Rising interest rates, volatile exchange rates, high oil prices and plastic waste challenge aromatics industry

Fears are rising about the risks of recession, as I discuss in a new one-page summary of the key issues facing the aromatics industry, ‘What does the future hold for Aromatics?‘.  Please click here to download it.

These issues will also be key topics at next month’s 17th World Aromatics and Derivatives Conference, jointly organised with ICIS, along with detailed coverage of the benzene and xylene value chains.

We have the usual strong line-up of speakers, and the Conference will also provide an excellent opportunity to exchange views with business partners and colleagues.  For further details and to book your place, please click here.

I hope to see you in Amsterdam next month.

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Plastics recycling paradigm shift will create Winners and Losers

My new analysis for iCIS Chemical Business highlights the paradigm shift now underway in the plastics industry.

A paradigm shift is underway in the plastics industry as public concern mounts over the impact of plastic waste on the oceans and the environment.

For 30 years, plastics producers have primarily focused upstream on securing cost-competitive feedstock supply. Now, almost overnight, they find themselves being forced by consumers, legislators and brand owners to refocus downstream on the sustainability agenda. It is a dramatic shift, and one which is likely to create Winners and Losers over a relatively short space of time.

The pace of change is startling. In January, 11 major brands, including Coca Cola, Unilever, Wal-Mart and Pepsi (and since joined by Nestlé) announced they were committed to working towards using “100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025“. Then in April, a UK government-led initiative saw 42 companies, responsible for over 80% of the plastics packaging sold in UK supermarkets, promise to “transform the plastic packaging system and keep plastic in the economy and out of the ocean”.

Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, added to the pressure by beginning the move to a “closed loop system”. Clearly seeing the issue as a source of potential competitive advantage, they announced plans to remove all “hard to recycle” plastics – such as polystyrene, PVC and water-soluble bio-plastics – by the end of next year. Then last month, the EU Commission adopted new rules that will mean a minimum of 50% of all plastic packaging waste will be recycled by 2025. In addition, it has proposed drastic action, including bans, to reduce the use of the top 10 single-use plastic items found on EU beaches by 2021.

Understandably, many companies and CEOs have failed to keep up with these developments. Others have simply ignored them on the assumption they will prove to be all talk and no action. But nobody who attended the Circular Economy Forum at the recent ICIS World Polyolefins Conference could have come away believing that “business as usual” was a viable option for the future. As Borealis, Europe’s second largest polyolefin producer, explained, their vision is instead to “establish plastic waste as just another standard feedstock as the new normal” for the industry.

As the second chart shows, major plastics including polyethylene and polypropylene are now under major threat.

More than 50% of PE demand, and nearly a third of PP demand goes into single use packaging. Following the World Economic Forum’s ‘New Plastic Economy’ report in 2016, and Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet 2’ series for the BBC, it is clear that this application is under major threat.

PARADIGM SHIFTS CREATE WINNERS AND LOSERS
The third chart highlights how business models are already starting to change. The current model was highly successful during the BabyBoomer-led economic supercycle, when demand grew on a constant basis. Companies could choose to compete via cost leadership or value-added strategies, or via a focus on premium products or service-orientation. But now the middle ground is starting to disappear: as demand growth is slowing and profits will be squeezed as competition intensifies. We are instead going back to the polarised model that existed before the 1980s:

  • Upstream-integrated companies can choose to adopt a Feedstock Focus and roll-through their margins to the well-head (in the case of ethane) or refinery (in the case of naphtha) as margins come under pressure
  • Those without this ability, however, need to instead adopt a Market Focus, as intensifying competition will squeeze non-integrated companies without the safety net of an upstream margin
  • Market Focused companies have the opportunity to respond to brand-owner and legislative pressure by basing their feedstock needs on recycled plastic rather than naphtha, ethane and other virgin feedstocks
  • They will need to develop new metrics to measure their progress as they start to build their capability to use recycled feedstocks and create long-term relationships with brand-owners and other stakeholders

Paradigm shifts generally produce winners and losers. In this case, the winners will be those plastics producers who adapt to the new opportunity created by the need to produce recycled plastic. This will clearly require investment in recycling facilities, but the sums involved are small compared to the cost of building new olefin crackers or refinery capacity. And in many countries, producers can even expect to be paid to take the recycled plastic as a feedstock, when the alternative is the cost of sending it to landfill.

