I was interviewed on Friday about the likely impact of President Trump’s trade wars on the global chemical industry by Will Beacham, deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business. His interview is below.
The introduction on Friday of trade tariffs by China and the US is the first step in a trade war that could turn into a global polyethylene (PE) price war as the wave of new US production is sent to new markets, likely Europe.
Paul Hodges, chairman at London-based International eChem, said that around 6m tonnes/year of new US PE capacity has to find a home and, with China largely out of reach, the obvious destination would be Europe, where the surplus production will put downward pressure on prices there and around the world.
“The main hit from a trade war is going to be the US PE expansions – clearly it is being targeted so the opportunity to export to China is sharply reduced,” said Hodges. “But this won’t just be a US problem because they will still want to move their product – it has got to come to Europe as there is no surplus demand in Asia, the Middle East or Latin America.”
He added that this first wave of tariffs were a wake-up call to those who thought globalisation was going to continue as it did in the past. “We have reached a tipping point where we have to expect that trade wars are more rather than less likely”, he said.
“If you assume the US production will come onstream, then where will those 6m tonnes of product go? It can’t go to China, it can’t go to Latin America as that is too small a market, the Middle East is in surplus, Africa is too small – so Europe is the only place,” said Hodges.
US PE producers that are integrated up to the wellhead need to extract ethane in order to monetise their gas production:
- These producers will continue to export happily at whatever price because essentially the ethane is a distressed product and has to be sold
- However, non-integrated players’ margins could come under pressure.
In Europe, there is a parallel to the US, said Hodges, as regional production is generally tied into refineries.
Naphtha is a relatively small part of the product flow from a refinery, so prices can go down quite a long way before you start to think about cutting back on refinery operating rates.
“The risk for the second half of this year and 2019 is that you have two heavyweights in the boxing ring – one integrated back to the gas wellhead in the US and the other refinery-integrated in Europe – and people get squeezed in between,” he added.
EUROPE VALUE CHAINS
Hodges pointed out that if cracker operating rates decline in Europe it will hit all the other product streams such as propylene, butadiene (BD) and pygas. There are tremendous knock-on risks across all the value chains, not just ethylene.
“This won’t happen this year, but if it continues and gets worse over the next 12-18 months, do you start to look at cracker shutdowns in Europe? What will the implications be for people relying on those crackers for feedstocks?” said Hodges. “It’s a hornet’s nest of unintended consequences: people don’t send a ship load of PE to Europe expecting it to shut down a PP plant.”
Hodges urged the industry to make contingency plans now to manage these future risks. European producers will have to think about how they protect feedstock supplies for value chains on a Europe-wide and country basis so that pipelines are not shut down.
“You’d have to focus on a number of core hubs and reinvest in those to give the infrastructure you need for the future. You need to do it now – while there is time to take action,” he said. “You might end up spending money you don’t need to spend, but that’s much better than waking up and realising you don’t have a feedstock supply,” he said.
According to ICIS data, the US is forecast to export a total of 1.37m tonnes of low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE) and low linear density polyethylene (LLDPE) to China (see LLDPE map above). Although HDPE is not included in the current tariffs, it could be added later, according to Hodges.
He added that a price war in PE would impact other polymers because of inter-polymer competition. It may only be 5-10% that is substituted, but to lose that amount of volume at the margin would be quite significant.
He described the trade war as a paradigm shift for the whole global industry as the era of globalisation switches to regional and nationalism. “I’m worried that a lot of people in this industry have grown up with globalisation and they assume that is how it is,” he said.
Trade policy and geopolitics are like a chess game with lots of moving pieces and the approach is that you give up something in order to gain more, he added. This has been a very successful approach by the US since the Second World War, when it implemented the Marshall Plan or ‘European Recovery Plan’. Almost the equivalent of $110bn in today’s money was invested to rebuild the continent.
“This boosted the European economy in order to make it a bigger import market for US exports. Trade expands opportunities and the overall economy. There may be some short-term successes going into a trade war but ultimately the US economy will lose,” Hodges conclude.
