China’s plastic ban and recycling launch marks end of ‘business as usual’ for plastics industry

Paradigm shifts start slowly at first, and it is easy to miss them. But then one day, they suddenly become obvious, and it becomes a scramble to catch up. That’s what happened on the waste plastic issue last week, when China decided to take action. As official news agency, Xinhua, reported:

  • “The policy measures proposed in this opinion basically cover the entire process and various links of plastic product production, circulation, use, recycling, and disposal, reflecting a system of full life cycle management
  • “Policy adjustments target both traditional areas and emerging areas such as e-commerce, express delivery, and takeaway
  • “(They focus on) plastic products that are currently in large use, relatively prominent, and strongly reflected in society, and take the lead in prohibiting or restricting production, sales, and use in some areas and regions
  • “It is important to point out that implementation will inevitably affect the production of some industries and the convenience of residents’ lives”

My former company, ICI, invented polyethylene (PE) back in 1933. PE is now the largest single polymer with volume close to 100m tonnes. More than half of this goes into single-use applications.  Yet in a major failure of the imagination, very few of us in the industry ever thought until recently about the waste this caused.  As the BBC reported after China’s decision:

“China has for years been struggling to deal with the rubbish its 1.4 billion citizens generate. The country’s largest rubbish dump – the size of around 100 football fields – is already full, 25 years ahead of schedule.”

And we are all still ignoring the economic waste involved.  Crude oil costs $60/bbl, and it costs lots more dollars to refine it/ship it/process it. And then we simply throw away the single- use plastic bags and packaging that we bring home from the shop or unwrap from the internet delivery.

Plus, of course, there is the marine waste problem, so vividly brought to life in the photo from Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet 2 television series.

THE PLASTICS INDUSTRY MUST NOW TAKE UP THE CHALLENGE

China uses around 1/3rd of all the PE produced today. So its decisions are a game-changer for the entire global industry.

Nobody wants to do away with plastics themselves.  They are unique materials – lightweight, resilient, usually non-reactive and waterproof. They have much lower carbon intensity than competing materials such as metals, and they play an incredibly valuable role in our daily lives. Food packaging, for example, is proven to reduce food losses, wastage and health risks from contamination.

But the business model for producing plastics is broken, and needs to be challenged:

  • Does it really make sense to keep producing more oil and gas, with all the CO2 emissions this involves, and then throw away the end product?
  • If not, why aren’t we investing the necessary dollars to set up Resource Centres (as pictured) around our cities and towns, to recycle this waste plastic back into usable products?
  • And at the same time, why aren’t we developing robust contingency plans for optimising the legacy issues from the old business model

As I noted here a year ago, There’s a great future for the European plastics industry in recycled plastic, this opportunity is not just about China. Last month, new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen launched the EU’s Green Deal, noting:

“I am convinced that the old growth-model that is based on fossil-fuels and pollution is out of date, and it is out of touch with our planet. The European Green Deal is our new growth strategy – it is a strategy for growth that gives more back than it takes away. And we want to really make things different. We want to be the frontrunners in climate friendly industries, in clean technologies, in green financing.”

The key issue is summed up by new BP CEO, Bernard Looney. He warned at the weekend that the oil industry has to start:

“Going beyond small, ineffectual bets on low carbon investments.”

The plastics industry similarly has to step up from today’s relatively “small, ineffectual bets”. Otherwise it will run out of time to meet the 2025 recycling deadlines being set by an increasing numbers of brand owners and governments.

All paradigm shifts create Winners and Losers.  Losers will focus on recession risks and the potential impact of the corona virus. But Winners will know they need to do more than focus on these risks, if they want to generate long-term revenue and profit growth.

They will be the ones who start investing realistic sums of money, today, to turn the concept of the circular economy into reality.

Chemical industry data shows reflation remains hope, not reality

ACC Jul17Western central bankers are convinced reflation and economic growth are finally underway as a result of their $14tn stimulus programmes.  But the best leading indicator for the global economy – capacity utilisation (CU%) in the global chemical industry – is saying they are wrong.  The CU% has an 88% correlation with actual GDP growth, far better than any IMF or central bank forecast.

The chart shows June data from the American Chemistry Council, and confirms the CU% remains stuck at the 80% level, well below the 91% average between 1987 – 2008, and below the 82% average since then.  This is particularly concerning as H1 is seasonally the strongest part of the year – July/August are typically weak due to the holiday season, and then December is slow as firms de-stock before Christmas.

FMs Jul17

The interesting issue is why these historically low CU% have effectively been ignored by companies and investors. They are still pouring money into new capacity for which there is effectively no market – one example being the 4.5 million tonnes of new N American polyethylene capacity due online this year, as I discussed in March.

The reason is likely shown in the above chart of force majeures (FMs) – incidents when plants go suddenly offline, creating temporary shortages.  These are at record levels, with H1 2017 seeing 4x  the number of FMs in H1 2009.

In the past, most companies prided themselves on their operating record, having absorbed the message of the Quality movement that “there is no such thing as an accident”. Companies such as DuPont and ICI led the way in the 1980s with the introduction of Total Quality Management. They consciously put safety ahead of short-term profit and at the top of management agendas. As the Chartered Quality Institute notes:

“Total quality management is a management approach centred on quality, based on the participation of an organisation’s people and aiming at long-term success.”