The losers, of course, will be existing feedstock suppliers:

  • Many oil majors have assumed that rising demand for petrochemicals will help to compensate for demand lost to electrification in the transport sector
  • OPEC’s World Oil Outlook 2040 saw petrochemicals as providing “significant growth” for the future
  • The International Energy Agency will also need to revisit its assumptions about future demand growth as the impact of the new paradigm becomes more apparent.

As National Geographic has reported, the world has produced around 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic over the past 60 years, and only 9 per cent of this has been recycled. This is a shocking waste of a valuable resource. The paradigm shift now underway is well overdue and should prove very profitable for those companies prepared to seize the opportunities it creates.

Please click here if you would like to download the article.

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Saudi oil policy risks creating perfect storm for Aramco flotation

Good business strategies generally create good investments over the longer term. And so Aramco needs to ensure it has the best possible strategies, if it wants to maximise the outcome from its planned $2tn flotation. Unfortunately, the current oil price strategy seems more likely to damage its valuation, by being based on 3 questionable assumptions:

  • Oil demand will always grow at levels seen in the past – if transport demand slows, plastics will take over
  • Saudi will always be able to control the oil market – Russian/US production growth is irrelevant
  • The rise of sustainability concerns, and alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, can be ignored

These are dangerous assumptions to make today, with the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle fast receding into history.

After all, even in the SuperCycle, OPEC’s attempt in the early 1980s to hold the oil price at around today’s levels (in $2018) was a complete failure.  So the odds on the policy working today are not very high, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) himself acknowledged 2 years ago, when launching his ambitious ‘Vision 2030:

“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil.  We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”

As I noted here at the time, MbS’s bold plan for restructuring the economy included a welcome dose of reality:

“The government’s new Vision statement is based on the assumption of a $30/bbl oil price in 2030 – in line with the long-term historical average. And one key element of this policy is the flotation of 5% of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. Estimates suggest it is worth at least $2tn, meaning that 5% will be worth $100bn. And as I suggested to the Wall Street Journal:

“The process of listing will completely change the character of the company and demand a new openness from its senior management“.

MbS is still making good progress with his domestic policy reforms.  Women, for example, are finally due to be allowed to drive in June and modern entertainment facilities such as cinemas are now being allowed again after a 35 year ban.  But unfortunately, over the past 2 years, Saudi oil policy has gone backwards.

SUSTAINABILITY/RENEWABLES ARE ALREADY REDUCING OIL MARKET DEMAND

Restructuring the Saudi economy away from oil-dependence was always going to be a tough challenge.  And the pace of the required change is increasing, as the world’s consumers focus on sustainability and pollution.

It is, of course, easy to miss this trend if your advisers only listen to bonus-hungry investment bankers, or OPEC leaders.  But when brand-owners such as Coca-Cola talk, you can’t afford to ignore what they are saying – and doing.

Coke uses 120bn bottles a year and as its CEO noted when introducing their new policy:

“If left unchecked, plastic waste will slowly choke our oceans and waterways.  We’re using up our earth as if there’s another one on the shelf just waiting to be opened . . . companies have to do their part by making sure their packaging is actually recyclable.”

Similarly, MbS’s advisers seem to be completely ignoring the likely implications of China’s ‘War on Pollution’ for oil demand – and China is its largest customer for oil/plastics exports.

Already the European Union has set out plans to ensureAll plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030”.

And in China, the city of Shenzhen has converted all of its 16359 buses to run on electric power, and is now converting its 17000 taxis.

Whilst the city of Jinan is planning a network of “intelligent highways” as the video in this Bloomberg report shows, which will use solar panels to charge the batteries of autonomous vehicles as they drive along.

ALIENATING CONSUMERS IS THE WRONG POLICY TO PURSUE
As the chart at the top confirms, oil’s period of energy dominance was already coming to an end, even before the issues of sustainability and pollution really began to emerge as constraints on demand.

