Polyethylene’s crisis will create Winners and Losers

Polyethylene markets (PE) are moving into a crisis, with margins in NE Asia already negative, as I have been forecasting.  Scenario planning is now a matter of potential life or death for companies likely to be impacted over the next 12-18 months.

The collapse in margins is already quite dramatic as the chart based on ICIS data shows:

  • NEA margins were $657/t in January 2017, and are now -$100/t; SE Asian margins have fallen from $909/t to $103/t
  • NW Europe margins  are down from $739/t to $300/t; US Gulf margins are down from $965/t to $603/t: Middle East margins are down from $1125/t to $833/t

The same pattern is also true for the other main grade, High Density PE (HDPE).

And, of course, today is only the start of the problems. As the second chart shows, there are vast amounts of new product coming online between 2019 – 2021 in both LLDPE and HDPE:

  • LLDPE: China is adding 3.4 million tonnes; USA 1.8Mt; Russia and S Korea 800kt each; with India, Oman, Malaysia and Indonesia also adding capacity
  • HDPE: China is adding 4.4Mt; USA 1.9Mt, S Korea 900kt, Russia 700kt; with India, Oman, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Iran and Azerbaijan also adding

The problem is that the fundamental assumptions behind the shale gas investments were simply wrong:

  • Oil was most unlikely to always be >$100/bbl, providing a feedstock advantage with shale gas
  • China wasn’t likely to be growing at double-digit rates, and always importing more petchems
  • Globalisation was already ending, meaning that plants couldn’t be sited half-way across the world from their market
  • Plastics will not always be the material of choice for single-use packaging applications

Essentially what happened is that companies stopped planning for themselves and allowed Wall Street to set their strategy, as one CEO told me:

“You may be right, but every time I mention shale on an earnings call, the share price goes up $5.” 

It is now too late to wind back the clock.  The US product from the integrated players has to go somewhere as their ethane feedstock is essentially a distressed product. If they don’t use the ethane to make ethylene and its derivatives, they cannot produce the shale gas.

The result is shown in the charts above, based on data from Trade Data Monitor

  • 2019 has seen vast amounts of new US ethylene-based exports, and more is still to come
  • Most of it was exported as PE, where exports have risen 85% so far this year versus 2018
  • The trade war means exports to China have actually dropped, so Europe, SEA and NEA have suffered major disruption
  • US PE exports to these regions were up 98%, 240% and 246% respectively, causing margins to start their collapse

The world is therefore starting to divide into Winners and Losers, as the chart suggests.  Non-integrated ethylene producers around the world are particularly at risk:

  • They have to buy their feedstock at market prices, and they will have to sell into an increasingly over-supplied market
  • As a result, it is quite likely that their margins will become negative – as they have done before in periods of over-supply
  • At this point, integrated producers have the advantage as they are still making money upstream on oil/gas/refining

But there are also wider risks for European and Asian consumers down all the major value chains, as they will be impacted by lower cracker rates.

Scenario analysis must now be a top priority for potential Loser companies.  There really is very little time left, as the margins chart confirms.

Portugal shows the way to climate neutrality by 2050

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will do”. The Irish proverb’s logic shows us the way forward on the greatest challenge that we face today, of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

As the President of the European Petrochemical Association, Marc Schuller, highlighted last month when issuing a ‘call to action’:

“The Youth of the the world is calling for ambition and transformation. There is a new sense of urgency and as business leaders we should ensure that we embrace it and that our response as an industry is keeping up with this new pace of change and level of ambition.”

Governments also have a major role to play.  And it is important that they speak in language that ordinary people can understand.

This is why Portugal’s Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality 2050 is so important.  As the chart shows, it positions climate neutrality as an opportunity. Most people, after all, would prefer to be up with the peleton – challenging for the yellow jersey and the lead, not stuck at the back.

There is also very little doubt that climate change is taking place.  After all, as the chart on the right shows, the global population has more than trebled since 1950, from 2.5bn to 7.8bn today.  An increase of this size must have a major impact on the world in which we live.

The chart on the left shows one aspect of this impact in terms of the rise in surface temperatures from 1960, versus 1850-1900.  We have good data for both periods, and so the data’s reliability is high.

Of course, correlation doesn’t always equal causation. And no doubt there are a range of other factors involved – some positive, some negative. But given the observable risks of climate change today, it makes no sense to ignore the issue and hope it will go away.

