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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China’s role in market volatility – Beijing’s shifting priorities raise questions over assumptions of global growth

Commentators have confused cause with effect when analysing this month’s sudden downturn in financial markets, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog


Surprise and confusion seem to have been the main reactions to this month’s sudden downturn in western financial markets. Yet across the world in China, warning signs of a potential downturn have been building for some months, as discussed here in June.

As the chart below shows, President Xi Jinping’s decision to move away from stimulus policy will have a direct impact on the global economy, as this has been the main source of the liquidity that has boosted financial markets over the past decade.

China’s official and shadow bank lending totalled more than $20tn between 2009 and 2017. By comparison, the US Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and Bank of England added “only” $13tn between them.

The critical importance of China’s policy shift was highlighted in December by the state-owned Xinhua news service when it announced Mr Xi’s priorities for 2018 as being to fight “three tough battles” to secure China’s goal of “becoming a moderately prosperous society” by 2020.

“Financial deleveraging” was described as the first battle, and it seems the opening salvos have already been fired, given that China’s capital outflows collapsed from $640bn in 2016 to just $60bn in 2017.

The People’s Bank of China then reinforced this priority in January with a statement emphasising that “slower M2 growth than before will become the ‘new normal’, as the country’s deleveraging process deepens and the financial sector gets back to the function of serving the economy”.

Western financial markets, however, seemed to adopt the “Road Runner approach” to this major paradigm shift in economic policy. Like the cartoon character Wile E Coyote, the new year saw them continuing to hang in mid-air before finally realising they were about to plummet into the chasm.

Even more worrying, now calm has been temporarily restored, is their failure to learn from the experience. Instead, commentators have mostly gone back to their comfort zone and are again focusing on the minutiae of policy statements from the major western central banks.

This could prove a costly mistake for investors and companies. As the FT reported in December, Mr Xi has already “made controlling debt at state-owned enterprises a top policy priority”, and it seems likely he will follow the IMF’s advice by increasing budget constraints for China’s zombie companies and allowing more corporate defaults. January’s shadow bank lending was the lowest January level since 2009 at just $25bn, and it was 90 per cent lower than in January 2017.

The recent rush of asset sales by major Chinese corporates such as HNA and Dalian Wanda is another clear sign of the new discipline being imposed. Foreign investors must hope the companies realise a good return from these disposals, given that they provided $221bn in dollar-denominated loans to Chinese borrowers last year.

Deleveraging is only one of Mr Xi’s “three battles”, however. And while his second battle on poverty reduction is unlikely to impact the global economy, his third battle, the “War on Pollution”, has a number of potentially critical implications.

It has already led to thousands of company closures and forcible relocations, and has severely disrupted major parts of China’s economy — causing China’s producer price index to peak at 6.9 per cent in the fourth quarter. In turn (as we had forecast here in November), this surge has created today’s “inflation surprise” as its impact rippled round the world.

One key component of the “surprise” was the disruption caused by the unexpected loss of production in key commodity markets. Oil prices have surged, for example, as China’s move away from coal has powered a short-term increase in oil demand. And, as always, the surge has been boosted by the inventory build typically associated with such unexpected and sudden price hikes. This can be seen in the second chart, which focuses on volume changes in the chemicals market, normally an excellent leading indicator for the global economy.

It confirms that consumers put aside their initial scepticism over Opec’s ability to support the oil market, as China’s excess demand helped prices to rise 60 per cent from June’s $44 a barrel to January’s $71 peak. Purchasers scrambled to build stock ahead of likely price rises for their own raw materials.

This time round, it even led buyers to abandon their normal tactic of reducing stock at year-end to flatter working capital data. Instead, inventories rose quite sharply all down the value chains, creating the illusion that demand was suddenly increasing in a co-ordinated fashion around the world.

The world has seen many similar increases in such “apparent demand” over the years, and these can temporarily add up to an extra month’s demand to underlying levels. This increase is, of course, only a temporary effect, as it is quickly unwound again once prices start to stabilise. The chart also shows that this was already starting to happen in January, with the normal seasonal stock-build being replaced by destocking.

