US PE exports on front line as Trump changes trade policies

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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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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Chemical industry data shows reflation remains hope, not reality

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

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

FMs Jul17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinopec’s results confirm China’s focus on employment and self-sufficiency, not profit

Sinopec May17China’s strategies for oil, refining and petrochemical production are very different from those in the West, as analysis of Sinopec’s Annual and 20-F Reports confirms.  As the above chart shows, it doesn’t aim to maximise profit:

□  Since 1998, it has spent $45bn on capex in the refining sector, and $38bn in the chemicals sector
□  Yet it made just $1bn at EBIT level (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) in refining, and only $21bn in chemicals

As I noted last year:

Clearly no western company would ever dream of spending such large amounts of capital for so little reward. But as a State Owned Enterprise, Sinopec’s original mandate was to be a reliable supplier of raw materials to downstream factories, to maintain employment. More recently, the emphasis has changed to providing direct support to employment, through increased exports of refined products into Asian markets and increased self-sufficiency in petrochemicals”.

Commentary on China’s apparent growth in oil imports confirms the confusion this creates.  Western markets cheered last year as China’s oil imports appeared to increase, hitting a record high. But they were ignoring key factors:

□   China’s crude imports were indeed 14% higher at 7.6 million bpd – nearly a million bpd higher than in 2015
□   But 700 kbpd of these imports were one-off demand as China filled its strategic storage
□   And at the same time, China’s refineries were pumping out record export volume: its fuel exports were up around one-third during the year to over 48 million tonnes

As Reuters noted:

This broadly suggests China’s additional imports of crude oil were simply processed and exported as refined products.”  In reality, ”China’s 2016 oil demand grew at the slowest pace in at least three years at 2.5%, down from 3.1% in 2015 and 3.8% in 2014, led by a sharp drop in diesel consumption and as gasoline usage eased from double-digit growth.”

The issue was simply that Premier Li was aiming to maintain employment in the “rust-belt provinces”, by boosting the so-called “tea-pot refineries”.  He had therefore raised their oil import quotas to 8.7 million tonnes in 2016, more than double their 3.7 million tonne quota in 2016.  As a result, they had more diesel and gasoline to sell in export markets.

China OR May17

The same pattern can be seen in petrochemicals, as the second chart confirms.  It highlights how Operating Rates (OR%) for the two main products, ethylene and propylene, remain remarkably high by global standards.  This confirms that Sinopec’s aim is not to maximise profit by slowing output when margins are low.  Instead, as a State Owned Enterprise, its role is to be a reliable supplier to downstream factories, to keep people employed.

□   Its OR% for the major product, ethylene, hit a low of 94% after the start of the Financial Crisis in 2009, but has averaged 102% since Sinopec first reported the data in 1998
□   Its OR% for propylene has also averaged 102%, but has shown more volatility as it can be sourced from a wider variety of plants. It is currently at 100%

Understanding China’s strategy is particularly important when forecasting demand for the major new petrochemical plants now coming online in N America.  Conventional analysis might suggest that China’s plants might shutdown, if imports could be provided more cheaply from US shale-based production.  But that is not China’s strategy.

Communist Party rule since Deng Xiaoping’s famous Southern Tour in 1992 has always been based on the need to avoid social unrest by maintaining employment.  There would therefore be no benefit to China’s leadership in closing plants.  In fact, China is heading in the opposite direction with the current 5-Year Plan, as I discussed last month.

The Plan aims to increase self-sufficiency in the ethylene chain from 49% in 2015 to 62% in 2020.  Similarly in the propylene chain, self-sufficiency will increase from 67% in 2015 to 93% in 2020.

It is therefore highly likely that China’s imports of petrochemicals and polymers will continue to decline, as I discussed last month.  And if China follows through on its plans to develop a more service-based economy, based on the mobile internet, we could well seen exports of key polymers such as polypropylene start to appear in global markets.

China’s increase in chemicals self-sufficiency will hit US shale gas expansions

China C2,C3 May17Some years ago, when China was well on the way to becoming the world’s largest importer of chemicals, a reporter asked the chairman of Sinochem, China’s largest chemical company if China intended to keep increasing its imports?  ”Not at all” was Su Shulin’s reply, “This is temporary.  It is not our strategy.  We will become self-sufficient.