This is why voters are telling their leaders that climate change is important.  After all, what is the point of a better standard of living, if at the same time you worry that you might get flooded out of your home – or it might be burnt to cinders?

Portugal’s response is an excellent example of a government taking a lead, within the framework of the European Green Deal to be launched early next year. As the chart shows, it is focused on the key areas and aims to carry the population with it:

  • “Eliminating coal-based power generation by 2030 and achieving full decarbonization of the power generation system by 2050
  • Decarbonizing mobility by strengthening public transport, decarbonizing fleets and reducing the carbon intensity of sea and air transport
  • Expanding conservation and precision agriculture and reducing emissions associated with livestock and fertilizer use
  • Preventing waste generation, increasing recycling rates and reducing waste disposal in landfill
  • Applying carbon tax, changing consumption and production patterns, environmental education and awareness
  • Promoting skills development towards new economic opportunities” 

Of course, nobody likes change. But as the chart above shows, the world is already changing.

As I discussed last month,  the world’s population is now expanding because people are living longer, not because women are having lots of babies.

  • Nearly a third of the world’s High Income population, those earning at least $12k/year, are in the Perennials 55+ generation. Their incomes decline as they retire, and so Sustainability is critically important for them as a way of doing more with less
  • Younger people, the Millennials,  still want mobility, but owning a car doesn’t excite them. Similarly, they want the benefits provided by plastics, but they don’t want the waste and pollution generated from applications such as single-use packaging

As Portugal has realised, most people – given the choice – would like to be at the front of the pack. We all want to enjoy the opportunities that the rise of the sustainability agenda will provide.

Corporate leaders need to respond – unless they want to risk finding themselves on their own, at the back of the pack.

Day of reckoning approaches for US polyethylene expansions, and the European industry

Planning for future demand in petrochemicals and polymers used to be relatively easy during the BabyBoomer SuperCycle. The team would consult the latest IMF forecast for global and regional growth, and then debate the right ratio to use to calculate product demand.

For polyethylene (PE), the ratio was generally just above GDP at around 1.1x, on the basis that relatively more plastic was likely to be needed as the economy grew.

So when the US shale gas opportunity came along, producers were very confident that it would provide them with major cost advantage over most other Regions. And they were under major pressure to use the ethane that might be produced from the new natural gas production, as it is explosive when mixed with air in concentrations between 3% – 12.4%.

Essentially this meant the ethane was a distressed product, and had to be used in ethylene production, as there are no other major applications.

Since those early days, the US polyethylene expansions have been “an accident waiting to happen”, as I first argued when the plans were still being finalised in March 2014:

“US ethylene producers need to work out where all the new ethylene production is going to be sold before embarking on the planned frenzy of cracker construction”.

Unfortunately, the pressures from Wall Street to exploit the apparent opportunity were too great. One by one, companies gave in to peer pressure and announced expansion plans, as shown in the ICIS graphic – and were rewarded by sharp increases in their share price. As one CEO said to me at the time:

“You may be right, but every time I mention shale on an earnings call, the share price goes up $5.”

Our major Study, ‘Demand – the New Direction for Profit’, jointly produced with ICIS, took the analysis a stage further in March 2016, warning that:

“The supply-led business model – build capacity and wait for demand to catch up – will no longer work in today’s low- or-no-growth marketplace.”

And it really did seem obvious then that the key assumptions behind the expansions were wrong:

  • Oil prices were no longer above $100/bbl and so US gas-based producers didn’t have a major cost advantage
  • Global growth hadn’t returned to SuperCycle levels; China was starting to move towards self-sufficiency and would not longer need need vast import volumes
  • Globalisation was being replaced by protectionism, and plants could no longer be sited half-way across the world from their markets

But companies went ahead anyway, due to the pressure from upstream gas producers to dispose of the product, and the enthusiastic support provided by investors.

The terrible hurricanes in 2017 postponed the moment of reckoning, as plants were delayed for months due to the damage.  But then, construction picked up again and most of the new capacity is now in place – and linked to new polyethylene capacity.

