Chemical output signals trouble for global economy

A petrochemical plant on the outskirts of Shanghai. Chinese chemical industry production has been negative on a year-to-date basis since February

Falling output in China and slowing growth globally suggest difficult years ahead, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

Chemicals are the best leading indicator for the global economy. Data for both Chinese and global chemical production, shown in the first chart, are warning that we may now be headed into recession.

China’s stimulus programme has been the key driver for the world’s post-2008 recovery, as we discussed here in May (“China’s lending bubble is history”).

It accounted for about half of the global $33tn in stimulus programmes and its decline is currently having a dual impact, as it reduces both demand for EM commodities and the availability of global credit.

In turn, this reversal is impacting the global economy — already battling headwinds from trade tariffs and higher oil prices.

Initially the impact was most noticeable in emerging markets but the scale of the downturn is now starting to hit the wider economy:

  • China’s demand has been the growth engine for the global economy since 2008, and its scale has been such that this lost demand cannot be compensated elsewhere
  • China’s shadow banking bubble has been a major source of speculative lending, helping to finance property bubbles in China and many global cities
  • It also financed a domestic construction boom in China on a scale never seen before, creating excess demand for a wide range of commodities

But now the lending bubble is bursting. The second chart shows the extent of the downturn this year. Shadow banking is down 84%  ($557bn) in the year to September, according to official People’s Bank of China data. Total Social Financing is down 12% ($188bn), despite an increase in official bank lending to support strategic companies.

It seems highly likely that the property bubble has begun to burst, with China Daily reporting that new home loans in Shanghai were down 77% in the first half. In turn, auto sales fell in each month during the third quarter, as buyers can no longer count on windfall gains from property speculation to finance their purchases.

The absence of speculative Chinese buyers, anxious to move their cash offshore, is also having a significant impact on demand outside China in former property hotspots in New York, London and elsewhere.

The chemical industry has been flagging this decline with increasing urgency since February, when Chinese production went negative on a year-to-date basis. The initial decline was certainly linked to the government’s campaign to reduce pollution by shutting down many older and more polluting factories.

But there has been no recovery over the summer, with both August and September showing 3.1% declines according to American Chemistry Council data. Inevitably, Asian production has also now started to decline, due to its dependence on exports to China. In turn, like a stone thrown into a pond, the wider ripples are starting to reach western economies.

President Trump’s trade wars aren’t helping, of course, as they have already begun to increase prices for US consumers. Ford, for example, has reported that its costs have increased by $1bn as a result of steel and aluminium tariffs. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has also caused oil prices as a percentage of GDP to rise to levels typically associated with recession in the past.

The rationale is simply that consumers only have so much cash to spend, and money they spend on rising gasoline and heating costs can’t be spent on the discretionary items that drive GDP growth.

It seems unlikely, however, that Trump’s trade war with China will lead to his expected “quick win”. China has faced far more severe hardships in recent decades, and there are few signs that it is preparing to change core policies. The trade war will inevitably have at least a short-term negative economic impact but, paradoxically, it also supports the government’s strategy to escape the “middle income trap” by ending China’s role as the “low-skilled factory of the world”, and moving up the ladder to more value-added operations and services.

The trade war therefore offers an opportunity to accelerate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), initially by moving unsophisticated and often polluting factories offshore. It also emphasises the priority given to the services sector:

  • Already companies, both private and state-owned, are focusing their international acquisitions in BRI countries. According to EY, 12 per cent of overall Chinese (non-financial) outbound investment was in BRI countries in 2017, versus 9 per cent in 2016, and 2018 is likely to be considerably higher. Apart from south-east Asia, we expect eastern and central Europe to be beneficiaries, given the new BRI infrastructure links, as the map highlights
  • Data from the Caixin/Markit services purchasing managers’ index for September suggests the sector remains in growth mode. And government statistics suggest the services sector was slightly over half of the economy in the first half, with its official growth reported at 7.6 per cent versus overall GDP growth of 6.8 per cent

We expect China to come through the pain caused by the unwinding of the stimulus bubbles, and ultimately be strengthened by the need to refocus on sustainable rather than speculative growth. But it will not be an easy few years for China and the global economy.