China’s current 13th Five Year Plan, covering 2016 – 2020, confirms his analysis.  Wherever possible, China is now moving to increase its self-sufficiency as the above chart confirms:

  In the ethylene chain, it intends to increase self-sufficiency from 49% in 2015 to 62% in 2020
  In the propylene chain, self-sufficiency will increase from 67% in 2015 to 93% in 2020
  Detailed investment plans are already being implemented to fulfill this strategy

China PTA May17Ethylene and propylene are following the pattern set in other major product areas.  In 2014, China was the world’s largest importer of PTA, the key raw material for polyester fibre and PET bottles, as the second chart confirms:

  It imported 1.7 million tonnes in January – March 2014.  But then a series of major new world-scale plants began to come online, and China has since become a net exporter
  NE Asian producers have lost 97% of their export volume to China and SE Asian producers have lost 90%
  NEA and SEA are also now starting to face competition from China in Middle Eastern import markets

China PX May17PTA is not alone in seeing this transition.  There has really only been one major exception, paraxylene (PX) – the raw material used to make PTA.  As the third chart shows, the new PTA plants have had to depend on PX imports for their feedstocks.  The reason is that PX became the target of public concerns over environmental pollution and safety, causing expansion plans to be put on hold for some years.

  China PX imports have risen by a third over the past 3 years to 2.7 million tonnes in Q1 this year
  NE Asia has been the main supplier, with S Korea, Japan and Taiwan all moving major volumes
  This, of course, has helped to compensate for the loss of their PTA exports

But now the logjam on new PX plants in China has been broken, and capacity is set to double from 13.6 MT to 29.7MT over the next 3 years.  This expansion will not only support new downstream capacity in PTA, but will likely also lead to modest exports of PX as well.

This is further evidence, if more was needed, that the 4.5 million tonnes of new US polyethylene capacity will likely have major problems in finding a market, as it comes online later this year.  As I noted back in March, the scope for disappointment with these projects is very high.  US polyethylene exports had already fallen 50% since their 2009 peak – even before China began to increase its self-sufficiency

 

4.5 million tonnes of new US polyethylene exports on front-line as War of Words hits US-China trade

Trump Mar17

There isn’t anybody who knows what is going to happen in the next 12 months. We’ve never been here before. Things are out of control. I have never seen a situation like it.” This comment last month from former UK Finance Minister, Ken Clarke, aptly summarises the uncertainty facing the global economy.

As I note in a new analysis, major policy changes are now underway in both the US and China – the world’s two largest economies. Almost inevitably, they will create structural changes in the petrochemicals and polymers industry. These changes will not only impact the domestic US and Chinese economies. They will also impact every supply chain which has a link into either economy.

Half of Apple’s iPhones, for example, are currently made in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, using products from over 200 suppliers from around the world. Under President Trump’s new “America First” policies, it is highly likely that in the future, more and more iPhones will instead start to be made in the US.

This highlights how the world is now moving into the early stages of a “War of Words” scenario, where both the US and China are preparing to develop a totally new trading relationship:

  Will this develop into an all-out “Global Trade War” scenario, as the new chairman of President Trump’s National Trade Council, Peter Navarro, has been advocating? This was the key message of his 2006 book, “The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought, How They Can Be Won”?
  Will President Trump go ahead with his proposed 35% border tax on imports into the US?
  Or will the two sides negotiate a less confrontational trading relationship that still takes account of the president’s desire to reshore manufacturing to the US?

Nobody can know at the moment. But we do know that China’s President Xi is equally determined to push forward with his reforms for the domestic Chinese economy. He also seems to have finally sidelined Premier Li Keqiang, who has been responsible for economic policy until now. This is a critically important development, as Li has masterminded the stimulus policies that meant China became the key driver for global growth in recent years.

Instead, Xi is determined to refocus on his $6tn “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project – which absorbed $450bn of start-up finance last year. OBOR creates the potential for China to lead a new free trade area including countries in Asia, Middle East, Africa and Europe – just as the US appears to be withdrawing from its historical role of free trade leadership.

It is hard to over-estimate the potential importance of these changes. As President Trump said in his recent Inauguration speech, his aim is to completely overturn the framework that has governed the global economy during our working lives.

Today’s business models based on global supply chains are therefore under major threat, and companies probably have very little time to develop new ones. It seems most unlikely, for example, that the globalisation model of recent decades – whereby raw materials are routinely shipped half-way around the world, and then returned as finished product – will survive for much longer. Companies and investors also have to prepare for the risk that today’s moves are only the start of a more profound shift in the global economy.

The current “War of Words” on trade could well evolve into outright protectionism, with countries reimposing the trade barriers of the pre-globalisation era.

US PE Mar17

The imminent start-up of 4.5m tonnes of new North American polyethylene (PE) capacity confirms the scale of the potential challenges ahead. As the chart highlights:

 US net exports in 2016 were 5,000 tonnes lower than in 2015
 Normally, one would have expected them to be ramping up in advance of the new capacity coming on line
 Even more worrying is that they were 22% lower than their 2009 peak
 Exports to China were down by 50% due to its self-sufficiency having increased

The scope for disappointment later this year – and in turn the potential for the “War of Words” to be replaced by a “Global Trade War” – is obvious.

I analyse the risks in a new feature article for ICIS Chemical Business with John Richardson.  Please click here to download a copy (no registration required)