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Today, we have “lies, fake news and statistics” rather than the old phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics”. But the general principle is still the same. Cynical players simply focus on the numbers that promote their argument, and ignore or challenge everything else.
The easiest way for them to manipulate the statistics is to ignore the wider context and focus on a single “shock, horror” story. So the chart above instead combines 5 “shock, horror” stories, showing quarterly oil production since 2015:
- Iran is in the news following President Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear agreement, which began in July 2015. OPEC data shows its output has since risen from 2.9mbd in Q2 2015 to 3.8mbd in April – ‘shock, horror’!
- Russia has also been much in the news since joining the OPEC output agreement in November 2016. But in reality, it has done little. Its production was 11mbd in Q3 2016 and was 11.1mbd in April- ‘shock, horror’!
- Saudi Arabia leads OPEC: its production has fallen from 10.6mbd in Q3 2016 to 9.9mbd in April- ‘shock, horror’!
- Venezuela is an OPEC member, but its production decline began long before the OPEC deal. The country’s economic collapse has seen oil output fall from 2.4mbd in Q4 2015 to just 1.5mbd in April- ‘shock, horror’!
- The USA, along with Iran, has been the big winner over the past 2 years. Its output initially fell from 9.5mbd in Q1 2015 to 8.7mbd in Q3 2016, but has since soared by nearly 2mbd to 10.6mbd in April- ‘shock, horror’!
But overall, output in these 5 key countries rose from 35.5mbd in Q1 2015 to 36.9mbd in April. Not much “shock, horror” there over a 3 year period. More a New Normal story of “Winners and Losers”.
So why, you might ask, has the oil price rocketed from $27/bbl in January 2016 to $45/bbl in June last year and $78/bbl last Friday? Its a good question, as there have been no physical shortages reported anywhere in the world to cause prices to nearly treble. The answer lies in the second chart from John Kemp at Reuters:
- It shows combined speculative purchases in futures markets by hedge funds since 2013
- These hit a low of around 200mbbls in January 2016 (2 days supply)
- They then more than trebled to around 700mbbls by December 2016 (7 days supply)
- After halving to around 400mbbls in June 2017, they have now trebled to 1.4mbbls today (14 days supply)
Speculative buying, by definition, isn’t connected with the physical market, as OPEC’s Secretary General noted after meeting the major funds recently: “Several of them had little or no experience or even a basic understanding of how the physical market works.”
This critical point is confirmed by Citi analyst Ed Morse: “There are large investors in energy, and they don’t care about talking to people who deal with fundamentals. They have no interest in it.”
Their concern instead is with movements in currencies or interest rates – or with the shape of the oil futures curve itself. As the head of the $8bn Aspect fund has confirmed:
“The majority of our inputs, the vast majority, are price-driven. And the overwhelming factor we capitalise on is the tendency of crowd behaviour to drive medium-term trends in the market.” (my emphasis).
OIL PRICES ARE NOW AT LEVELS THAT USUALLY LEAD TO RECESSION
The hedge funds have been the real winners from all the “shock, horror” stories. These created the essential changes in “crowd behaviour”, from which they could profit. But now they are leaving the party – and the rest of will suffer the hangover, as the 3rd chart warns:
- Oil prices now represent 3.1% of global GDP, based on latest IMF data and 2018 forecasts
- This level has been linked with a US recession on almost every occasion since 1970
- The only exception was post-2009 when China and the Western central banks ramped up stimulus
- The stimulus simply created a debt-financed bubble
The reason is simple. People only have so much cash to spend. If they have to spend it on gasoline and heating their home, they can’t spend it on all the other things that drive the wider economy. Chemical markets are already confirming that demand destruction is taking place.:
- Companies have completely failed to pass through today’s high energy costs. For example:
- European prices for the major plastic, low density polyethylene, averaged $1767/t in April with Brent at $72/bbl
- They averaged $1763/t in May 2016 when Brent was $47/bbl (based on ICIS pricing data)
Even worse news may be around the corner. Last week saw President Trump decide to withdraw from the Iran deal. His daughter also opened the new US embassy to Jerusalem. Those with long memories are already wondering whether we could now see a return to the geopolitical crisis in summer 2008.