Polyethylene is the largest volume polymer, and the expansions are adding 40% (6.5 million tonnes) to US capacity between 2017 – 2019.  Other Regions are of course also expanding – particularly China, as it seeks to become more self-sufficient as a result of President Trump’s trade war. The ICIS price charts therefore show a depressing picture:

  • Asian HDPE CFR prices have fallen from $1350/t to $900/t over the past year
  • US HDPE prices have fallen from 64c/lb to 53c/lb over the same period
  • And European HDPE prices have started to tumble, down from $1150/t in June to $950/t today

The reason is not hard to find, as the charts from Trade Data Monitor confirm.   Total H1 ethylene exports in the shape of PE, PVC, styrene, EDC, ethylene and other derivatives almost doubled to 4 million tonnes. And suddenly, Europe has become the main importer, with volume up from 420kt in 2018 to 1.05MT.  Most of the volume is in PE, which doubled to 3MT on a global basis.

And there is still more volume to come, with ExxonMobil now starting its new 650kt plant and LyondellBasell starting its new 500kt plant in Q4. That’s more than 1MT of new  PE output which will have to be exported into an already over-supplied market.

In addition, it is clear that public opinion and the new EU Circular Economy directive are already starting to have a major impact on demand for single use plastics. Unfortunately, over 50% of  PE output goes into this application, along with nearly a third of polypropylene.

Volume is already disappearing as consumers make the shift to more sustainable forms of packaging. It is clear that recycled material now has the potential to replace virgin product as the feedstock of choice in the future.

In turn, these paradigm shifts are creating Winners and Losers.  Next year is likely to prove very difficult for US PE exporters, as they face up to the fact that export demand has not grown as expected, and they do not have a major cost advantage.

As the picture of Fido the dog illustrates, polymer producers are the ‘flea on the tail of the oil/gas markets’:

  • Producers integrated into US natural gas production, or EU refineries, will be able to ‘roll through’ margins to the wellhead and refinery as prices go lower
  • But non-integrated European players have much less protection. Their margins will get squeezed, at the same time as demand patterns shift away from the use of virgin product

Now is therefore the time for these producers to start accelerating moves to using recycled feedstock for their production.  In another 12-18 months, if prices and margins keep on falling at current rates, it may well be too late.

Stormy weather ahead for chemicals

Four serious challenges are on the horizon for the global petrochemical industry as I describe in my latest analysis for ICIS Chemical Business and in a podcast interview with Will Beacham of ICIS.

The first is the growing risk of recession, with key markets such as autos, electronics and housing all showing signs of major weakness. Central banks are already talking up the potential for further stimulus, less than a year after they had tried to claim victory for their post-Crisis policies.

Second is oil market volatility, where prices raced up in the first half of last year, only to then collapse from $85/bbl to $50/bbl by Christmas, before rallying again this year. The issue is that major structural change is now underway, with US and Russian production increasing at Saudi Arabia’s expense.

Third, there is the unsettling impact of geo-politics and trade wars. The US-China trade war has set alarm bells ringing around the world, whilst the Brexit arguments between the UK and European Union are another sign that the age of globalisation is behind us, with potentially major implications for today’s supply chains.

And then there is the industry’s own, very specific challenge, shown in the chart. Based on innovative trade data analysis by Trade Data Monitor, it highlights the dramatic impact of the new US shale gas-based cracker investments on global trade in petrochemicals.

The idea is to capture the full effect of the new ethylene production across the key derivatives – polyethylene, PVC, styrene, EDC, vinyl acetate, ethyl benzene, ethylene glycol – based on their ethylene content. Even with next year’s planned new US ethylene terminal, the derivatives will still be the cheapest and easiest way to export the new ethylene molecules.

The cracker start-ups were inevitably delayed by the hurricanes in 2017. But if one compares 2018 with 2016 (to avoid the distortions these caused), there was still a net increase of 1.7 million tonnes in US ethylene-equivalent trade flows.

This was more than 40% of the total production increase over the period, as reported by the American Chemistry Council. And 2019 will see further major increases in volume with 4.25 million tonnes of new ethylene capacity due to start-up, alongside full-year output from last year’s start-ups.

The problem is two-fold. As discussed here in 2014 (ICB, US boom is a dangerous game, 24-30 March), it was never likely that central bank stimulus policies could actually return demand growth to the levels seen in the Boomer-led SuperCycle from 1983-2000:

“Shale gas thus provides a high-profile example of how today’s unprecedented demographic changes are creating major changes in business models. Low-cost supply is no longer a guarantee of future profitability.”

