2013 highs.
As suggested 3 months ago, a major battle for market share is now developing, with US prices for PP starting to tumble. Contract prices fell 4c/lb ($88/t) in May after a 3c/lb fall in April, and ExxonMobil have told customers its prices will reduce by 3c – 5c/lb in June.
Europe is seeing a similar reversal of trade patterns, with Middle Eastern and NE Asian imports each up 20kt in January-February versus 2015 (Europe’s trade stats are even slower to appear than the US). And worryingly, many market players have failed to understand the extent of the downward pressures, with respondents to the latest ICIS sentiment index expecting a “sustained period of bullishness”. I fear they have a nasty shock ahead of them.
The problem goes far deeper than just PP, of course, as the second chart shows. European contract propylene prices have fallen sharply in H1 versus ethylene, averaging just 69% of the C2 price – a level last seen nearly 20 years ago. Already, as I found when giving the keynote presentation at last month’s World Polyolefins Conference, convertors are starting to think about switching from other polymers to PP in certain applications.
This is bound to put further pressure on polyethylene (PE), where China’s import volume has also fallen so far this year. It was down 3% versus 2015, whilst China’s production was up 6% – and overall demand up just 1%. The slowdown couldn’t be worse timed, as the first of the major new US capacities will be online in less than a year.
Unfortunately all my warnings have been lost in the recent euphoria – understandably, everyone wanted to instead believe that demand was returning to pre-2008 SuperCycle levels. But hope is not a strategy.
The good news is that our new Study, Demand – the New Direction for Profit, is now available to guide you through the difficult times that likely lie ahead. I honestly believe that buying it could be the best decision you make all year.