The rising tide of stimulus has led many investors and chief executives to look like geniuses. Now the downturn will probably lead to the appearance of winners and losers, with the latter likely to be in the majority.

Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.

“What could possibly go wrong?”

I well remember the questions a year ago, after I published my annual Budget Outlook, ‘Budgeting for the Great Unknown in 2018 – 2020‘.  Many readers found it difficult to believe that global interest rates could rise significantly, or that China’s economy would slow and that protectionism would rise under the influence of Populist politicians.

MY ANNUAL BUDGET OUTLOOK WILL BE PUBLISHED NEXT WEEK
Next week, I will publish my annual Budget Outlook, covering the 2019-2021 period. The aim, as always, will be to challenge conventional wisdom when this seems to be heading in the wrong direction.

Before publishing the new Outlook each year, I always like to review my previous forecast. Past performance may not be a perfect guide to the future, but it is the best we have:

The 2007 Outlook ‘Budgeting for a Downturn‘, and 2008′s ‘Budgeting for Survival’ meant I was one of the few to forecast the 2008 Crisis.  2009′s ‘Budgeting for a New Normal’ was then more positive than the consensus, suggesting “2010 should be a better year, as demand grows in line with a recovery in global GDP“.  Please click here if you would like to download a free copy of all the Budget Outlooks.

THE 2017 OUTLOOK WARNED OF 4 KEY RISKS
My argument last year was essentially that confidence had given way to complacency, and in some cases to arrogance, when it came to planning for the future.  “What could possibly go wrong?” seemed to be the prevailing mantra.  I therefore suggested that, on the contrary, we were moving into a Great Unknown and highlighted 4 key risks:

  • Rising interest rates would start to spark a debt crisis
  • China would slow as President Xi moved to tackle the lending bubble
  • Protectionism was on the rise around the world
  • Populist appeal was increasing as people lost faith in the elites

A year later, these are now well on the way to becoming consensus views.

  • Debt crises have erupted around the world in G20 countries such as Turkey and Argentina, and are “bubbling under” in a large number of other major economies such as China, Italy, Japan, UK and USA.  Nobody knows how all the debt created over the past 10 years can be repaid.  But the IMF reported earlier this year that total world debt has now reached $164tn – more than twice the size of global GDP
  • China’s economy in Q3 saw its slowest level of GDP growth since Q1 2009 with shadow bank lending down by $557bn in the year to September versus 2017.  Within China, the property bubble has begun to burst, with new home loans in Shanghai down 77% in H1.  And this was before the trade war has really begun, so further slowdown seems inevitable
  • Protectionism is on the rise in countries such as the USA, where it would would have seemed impossible only a few years ago.  Nobody even mentions the Doha trade round any more, and President Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico specifically targets so-called ‘non-market economies’ such as China, with the threat of losing access to US markets if they do deals with China
  • Brexit is worth a separate heading, as it marks the area where consensus thinking has reversed most dramatically over the past year, just as I had forecast in the Outlook:

“At the moment, most companies and investors seem to be ignoring these developments, assuming that in the end, sense will prevail. But what if they are wrong? It seems highly likely, for example, that the UK will end up with a “hard Brexit” in March 2019 with no EU trade deal and no transition period to enable businesses to adjust.

“Today’s Populist politicians don’t seem to care about these risks. For them, the allure of arguing for “no deal”, if they can’t get exactly what they want, is very powerful. So it would seem sensible for executives to spend time understanding exactly how their business might be impacted if today’s global supply chains came to an end.”

  • Populism is starting to dominate the agenda in an increasing number of countries.  A year ago, many assumed that “wiser heads” would restrain President Trump’s Populist agenda, but instead he has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers; Italy now has a Populist government; Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland made major gains in last year’s election, and in Bavaria last week.

The last 10 years have proved that stimulus programmes cannot substitute for a lack of babies. They generate debt mountains instead of sustainable demand, and so make the problems worse, not better.  As a result, voters start to listen to Populists, who offer seemingly simple solutions to the problems which have been ignored by the elites.

Next week, I will look at what may happen in the 2019 – 2021 period, as we enter the endgame for the policy failures of the past decade.