  Today, however, the pressure for short-term financial success has become intense
  The average “investor” now only holds their shares for 8 months, according to World Bank data
 This time horizon is very different from that of the 1980s, when the average NYSE holding period was 33 months
  And it is a very long way from the 1960s average of 100 months

As a result, even some major companies appear to have changed their policy in this critical area, prioritising concepts such as “smart maintenance”. Such cutbacks in maintenance spend mean plants are more likely to break down, as managers take the risk of using equipment beyond its scheduled working life. Similarly, essential training is delayed, or reduced in length, to keep within a budget.

ICIS Insight editor Nigel Davies highlighted the key issue 2 years ago as the problems began to become more widespread around the world:

“The situation in Europe has exposed underlying trends and issues that will need to be addressed. Companies appear not to have sustained an adequate pace of maintenance capital expenditure. That has been for economic as well as structural (cost) reasons. Spending in high feedstock and energy cost Europe has certainly not been considered de rigeur….Having maintained plants to run at between 80% and 85% of capacity, suddenly pushing them hard does little good. Sometimes, they fail.”

The end-result has been to mask the growing problem of over-capacity, as plants fail to operate at their normal rates. This has supported profits in the short-term by making actual supply/demand balances far tighter than the nominal figures would suggest. But this trend cannot continue forever.

THE END OF CHINA’S STIMULUS WILL HIGHLIGHT TODAY’S EXCESS CAPACITY
Shadow Jul17The 3rd chart suggests its end is now fast approaching.  It shows developments in China’s shadow banking sector, which has been the real cause of the apparent “recovery” and reflation seen in recent months:

  Premier Li began a major stimulus programme a year ago, hoping to boost his Populist faction ahead of October’s 5-yearly National People’s Congress, which decides the new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)
  Populist Premier Wen did the same in 2011-2 – shadow lending rose six-fold to average $174bn/month
  But Wen’s tactic backfired and President Xi’s Princeling faction  won a majority in the 7-man PSC, although the Populist Li still had responsibility for the economy as Premier
  Li’s efforts have similarly run into the sand

As the 3-month average confirms (red line), Li’s stimulus programme saw shadow lending leap to $150bn/month. Unsurprisingly, as in 2011-2, commodity and asset prices rocketed around the world,funding ever-more speculative investments.  But in February, Xi effectively took control of the economy from Li and put his foot on the brakes.  Lending is already down to $25bn/month and may well go negative in H2, with Xi highlighting last week that:

“China’s development is standing at a new historical starting point, and … entered a new development stage”.

“Follow the money” is always a good option if one wants to survive the business cycle.  We can all hope that the IMF and other cheerleaders for the economy are finally about to be proved right.  But the CU% data suggests there is no hard evidence for their optimism.

There is also little reason to doubt Xi’s determination to finally start getting China’s vast debts under control, by cutting back on the wasteful stimulus policies of the Populists.  With China’s debt/GDP now over 300%, and the prospect of a US trade war looming, Xi simply has to act now – or risk financial meltdown during his second term of office.

Prudent investors are already planning for a difficult H2 and 2018.  Companies who have cut back on maintenance now need to quickly reverse course, before the potential collapse in profits makes this difficult to afford.

The unacceptable face of banking

Dimon, Diamond.pngBanks are essential in any modern society. Their role is two-fold:

• To take in deposits from companies and individuals
• To lend out this money prudently to other companies and individuals

Both are difficult roles to fulfil. Banking therefore requires employees who have both talent and integrity. They must be able to look after people’s money safely, and they must have the ability to manage financial risk.

Most bankers conscientiously aim to fulfil these challenging roles. But the examples of JP Morgan and Barclays highlight how the top leadership of many banks now appears to have a completely different agenda.

JP MORGAN CHASE
CEO Jamie Dimon apparently either never knew that one of his key units was taking vast trading bets, or he didn’t care to ask. He even denied the first rumours of major trading losses, when the story began to emerge in the financial press, calling them ‘a storm in a teacup’.

Today, the size of the eventual losses is still not known. But they are now expected to be at least $5bn.

BARCLAYS
CEO Bob Diamond is the head of a bank that has paid a $450m fine for systematically abusing the process by which LIBOR (London InterBank Offered Rate) was set over many years. This is no small issue.

The LIBOR rate is used to price an estimated $350tn of derivatives. Lenders and borrowers all over the world have potentially been affected.

Astonishingly, both Dimon and Diamond are still in their jobs today. No executve director of either bank has taken responsibility for these scandals and resigned*. This single fact shows the depths of the problem at the top of many banks.

The root cause of this problem was Congress’ 1999 repeal of the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking. Top bank executives abandoned their role as prudent lenders. Instead, they focused on increasing their profits as fast as possible via the use of maximum leverage.

In the process, as we argue in chapter 12 of Boom, Gloom and the New Normal, they encouraged the short-termism that has destroyed many companies. One casualty was the blog’s own former employer, ICI – once the largest chemical company in the world.

As the Financial Times notes:

If, as now seems likely, many banks were involved in fiddling rates, this raises questions not just about the leadership of one bank but that of the whole industry. For there to be a real change of heart and expectation, it may therefore be necessary to retire this generation of flawed leaders. This newspaper does not endorse banker-bashing for its own sake. But if the bashing is to stop, the banks themselves must change.

* The only resignation so far is of 65 year-old Marcus Agius, Barclays’ non-executive chairman. He had been chairman since January 2007, and was presumably coming up to retirement shortly.