In turn, of course, these developments raise a major question mark over the current assumption that the world is now seeing a synchronised global recovery. We suspect that by the summer, policymakers may well find themselves repeating the famous lament of Stanley Fischer in August 2014, when the Fed’s vice-chairman sadly noted that “year after year we have had to explain from midyear on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back”.

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

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The return of volatility is the key market risk for 2018

We are living in a strange world. As in 2007 – 2008, financial news continues to be euphoric, yet the general news is increasingly gloomy. As Nobel Prizewinner Richard Thaler, has warned, “We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping.” Both views can’t continue to exist alongside each other for ever. Whichever scenario comes out on top in 2018 will have major implications for investors and companies.

It therefore seems prudent to start building scenarios around some of the key risk areas – increased volatility in oil and interest rates, protectionism and the threat to free trade (including Brexit), and political disorder. One key issue is that the range of potential outcomes is widening.

Last year, for example, it was reasonable to use $50/bbl as a Base case forecast for oil prices, and then develop Upside and Downside cases using a $5/bbl swing either way. But today’s rising levels of uncertainty suggests such narrow ranges should instead be regarded as sensitivities rather than scenarios. In 2018, the risks to a $50/bbl Base case appear much larger:

  • On the Downside, US output is now rising very fast given today’s higher prices. The key issue with fracking is that the capital cost is paid up-front, and once the money has been spent, the focus is on variable cost – where most published data suggests actual operating cost is less than $10/bbl. US oil and product exports have already reached 7mbd, so it is not hard to see a situation where over-supplied energy markets cause prices to crash below $40/bbl at some point in 2018
  • On the Upside, instability is clearly rising in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman is already engaged in proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He has also arrested hundreds of leading Saudis, and fined them hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for their release. If he proves to have over-extended himself, the resulting political confusion could impact the whole Middle East, and easily take prices above $75/bbl

Unfortunately, oil price volatility is not the only risk facing us in 2018. As the chart shows, the potential for a debt crisis triggered by rising interest rates cannot be ignored, given that the current $34tn total of central bank debt is approaching half of global GDP. Most media attention has been on the US Federal Reserve, which is finally moving to raise rates and “normalise” monetary policy. But the real action has been taking place in the emerging markets. 10-year benchmark bond rates have risen by a third in China over the past year to 4%, whilst rates are now at 6% in India, 7.5% in Russia and 10% in Brazil.

An “inflation surprise” could well prove the catalyst for such a reappraisal of market fundamentals. In the past, I have argued that deflation is the likely default outcome for the global economy, given its long-term demographic and demand deficits. But markets tend not to move in straight lines, and 2018 may well bring a temporary inflation spike, as China’s President Xi has clearly decided to tackle the country’s endemic pollution early in his second term. He has already shutdown thousands of polluting companies in many key industries such as steel, metal smelting, cement and coke.

His roadmap is the landmark ‘China 2030’ joint report from the World Bank and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This argued that China needed to transition:   “From policies that served it so well in the past to ones that address the very different challenges of a very different future”.

But, of course, transitions can be a dangerous time, as China’s central bank chief, Zhou Xiaochuan, highlighted at the 5-yearly Party Congress in October, when warning that China risks a “Minsky Moment“, where lenders and investors suddenly realise they have overpaid for their assets, and all rush together for the exits – as in 2008 in the west.

Business as usual” is always the most popular strategy, as it means companies and investors don’t face a need to make major changes. But we all know that change is inevitable over time. And at a certain moment, time can seem to literally “stand still” whilst sudden and sometimes traumatic change erupts.

At such moments, as in 2008, commentators rush to argue that “nobody could have seen this coming“. But, of course, this is nonsense. What they actually mean is that “nobody wanted to see this coming“. Nobody wanted to be focusing on contingency plans when everybody else seemed to be laughing all the way to the bank.

I discuss these issues in more detail in my annual Outlook for 2018.  Please click here to download this, and click here to watch the video interview with ICB deputy editor, Will Beacham.