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Petrochemicals must face up to multiple challenges

Europe’s petrochemical sector must prepare now for the trade war, US start-ups, Brexit and the circular economy, as I discuss in this interview with Will Beacham of ICIS news  at the European Petrochemical Association Conference.

With higher tariff barriers going up between the US and China, the market in Europe is likely to experience an influx of polymers and other chemicals from exporters looking for a new home for their production, International eChem chairman, Paul Hodges said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the European Petrochemical Association’s annual meeting in Vienna, he said: “The thing we have to watch out for is displaced product which can’t go from the US any more to China and therefore will likely come to Europe.

In addition to polyethylene, there is an indirect effect as domestic demand in China is also falling, he said, leaving other Asian producers which usually export there to also seek new markets and targeting Europe.

The US isn’t buying so many consumer goods from China any more – and that seems to be the case because container ships going from China to the US for Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t full. So NE and SE Asian chemical producers haven’t got the business they expect in China and are exporting to Europe instead.  We don’t know how disruptive this will be but it has quite a lot of potential.”

US polymer start-ups
Hodges believes that the new US polymer capacities will go ahead even if the demand is not there for the product. This is because the ethane feedstocks they use need to be extracted by the producers and sellers of natural gas who must remove ethane from the gas stream to make it safe.

For these producers some of the cost advantages have already disappeared because of rising ethane prices.

The exports of US ethane are adding one or two more crackers to the total. And without sufficient capacity ethane prices have become higher and more volatile.”

Hodges points out that pricing power is being lost as poor demand means producers cannot pass on the effect of rising oil prices. “Margins are being hit with some falling by 50-60%,” he said.

Circular economy
EU targets mean that all plastic packaging must be capable of being recycled, reused or composted in Europe by 2025. For the industry this could be a huge opportunity, but only if it acts fast, said Hodges: “We have to develop the technology that allows that to happen. We will need the [regulatory] approvals and if we don’t get moving in the next 12-18 months we are in trouble.”

Brexit beckons
According to Hodges: “We are in the end game for Brexit. We talk to senior politicians from both sides who don’t think there is a parliamentary majority for any Brexit option.”

He fears that if no deal can be agreed there is a chance the UK will refuse to pay its £39bn divorce bill.

Then what happens to chemical regulation and transport? Although the bigger companies have made preparations, only one in seven in the supply chains are getting prepared,” he added.  This is why we have launched ReadyforBrexit.

You can listen to the full podcast interview by clicking here.

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Is your business Ready for Brexit?

Time is running out for the UK government to agree a Brexit deal with Europe.  As my new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business highlights, companies need to move quickly to prepare for the “No Deal” scenario

Legendary England footballer Gary Lineker best summarised the general sense of disbelief over the state of 
the Brexit negotiations when tweeting in July:

“A wealthy nation putting itself in a position where it has to stockpile food, medicine, etc., in times of peace is utter madness. What Are We Doing?”

Lineker’s concern was confirmed last month by the head of the British Chambers of Commerce who warned that “precision is what is required” regarding the Brexit process, rather than “declaratory statements”.

Yet today, with less than six months to go before the UK officially leaves the EU, businesses still do not know if the UK will simply crash out with no deal on 29 March, with no transition agreement in place. This is almost unbelievable, given that the EU is the UK’s largest trading partner, taking 44% (£274bn) of UK exports in 2017, and provides 53% (£341bn) of all UK imports, according to a July report from the House of Commons library.

One problem is that the cabinet only finally agreed on its chosen option for the new EU relationship in August. In turn, this means the civil service is only now starting to be able to advise sector groups, trade associations and other experts on the key issues involved.

A second problem is that the new Brexit department had to be created virtually overnight after the June 2016 referendum, and the average age of its staff is just 31 years. Many have no personal experience of the enormously complex issues involved.

CHEMICALS IN NO-MAN’S LAND
Chemical companies are, of course, right in the middle of this no-man’s-land. They depend on frictionless movements of raw materials and intermediates between their various EU sites, and they are heavily integrated into just-in-time supply chains with key customers such as the auto and food industries.