As I noted in July 2008, the skies over Greece were then “filled with planes” as Israel practised for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Had the attack gone ahead, Iran would almost certainly have closed the Strait of Hormuz. It is just 21 miles wide (34km) at its narrowest point, and carries 35% of all seaborne oil exports, 17mb/d.
As Mark Twain wisely noted, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. Prudent companies and investors need now to look beyond the “market-moving, shock, horror” headlines in today’s oil markets. We must all learn to form our own judgments about the real risks that might lie ahead.
Given the geopolitical factors raised by President Trump’s decision on Iran, I am pausing the current oil forecast.
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US ethylene spot prices are tumbling as the major new shale gas expansions come on line, as the chart based on ICIS pricing data confirms:
- They began the year at $617/t, but have since more than halved to $270/t on Friday
- They are only around 10% higher than their all-time low of $240/t in September 1998
- WTI crude oil was then $15/bbl and ethane was $0.15c/gal
- On Friday, WTI closed at $70.5/bbl and ethane was $0.25c/gal
The collapse in margin has been sudden, but is hardly unexpected. It is, of course, true that downstream polyethylene plants associated with the crackers were delayed by the hurricanes. So ethylene prices may recover a little once they come online. But unfortunately, that is likely to simply transfer the problem downstream to the polymer markets.
The issue is shown in the second chart, based on Trade Data Monitor data:
- It shows annual US net exports of polyethylene since 2006
- They peaked in 2009 at 2.6 million tonnes as China’s stimulus programme began
- China’s import demand doubled that year to 1 million tonnes, but then fell back again
- Net exports have actually fallen since 2016 to 1.9 million tonnes last year
The problem, of course, was that companies and investors were fooled by the central bank stimulus programmes. They told everyone that demographics didn’t matter, and that they could always create demand via a mix of money-printing and tax cuts. But this was all wishful thinking, as we described here in the major 2016 Study, ‘Demand – the New Direction for Profit‘, and in articles dating back to March 2014.
Unfortunately, the problems have multiplied since then. President Trump’s seeming desire to launch a trade war with China has led to the threat of retaliation via a 25% tariff on US PE imports. And growing global concern over the damage caused by waste plastics means that recycled plastic is likely to become the growth feedstock for the future.
In addition, of course, today’s high oil price is almost certainly now causing demand destruction down the value chains – just as it has always done before at current price levels. People only have so much money to spend. If gasoline and heating costs rise, they have less to spend on the more discretionary items that drive polymer demand.
COMPANIES HAVE TO REPOSITION FAST TO BECOME WINNERS IN THIS NEW LANDSCAPE As I suggested with the above slide at last month’s ICIS World Polymers Conference, today’s growing over-capacity and political uncertainty will create Winners and Losers:
- Ethylene consumers are already gaining from today’s lower prices
- Middle East producers will gain at the US’s expense due to their close links with China
- Chinese producers will also do well due to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)
As John Richardson has discussed, China is in the middle of major new investment which will likely make it a net exporter of many polymers within a few years. And it has a ready market for these exports via the BRI, which has the potential to become the largest free trade area in the world. As a senior Chinese official confirmed to me recently:
“China’s aim in the C2/C3 value chains is to run a balanced to long position. And where China has a long position, the aim will be to export from the West along the Belt & Road links to converters / intermediate processors.”
The Losers will likely be the non-integrated producers who cannot roll-through margins from the well-head or refinery. They need to quickly find a new basis for competition.
Luckily for them, one does exist – namely the opportunity to develop a more service-led business model and work with the brand owners by switching to use recycled plastics as a feedstock. As I noted in March:
“Producers and consumers who want to embrace a more service-based business model therefore have a great opportunity to take a lead in creating the necessary infrastructure, in conjunction with regulators and the brand owners who actually sell the product to the end-consumer.”