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Sustainability now the key driver for plastics industry profits

‘What is this block of waste plastic doing on an Arctic ice-floe’, thousand of miles from where it was manufactured?  Even more worrying is the question, ‘what will happen to it next?’  As David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet II‘ programmes have shown, plastic can break down into micro-particles after it has been used.  And these micro-particles can then enter the food chain and the water supply:

  • Around 150 million tonnes of plastic “disappear” from the world’s waste stream each year according to the BBC
  • The United Nations estimates each square mile of sea contains 46000 pieces of waste plastic
  • In turn, this plastic breaks up into micro-plastics, which can be eaten by fish and birds, and absorbed by plankton
  • And then, as well as harming wildlife, it may well enter the food chain
  • Micro-plastics also enter the water supply, and have even been found in drinking water at Trump Tower in the US

Now governments are starting to take action, with last week’s UN meeting of environment ministers formally agreeing that “the flow of plastics into the ocean must be stopped”.  As the official Conference statement noted:

“We have been so bad at looking after our planet that we have very little room to make more mistakes…. we are sending a powerful message that we will listen to the science, change the way we consume and produce, and tackle pollution in all its forms across the globe.”

As I noted back in July at the launch of a major Study on waste plastic:

“Nobody is claiming that this waste was created deliberately. Nobody is claiming that plastics aren’t incredibly useful – they are, and they have saved millions of lives via their use in food packaging and other critical applications. The problem is simply, ‘What happens next?’ As one of the Study authors warns:

““We weren’t aware of the implications for plastic ending up in our environment until it was already there. Now we have a situation where we have to come from behind to catch up.””

We also know how this story will end, because we have seen it played out many times over the past 75 years.

As the photo on the left shows from 1953, most major Western cities used to be covered in smog during the winter, with people routinely wearing masks to try and protect themselves.  The same is still true today in China and many cities in the Emerging Markets, as the photo on the right confirms.

  • The smog problem was caused by coal, and governments were forced by popular pressure to greatly reduce its use in the West.  Too many people were dying, or developing major lung and other diseases
  • Then there were similar environmental problems with lead in gasoline, and with pollution from cigarette smoke.  Again, governments moved to ban the use of lead, and to ban or restrict smoking in public places

The simple fact is that as societies become richer, people become more demanding about the quality of their lives.  It is no longer enough to tell them that they are lucky to be alive, and to have some food to eat and water to drink.  We can see the same development in China today, where President Xi knows that he has to tackle pollution, if the Communist Party wants to stay in power.  As I noted last week:

Joint inspection teams from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the party’s anti-graft watchdog and its personnel arm have already punished 18,000 polluting companies with fines of $132m, and disciplined 12,000 officials.

October’s 5-yearly National People’s Congress stepped up the enforcement measures:

“For those areas that have suffered ecological damage, their leaders and cadres will be held responsible for life,” said Yang Weimin, the deputy director of the Communist Party’s Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs. “Our people will be able to see stars at night and hear birds chirp.”

Smart companies and investors in the plastics industry already know “business as usual” strategies are no longer viable.  Instead, they are starting to map out the enormous opportunities that these changes will create.

The issue is simply that plastic waste is no longer just seen as being unsightly.  It is now recognised as a major environmental hazard. As the 3rd chart shows, 480bn plastic bottles were sold in 2016 around the world, but only 7% were recycled.  This waste is becoming unacceptable to public opinion. As a result, the UK government is now considering a tax or ban on all single use items.

Equally important is that the momentum for change has been building for a decade, as one can see from a look back over some of my posts on plastic bags:

Globalisation was the great trend of the past 30 years, and it changed the world very profoundly.  Today, the focus is on sustainability and the development of the circular economy.

It is an exciting time for people who want to solve the problem of plastics pollution by thinking “out of the box”, and developing the more service-driven businesses of the future.

 

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Anti-pollution drive hits China’s role as global growth engine

China is no longer seeking ‘growth at any cost’, with global implications, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

A pedestrian covers up against pollution in Beijing © Bloomberg

China’s President Xi Jinping faced two existential threats to Communist party rule when he took office 5 years ago.