The UK government has recently warned of possible major disruption if there is a No Deal Brexit, and the Key UK Risks chart highlights the key economic and business risks that lie ahead.

The current gap between the UK and EU positions was emphasised in chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s recent evidence to the UK Parliament:

  • He confirmed that the EU did not believe key proposals in the Chequers Plan for the Irish border and other super-critical issues can either work or be agreed
  • Instead, Barnier proposed the idea of a “Canada plus plus” deal in the form of a Free Trade Agreement covering goods (but not services), plus customs cooperation, plus participation in health, research, Erasmus, aviation and internal security
  • He also emphasised that the UK’s £39bn payment was a divorce settlement covering past UK commitments, not an up-front payment for a good trade agreement

THREE MAIN SCENARIOS AHEAD

‘May achieves a withdrawal agreement’
The UK and EU will both lose from a No Deal Brexit and so in principle they could simply “fudge” the trade issue for future discussion during the transition period until December 2020. But although both sides emphasise that 80% of the withdrawal agreement is now agreed, this only highlights that the most difficult 20% still lies ahead – issues such as Ireland, immigration and EU citizen rights, and future trade relations.

‘Markets cause a panic on Tory benches’
What happens if May does stumble at this point and fails either to gain an agreement with the EU27 or to get it safely through the Cabinet, Tory party and Parliament? As the Risks chart shows, this might well lead to financial market pressure on the pound and interest rates. This would also represent more bad news for chemical companies. If even 20 Tory Eurosceptics vote against a deal, then May would have to rely on opposition party votes, and their support looks unlikely given Labour’s “six tests” for approving any deal.

‘No deal’ scenario
Exchange rate volatility could become a critical issue for companies and investors if this scenario is reached, with the pound possibly falling towards parity with the US dollar and the euro, causing interest rates to rise. Foreign investors currently own 28% of the government’s £1.9tn debt, and concern over the value of the pound could lead some to reduce their holdings of government bonds.The Brexit Directory chart from Ready for Brexit shows the scale of the risks involved.  It highlights how Brexit potentially involves almost every aspect of business – from Customs & Tariffs through Finance and Legal issues, to Services & Employment and the Supply Chain.

Of course, many major companies have already spent months and millions of euros in preparing detailed contingency plans. Some are already stockpiling key raw materials and products, and revising relevant contract clauses.

But smaller businesses do not have these resources. Surveys show that only one in seven have done any forward planning for a No Deal Brexit, and official government guidance for a No Deal has only just begun to appear. In turn, this creates a clear risk of widescale disruption, as today’s highly integrated supply chains are only as strong as their weakest link. The lack of just one raw material can stop a production line.

As Gary Lineker says, it is hard to believe this is happening. But it is, and so far “declaratory statements” rather than precise detail continue to dominate the process.

It is also easy to forget that a No Deal Brexit will not just impact the UK. US and EU-based businesses involved in a supply chain that involves a UK company face a clear risk of disruption.

This is why I have helped to launch Ready for Brexit with other industry colleagues. As the Scout motto reminds us, to ‘Be Prepared’ could be critical for business survival if a No Deal Brexit does occur.

 

Please click here to visit Ready for Brexit, and click here to download the full ICB analysis.

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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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Political and economic risks rise as US mid-term elections near

This is the Labor Day weekend in the USA – the traditional start of the mid-term election campaign.  And just as in September 2016, the Real Clear Politics poll shows that most voters feel their country is going in the wrong direction.  The demographic influences that I highlighted then are also becoming ever-more important with time:

Demographics, as in 1960 and 1980, are therefore likely to be a critical influence in November’s election:

  • Median age in 1960 was just 30, and 29 in 1964. Young people are by nature optimistic about the future, believing anything can be achieved – and their support was critical for the Great Society project
  • Median age was still only 30 years in 1980. The Boomers were joining the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 generation in large numbers. They were keen to join the Reagan revolution and eliminate barriers
  • Today, however, median age is nearly 50% higher at 38 years, and the average Boomer is aged 61.. The candidates are not mirroring Kennedy/Johnson and Reagan/Bush in focusing on the need to remove barriers. Indeed, Trump’s signature policy is to build a wall”

2 years later, the median age is still increasing, and the average Boomer is aged 63.