This was not a popular message at the time, when oil was still riding high at over $100/bbl and the economic impact of globally ageing populations and collapsing fertility rates were still not widely understood. But it has borne the test of time, and sums up the challenge now facing the industry.

Please click to download the full analysis and my podcast interview with Will Beacham.

$60bn opportunity opens up for plastics industry as need to eliminate single-use packaging grows

150 businesses representing over 20% of the global plastic packaging market have now agreed to start building a circular economy for plastics with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

As a first step, Coca-Cola has revealed that it produced 3MT of plastic packaging in 2017 – equivalent to 200k bottles/minute, around 20% of the 500bn PET bottles used every year.  Altogether, Coke, Mars, Nestlé and Danone currently produce 8MT/year of plastic packaging and have now committed to:

  • Eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reusable packaging
  • Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025
  • Create a circular economy in plastic by significantly increasing the volumes of plastic reused or recycled into new packaging.

The drive behind the Foundation’s initiative is two-fold:

  • To eliminate plastic waste and pollution at its source
  • To capture the $60bn opportunity to replace fossil fuels with recycled material

Encouragingly, over 100 companies in the consumer packaging and retail sector have now committed to making 100% of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Perhaps even more importantly, they plan to actually use an average of 25% recycled content in plastic packaging by 2025 – 10x today’s global average.  This will create a 5MT/year demand for recycled plastic by 2025.  And clearly, many more companies are likely to join them. As I noted a year ago (Goodbye to “business as usual” model for plastics):

“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. 2017’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.”

PLASTICS INDUSTRY NOW HAS TO SOLVE THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGES

The issue now is around making this happen. It’s relatively easy for the consuming companies to issue declarations of intent. But as we note in the latest pH Report, it’s much harder for plastics producers to come up with the necessary solutions:

“The problem is that technical solutions to the issue do not currently exist. It is possible to imagine that new single-layer polymers can be developed to replace multi-layer polymer packaging, and hence become suitable for mechanical recycling. It is also possible to believe that pyrolysis technologies can be adapted to enable the introduction of chemical recycling. But the timescale for moving through the development stage in both key areas into even a phased European roll-out is very short.”

Already, however, Borealis and Indorama have begun to set targets for using recycled content. Indorama plans to increase its processing of recycled PET from 100kt today to 750kt by 2025.  And as Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said last week:

“The industry needs to tackle this ocean waste and develop ways to reuse plastics. There are no deniers out there that we have a plastics-waste issue. The challenge is that the plastics industry has developed around a linear value-chain. A line connects the hydrocarbons from the wellhead to either the environment or to landfills once consumers discard them. The discarded plastic does not re-enter the chain.

“The industry needs to adopt a circular value-chain, in which the waste is reused. For this to be successful, some kind of value needs to be attached to plastic waste. Without this, consumers have little incentive to recover plastic waste in a form that would be useful to manufacturers.”

As McKinsey’s chart shows, this is potentially a $60bn opportunity for the industry.  It is also likely, as I noted back in June, that the ‘Plastics recycling paradigm shift will create Winners and Losers‘:

“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 Winners will be those companies who focus on the emerging opportunity to eliminate the physical and financial waste created by single use packaging. As the European Commission has noted, it is absurd that only 5% of the value of plastic packaging is currently retained in the EU economy after a single use, at a cost of €70bn-€105bn annually.

On a global scale, this waste is simply unaffordable, as the UN Environment Assembly confirmed on Friday when voting to “significantly reduce” the volume of single-use plastics by 2030.

The plastics industry now finds itself in the position of the chlorine industry 30 years’ ago, over the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer. The Winners will grasp the opportunity to start building a more circular economy.  The Losers will risk going out of business as their licence to operate is challenged.

Asian downturn worsens, bringing global recession nearer

The chemical industry is the best leading indicator for the global economy.  And my visit to Singapore last week confirmed that the downturn underway in the Asian market creates major risks for developed and emerging economies alike.

The problem is focused on China’s likely move into recession, now its stimulus policies are finally being unwound.  And the result is shown in the above chart from The pH Report, updated to Friday:

  • It confirms that the downturn began before oil prices peaked at the beginning of October, confirming that companies were responding to a downturn in end-user demand
  • Since then, of course, the oil price has – rather dramatically – entered a bear market, with prices down by nearly a third

The question now is whether finance directors will choose to aggressively destock ahead of year-end results, to mitigate the volume decline with a decline in working capital. This would be a bold move given continuing geo-political uncertainty in the Middle East, and would also conflict with the more upbeat guidance that was given earlier with Q3 results.