This is why MbS was right to aim to move the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil within 20 years.

By going back on this strategy, Saudi is storing up major problems for the planned Aramco flotation:

  • Of course it is easy to force through price rises in the short-term via production cuts
  • But in the medium term, they upset consumers and so hasten the decline in oil demand and Saudi’s market share
  • It is much easier to fund the development of new technologies such as solar and wind when oil prices are high
  • It is also much easier for rival oil producers, such as US frackers, to fund the growth of new low-cost production

Aramco is making major strides towards becoming a more open company.  But when it comes to the flotation, investors are going to look carefully at the real outlook for oil demand in the critical transport sector.  And they are rightly going to be nervous over the medium/longer-term prospects.

They are also going to be very sceptical about the idea that plastics can replace lost demand in the transport sector.  Already 11 major brands, including Coke, Unilever, Wal-Mart  and Pepsi – responsible for 6 million tonnes of plastic packaging – are committed to using “100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025“.

We can be sure that these numbers will grow dramatically over the next few years.  Recycled plastic, not virgin product, is set to be the growth product of the future.

ITS NOT TOO LATE FOR A RETURN TO MBS’s ORIGINAL POLICY
Saudi already has a major challenge ahead in transforming its economy away from oil.  In the short-term:

  • Higher oil prices may allow the Kingdom to continue with generous handouts to the population
  • But they will reduce Aramco’s value to investors over the medium and longer-term
  • The planned $100bn windfall from the proposed $2tn valuation will become more difficult to achieve

3 years ago, Saudi’s then Oil Minister was very clear about the need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:

“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.”

As philosopher George Santayana wisely noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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2018 will see Winners and Losers appear in plastics markets

Two major challenges face petrochemical and polymer producers and consumers in 2018:

  • The likely disruption created by the arrival of the ethylene/polyethylene expansions in the US
  • The growth of the circular economy and the need to dramatically increase recycling capacity

My new interview with Will Beacham, deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business, focuses on both these key issues and suggests they will create Winners and Losers.

The new US product will likely change the global market. Its ethane feedstock is essentially a distressed product, which has to be removed to enable the shale gas to be sold.  It is also clear that this 40% expansion of USA polyethylene capacity, around 6 million tonnes, cannot be sold into the US domestic market, which is already very mature:

  • US net exports have actually been in decline in recent years, so it will also be a challenge to export the volumes
  • President Trump’s apparent wish to start a trade war with China will make that market difficult to access
  • It is likely, therefore, that a significant volume will end up arriving in Europe, causing a price war

We have seen price wars before, and the “Winners” are usually the integrated producers, who can roll through margins from the well-head or the refinery into ethylene and polyethylene sales.

The economics of this are relatively simple.  In the US, producers will have to absorb lower margins on the small percentage of shale gas that is used as ethane feed into the cracker.  Similarly in Europe, refinery-integrated producers will have to absorb lower margins on the small percentage of oil that is used as naphtha feed into the cracker.

As the chart shows, this development will be good news for ethylene consumers.  As Huntsman CEO, Peter Huntsman noted a year ago:

“There is a wave of ethylene that is going to be hitting the North American markets quite substantially over the next couple of years. I’d rather be a spot buyer than a contract buyer. I can’t imagine with all of the ethylene that is going to be coming to the market that it’s not going to be a buying opportunity.”

In turn, of course, this will pressure other plastics via inter-polymer competition

Non-integrated producers clearly face more difficult times.  And like the integrated producers, they share the challenge being posed by the rise of sustainability concerns, particularly over the 8 million tonnes of plastic that currently finds its way into the oceans every year.

This issue has been building for years, and clearly consumers are now starting to demand action from brand owners and governments.

In turn, this opens up major new opportunities for companies who are prepared to realign their business models with the New Plastics Economy concepts set out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum.