But there is one major change from 2 years ago.  Then, President Obama had a positive approval rating at 50.7%.  But today, President Trump has a negative approval rate of 53.9%.

This has clear consequences for the likely outcome of the mid-terms, with the latest FiveThirtyEight poll suggesting the Democrats have a 3 in 4 chance of winning control of the House.  In turn, of course, this increases the risk of impeachment for Trump and makes it even more difficult for him to stop the Mueller investigation.  We therefore have to assume that Trump will do everything he can to reduce this risk over the next few weeks.

Americans are not alone in feeling that their country is heading in the wrong direction, as the latest survey (above) for IPSOS Mori confirms.  And they have been feeling this for a long time – as I noted back in November 2016:

  • China, Saudi Arabia, India, Argentina, Peru, Canada and Russia are the only countries to record a positive feeling
  • The other 18 are increasingly desperate for change

Today Malaysia, S Korea, Serbia and Chile have moved into the positive camp.  But Argentina, Peru and Russia have gone negative.  And if we narrow down to the world’s ‘Top 10’ economies:

  • 7 of them are negative – 53% of Italians, 59% of Americans, 63% of Japanese, 66% of Germans, 67% of British, 73% of French and 85% of Brazilians
  • Only 3 are positive – 91% of Chinese, 67% of Indians and 52% of Canadians

There is a clear message here, as the median ages of the ‘Unhappy 7’ are also continuing to rise:

  • Median Japanese age is 47.3 years; Italy is 45.5; Germany is 43.8; France is 41.4, Britain is 40.5; US is 38.1, (Brazil is unhappy because of economic/political chaos, and is the exception that proves the rule at 32 years)
  • By contrast, China’s media age is 37.4 years, India is 27.9 (Canada is the exception at 42.2 years)

The key issue is summarised in the 3rd slide from a BBC poll, which shows that 3 out of 4 people in the world believe their country has become divided.  More than half believe it is more divided than 10 years ago.

There is also a clear correlation with the demographic data:

  • 35% of Japanese, 67% of Italians, 66% of Germans, 54% of French, 65% of British, 57% of Americans and 46% of Brazilians see their country as more divided than 10 years ago
  • Only 10% of Chinese, 13% of Indians and 35% of Canadians feel this way

POLITICIANS ARE INCREASINGLY FOCUSED ON ‘DIVIDE AND RULE’
One might have expected that politicians would be working to remove these barriers.  But the trend since 2016 has been in the opposite direction.  Older people have historically always been less optimistic about the future than the young.  And the Populists from both the left and right have been ruthless in exploiting this fact.

This trend has major implications for companies and investors. As long-standing readers will remember, very few people agreed with my suggestion in September 2015 that Trump could win the US Presidency and that political risk was moving up the agenda.  As one normally friendly commentator wrote:

“Hodges’ predictions are relevant to companies, he says, because of the likelihood of political change leading to political risk:

  • The economic success of the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle meant that politics as such took a back seat. People no longer needed to argue over “who got what” as there seemed to be plenty for everyone. But today, those happy days are receding into history – hence the growing arguments over inequality and relative income levels
  • Companies and investors have had little experience of how such debates can impact them in recent decades. They now need to move quickly up the learning curve. Political risk is becoming a major issue, as it was before the 1990s

“Of course a prediction skeptic like me would say this, but I have a very, very, very difficult time imagining that populist movements could have significant traction in the U.S. Congress in passing legislation that would seriously affect companies and investors.” (my emphasis)

Yet 3 years later, this has now happened on a major scale – impacting a growing range of industries and countries.

As the mid-term campaigning moves into its final weeks, we must therefore assume that Trump will focus on further consolidating his base vote.  Further tariffs on China, and the completion of the pull-out from the Iran nuclear deal are almost certain as a result.  Canada is being threatened in the NAFTA talks, and it would be no surprise if he increases the economic pressure against the US’s other key allies in the G7 countries, given the major row at June’s G7 Summit.

Anyone who still hope that Trump might be bluffing, and that the world will soon return to “business as usual”, is likely to have an unpleasant shock in the weeks ahead.

 

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