But a review of ICIS news headlines over the past few days suggests they may have little choice.  Inventories are described as “piling up” in a wide range of major products, including polyethylene – the biggest volume polymer.  Indian producers are even offering “price protection” packages on polypropylene, to safeguard customers from losses if prices fall further.

Asian countries and their major partners (eg Argentina, S Africa, Turkey) were, of course, the first to be hit by China’s downturn.  But Q3’s fall in German GDP shows the downturn has now spread to the Western economy that most benefited from China’s post-2008 stimulus bubble.  As The Guardian noted:

“Goods exports make up 40% of German GDP – a much bigger proportion than for the next two biggest eurozone economies, France and Italy.”

OIL MARKETS CONFIRM THE RECESSION RISK

Of course, consensus opinion still believes that the US economy is sailing along, regardless of any problems elsewhere.  But the chart of oil prices relative to recession tells a different story:

  • The problem is that oil prices have been rising since 2016, with the summer proving the final blow-off peak.  As always, this meant consumers had to cut back on discretionary spending as costs of transport and heating rose
  • The cost of oil as a percentage of GDP reached 3.1% in Q3 – a level which has always led to recession in the past, with the exception of the post-2008 stimulus period when governments and central banks were pouring $tns of stimulus money into the global economy
  • In turn, this means a downturn is now beginning in US end-user demand in critical areas such as housing, autos and electronics

Oil markets have therefore provided a classic example of the trading maxim for weak markets – “Buy on the rumour, sell on the news”.

  • Prices had risen by 75% since June on supply shortage fears, following President Trump’s decision to exit the Iran nuclear deal on November 4
  • As always, this created “apparent demand” as buyers in the US and around the world bought ahead to minimise the impact of higher prices
  • But the higher prices also negated the benefit of the earlier tax cuts for his core supporters just ahead of the mid-term elections, causing Trump to undertake a policy u-turn
  • He is now pushing Saudi Arabia and Russia to maintain production, and has announced 180-day exemptions for Iran’s 8 largest customers – China, India, S Korea, Japan, Italy, Greece, Taiwan and Turkey.

Understandably, oil traders have now decided that his “bark is worse than his bite“.  And with the downturn spreading from Asia to the West, markets are now refocusing on supply/demand balances, with the International Energy Agency suggesting stocks will build by 2mb/d in H1 2019. In response, OPEC are reportedly discussing potential cuts of up to 1.4mb/d from December.

CHINA’S SHADOW BANKING COLLAPSE IS CREATING A NEW FINANCIAL CRISIS

Unfortunately, as in 2008, the collapse in oil prices is coinciding with the end of stimulus policies, particularly in China, as the chart of its shadow bank lending confirms.  This has hit demand in two ways, as I discussed earlier this month in the Financial Times:

  • Just 3 years ago, it was pumping out an average $140bn/month in mainly property-related lending *
  • This created enormous demand for EM commodity exports
  • It also boosted global property prices as wealthy Chinese rushed to get their money out of the country
  • But during 2018, lending has collapsed by more than 80% to average just $23bn in October

China’s post-2008 stimulus programme was the growth engine for the global economy – with the efforts of the Western central banks very much a sideshow in comparison.  It was more than half of the total $33tn lending to date.  But now it is unwinding, prompting the Minsky Moment forecast a year ago by China’s central bank governor:

China’s financial sector is and will be in a period with high risks that are easily triggered. Under pressure from multiple factors at home and abroad, the risks are multiple, broad, hidden, complex, sudden, contagious, and hazardous.”

As I warned then:

“Companies and investors should not ignore the warnings now coming out from Beijing about the change of strategy. China’s lending bubble – particularly in property – is likely coming to an end. In turn, this will lead to a bumpy ride for the global economy.

The bumps are getting bigger and bigger as we head into recession.  Asia’s downturn is now spreading to the rest of the world, and is a major wake-up call for anyone still planning for “business as usual”.

 

* Lending has major seasonal peaks in Q1, so I use rolling 12 month averages to avoid distortions