The New Plastics Economy is a collaborative initiative involving leading participants from across the global plastic packaging value chain, as the second chart illustrates.  It has already prompted action from the European Union, which has now set out its EU Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy.  This aims to:

“Transform the way plastics and plastics products are designed, produced, used and recycled. By 2030, all plastics packaging should be recyclable. The Strategy also highlights the need for specific measures, possibly a legislative instrument, to reduce the impact of single-use plastics, particularly in our seas and oceans.”

Clearly this represents a paradigm shift for the industry, both producers and consumers.

It may seem easier to do nothing, and to hope the whole problem will go ahead.  But the coincidence of the arrival of all the new US shale gas capacity makes this an unlikely outcome.  Companies who do nothing are likely instead to become Losers in this rapidly changing environment.

But as I discuss in the interview, companies who are prepared to rethink their business models, and to adapt to changing consumer needs, have a potentially very bright future ahead of them.  Please click here to view it.

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Goodbye to “business as usual” model for plastics

Polymer markets face two major challenges in coming months. The most immediate is the arrival of the major US shale gas-based ethylene and polyethylene expansions. The longer-term, but equally critical challenge, comes from growing public concern over plastic waste, particularly in the ocean.

The EU has set out its vision for a new plastics economy, where:

“All plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030”.

Similarly, China has launched a ‘War on Pollution’, which has already led to all imports of plastic waste being banned.

Together, these developments mean there is unlikely to be a “business as usual” option for producers or consumers. A paradigm shift is under way which will change business models.

Some companies will focus on being low-cost suppliers, integrated back to the well-head or refinery. Others will become more service-led, with their revenue and profits based on exploiting the value provided by the polymer (virgin or recycled), rather than just the value of the virgin polymer itself.

The next 18 months are therefore likely to see major change, catalysed by the arrival of the new US production, as I discuss in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business.

The second chart indicates the potential impact of these new capacities by comparison with actual production since 2000, with 2019 volume forecast on basis of the planned capacity increases. But can this new PE volume really be sold? It certainly won’t all find a home in the US, as ExxonMobil Chemicals’ then President, Stephen Pryor, told ICIS in January 2014:

The domestic market is what it is and therefore, part of these products, I would argue, most of these products, will have to be exported”.

And unfortunately for producers, President Trump’s new trade policies are unlikely to help them in the main potential growth market, China. As John Richardson and I noted a year ago, China’s $6tn Belt and Road Initiative:

“Creates the potential for China to lead a new free trade area including countries in Asia, Middle East, Africa and potentially Europe – just as the US appears to be withdrawing from its historical role of free trade leadership”.

The task is also made more difficult by the inventory-build that took place from June onwards as Brent oil prices rose 60% to peak at $71/bbl. As usual, buyers responded by building inventory ahead of price increases for their own raw materials. Now they are starting to destock again, slowing absolute levels of demand growth all around the world, just at the moment when the new capacity comes online.

SUSTAINABILITY CONCERNS ARE DRIVING MOVES TOWARDS A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
At the same time, the impact of the sustainability agenda and the drive towards the circular economy is becoming ever-stronger.  The initial catalyst for this demand was the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on ‘The New Plastics Economy’, which warned that on current trends, the oceans would contain more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050 – a clearly unacceptable outcome.

Last year’s BBC documentary Blue Planet 2, narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough, then catalysed public concern over the impact of single use plastic in packaging and other applications. Even Queen Elizabeth has since announced that she is banning the use of plastic straws and bottles across the royal estates, as part of a move to cut back on the use of plastics “at all levels”.

Single use plastic applications in packaging are likely to be an early target for the move to recycling and the circular economy. This will have a major impact on demand, given that they currently account for more than half of PE demand:

    • Two-thirds of all low density and linear low density PE is used in flexible packaging – a total of 33 million tonnes worldwide
    • Nearly a quarter of high density PE is used in packaging film and sheets, and a fifth is used in injection moulding applications such as cups and crates – a total of 18 million tonnes worldwide

Virtually all of this production is potentially recyclable. 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.

Please click here to read the full analysis in ICIS Chemical Business.

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Hurricane Harvey will turbocharge move to the circular economy

Harvey Oct17a

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

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

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

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

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

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