He focused on the first threat, from corruption, by appointing an anti-corruption tsar, Wang Qishan, who toured the country gathering evidence for trials as part of a high-profile national campaign.

More recently, Mr Xi has adopted the same tactic on an even broader scale to tackle the second threat, pollution. Joint inspection teams from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the party’s anti-graft watchdog and its personnel arm have already punished 18,000 polluting companies with fines of $132m, and disciplined 12,000 officials.

The ICIS maps below confirm the broad nature of the inspections. They will have covered all 31 of China’s provinces by year-end, as well as the so-called “2+26” big cities in the heavily polluted Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area.

The inspections’ importance was also underlined during October’s five-yearly People’s Congress, which added the words “high quality, more effective, more equitable, more sustainable” to the Party’s Constitution to describe the new direction for the economy, replacing Deng’s focus from 1977 on achieving growth at any cost.

It is hard to underestimate the likely short and longer-term impact of Mr Xi’s new policy. The Ministry has warned that the inspections are only “the first gunshot in the battle for the blue sky”, and will be followed by more severe crackdowns.

In essence, Mr Xi’s anti-pollution drive represents the end for China’s role as the manufacturing capital of the world.

The road-map for this paradigm shift was set out in March 2013 in the landmark China 2030 joint report from the World Bank and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This argued that China needed to transition “from policies that served it so well in the past to ones that address the very different challenges of a very different future”.

The report focused on the need for “improvement of the quality of growth”, based on development of “broader welfare and sustainability goals”.

However, little was achieved on the environmental front in Xi’s first term, as Premier Li Keqiang continued the Populist “growth at any cost” policies of his predecessors. According to the International Energy Agency’s recent report, Energy and Air Pollution, “Average life expectancy in China is reduced by almost 25 months because of poor air quality”.

But as discussed here in June, Mr Xi has now taken charge of economic policy. He is well aware that as incomes have increased, so China is following the west in becoming far more focused on ‘quality of life issues’. Land and water pollution will inevitably take longer to solve. So his immediate target is air pollution, principally the dangerously high levels of particulate matter, PM2.5, caused by China’s rapid industrialisation since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.

As the state-owned China Daily has reported, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is the main focus of the new policy. Its high concentration of industrial and vehicle emissions is made worse in the winter by limited air circulation and the burning of coal, as heating requirements ramp up. The region has been told to reduce PM2.5 levels by at least 15% between October 2017 and March 2018. According to Reuters, companies in core sectors including steel, metal smelting, cement and coke have already been told to stagger production and reduce the use of trucks.


The chemicals industry, as always, is providing early insight into the potentially big disruption ahead for historical business and trade patterns:

  • Benzene is a classic early indicator of changing economic trends, as we highlighted for FT Data back in 2012. The chart above confirms its importance once again, showing how the reduction in its coal-based production has already led to a doubling of China’s imports in the January to October period versus previous years, with Northeast and Southeast Asian exporters (NEA/SEA) the main beneficiaries
  • But there is no “one size fits all” guide to the policy’s impact, as the right-hand panel for polypropylene (PP) confirms. China is now close to achieving self-sufficiency, as its own PP production has risen by a quarter over the same period, reducing imports by 9%. The crucial difference is that PP output is largely focused on modern refining/petrochemical complexes with relatively low levels of pollution

Investors and companies must therefore be prepared for further surprises over the critical winter months as China’s economy responds to the anti-pollution drive. The spring will probably bring more uncertainty, as Mr Xi accelerates China’s transition towards his concept of a more service-led “new normal” economy based on the mobile internet, and away from its historical dependence on heavy industry.This paradigm shift has two potential implications for the global economy.

One is that China will no longer need to maintain its vast stimulus programme, which has served as the engine of global recovery since 2008. Instead, we can expect to see sustainability rising up the global agenda, as Xi ramps up China’s transition away from the “policies that served it so well in the past”.