Time, however, is not on their side. As US ethylene prices confirm, the market is already reacting to the reality of over-capacity. H2 will likely be difficult under almost any circumstances.
The industry made excellent profits in recent years. It is now time for forward thinking producers – integrated and non-integrated – to reinvest these, and quickly reinvent the business to build new revenue and profit streams for the future.
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It is almost a year since Donald Trump became President. And whilst he has not followed through on many of his promises, he has indeed introduced the major policy changes that I began to discuss in September 2015, when I first suggested he could win the election and that the Republicans could control Congress:
“In the USA, the establishment candidacies of Hillary Clinton for the Democrats and Jeb Bush for the Republicans are being upstaged by the two populist candidates – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump….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.”
Many people have therefore had to go up a steep learning curve over the past year, given that their starting point was essentially disbelief, as one commentator noted when my analysis first appeared:
“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.”
Yet this, of course, is exactly what has happened.
It is true that many of the promises in candidate Trump’s Contract with America have been ignored:
- Of his 174 promises, 13 have been achieved, 18 are in process, 37 have been broken, 3 have been partially achieved and 103 have not started
- His top priority of a Constitutional amendment on term limits for members of Congress has not moved forward
Yet on areas that impact companies and investors, such as trade and corporate tax, the President has moved forward:
- On trade, he has not (yet?) labelled China a currency manipulator or moved forward to fix water and environmental infrastructure
- But he has announced the renegotiation of NAFTA, the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his intention to withdraw from the UN Climate Change programme and lifted restrictions on fossil fuel production
These are complete game-changers in terms of America’s position in the world and its trading relationships.
Over the decades following World War 2, Republican and Democrat Presidents alike saw trade as the key to avoiding further wars by building global prosperity. Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton all actively supported the growth of global trade and the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The US also led the world in environmental protection following publication of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring‘ in 1962, with its attack on the over-use of pesticides.
Clearly, today, these priorities no longer matter to President Trump. And already, US companies are starting to lose out as politics, rather than economics, once again begins to dominate global trade. We are returning to the trading models that operated before WTO:
- Until the 1990s, trade largely took place within trading blocs rather than globally – in Europe, for example, the West was organised in the Common Market and the East operated within the Soviet Union
- It is therefore very significant that one of the President’s first attacks has been on the WTO, where he has disrupted its work by blocking the appointment of new judges
Trump’s policy is instead based on the idea of bilateral trade agreements with individual countries, with the US dominating the relationship. Understandably, many countries dislike this prospect and are instead preferring to work with China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as One Belt, One Road).
US POLYETHYLENE PRODUCERS WILL BE A CASE STUDY FOR THE IMPACT OF THE NEW POLICIES
US polyethylene (PE) producers are likely to provide a case study of the problems created by the new policies.
They are now bringing online around 6 million tonnes of new shale gas-based production. It had been assumed a large part of this volume could be exported to China. But the chart above suggests this now looks unlikely:
- China’s PE market has indeed seen major growth since 2015, up 18% on a January – November basis. Part of this is one-off demand growth, as China moved to ban imports of scrap product in 2017. Its own production has also grown in line with total demand at 17%
- But at the same time, its net imports rose by 1.8 million tonnes, 19%, with the main surge in 2017. This was a perfect opportunity for US producers to increase their exports as their new capacity began to come online
- Yet, actual US exports only rose 194kt – within NAFTA, Mexico actually outperformed with its exports up 197kt
- The big winner was the Middle East, a key part of the BRI, which saw its volume jump 29% by 1.36 million tonnes
Sadly, it seems likely that 2018 will see further development of such trading blocs:
- The President’s comments last week, when he reportedly called Africa and Haiti “shitholes” will clearly make it more difficult to build long-term relationships based on trust with these countries
- They also caused anguish in traditionally pro-American countries such as the UK – adding to concerns that he has lost his early interest in the promised post-Brexit “very big and exciting” trade deal.
US companies were already facing an uphill task in selling all their new shale gas-based PE output. The President’s new trade policies will make this task even more difficult, given that most of it will have to be exported.
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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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Western 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.
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
The 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.