A second is that, as the chart below shows, China’s producer price index has been a good leading indicator for western inflation since 2008. Its recovery this year under the influence of the shutdowns suggests an “inflation surprise” may also await us in 2018.

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

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Difficult times ahead for US polyethylene exports as business models change

This wasn’t the chart that companies and investors expected to see when they were busy finalising $bns of investment in new US ethylene and polyethylene (PE) capacity back in 2013-4.  They were working on 3 core assumptions, which they were sure would make these investments vastly profitable:

  • Oil prices would always be above $100/bbl and provide US gas-based producers with long-term cost advantage
  • Global growth would return to BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle levels; China would always need vast import volumes
  • Globalisation would continue for decades and plants could be sited half-way across the world from their markets

The result is that US ethylene capacity is now expanding by 34% through 2019, adding 9.2m tonnes/year of new ethylene supply, alongside a 1.1m tonnes/year expansion of existing crackers. In turn, PE capacity is expanding by 40%, with supply expanding by 6.5m tonnes/year through 2019.

It was always known that most of this new product would have to be exported, as then ExxonMobil President, Stephen Pryor, explained in January 2014:

“The reality is that the US from a chemical standpoint is a very mature market. We have some demand growth domestically in the US but it’s a percentage or two – it’s not strong demand growth,” Pryor said, adding that PE hardly grew in the US in a decade. “That is not going to change…The [US] domestic market is what is it and therefore, part of these products, I would argue, most of these products, will have to be exported,” Pryor said.”

But now the plants are starting up, and sadly it is clear that none of these assumptions have proved to be correct:

  • Oil prices have fallen well below $100/bbl, despite the OPEC/Russia cutback deal, and US output is soaring
  • Companies were badly misled by the IMF; its forecasts of 4.5% global GDP growth proved hopelessly optimistic
  • Protectionism is rising around the world, with President Trump withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatening to leave NAFTA

As a result, US PE exports are falling, just as all the new capacity starts to come online, as the chart shows:

  • US net exports were down 15% in the January – September period, confirming the major decline seen this year
  • Net exports to Latin America were down 29%, whilst volume to the Middle East was down 31%
  • Volume has risen by 40% to China, but still amounts to just 440kt – enough to fill just one new reactor

And, of course, PE use is coming under sustained pressure on environmental grounds, with the UK government suggesting last week it might tax or even ban all single-use plastic in an effort to tackle ocean pollution.

The same assumptions also drove expansion in US PVC capacity, with 750kt coming online this year.  US housing starts remain more than 40% below their peak in the subprime period, and so it was always known that much of this new capacity would also have to be exported.  Yet as the second chart confirms:

  • US net exports were down 6% in the January – September period, confirming the decline seen through 2017
  • Exports to Latin America were down 9%: volumes to NAFTA, the Middle East and China were at 2016 levels

PRODUCERS NEED TO DEVELOP NEW BUSINESS MODELS
These developments are also unlikely to prove just a short-term dip.  China is now accelerating its plans to become self-sufficient in the ethylene chain, with ICIS China reporting that current capacity could expand by 84%.  And the pressures from pollution concerns are growing, not reducing.

The key issue is that a paradigm shift is underway as the info-graphic explains:

  • Previously successful business models, based on the supply-driven principle, no longer work
  • Companies now need to adopt demand-led strategies if they want to maintain revenue and profit growth

We explored these issues in depth in the recent IeC-ICIS Study, ‘Demand- the New Direction for Profit‘.  It is the product of 5 years of ground-breaking forecasting work, since the publication of our jointly-authored book, ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: how the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again‘.

As we highlighted at the Study’s launch, companies and investors have a clear choice ahead:

  • They can either hope that somehow stimulus policies will finally succeed despite past failure
  • Or, they can join the Winners who are developing new revenue and profit growth via demand-led strategies

US export data doesn’t lie.  It confirms that the expected export demand for all the planned new capacity has not appeared, and probably never will appear.  But this does not mean the investments are doomed to failure.  It just means that the urgency for adopting new demand-led strategies is ramping up.

 

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