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
Europe’s petrochemical sector must prepare now for the trade war, US start-ups, Brexit and the circular economy, as I discuss in this interview with Will Beacham of ICIS news at the European Petrochemical Association Conference.
With higher tariff barriers going up between the US and China, the market in Europe is likely to experience an influx of polymers and other chemicals from exporters looking for a new home for their production, International eChem chairman, Paul Hodges said.
Speaking on the sidelines of the European Petrochemical Association’s annual meeting in Vienna, he said: “The thing we have to watch out for is displaced product which can’t go from the US any more to China and therefore will likely come to Europe.”
In addition to polyethylene, there is an indirect effect as domestic demand in China is also falling, he said, leaving other Asian producers which usually export there to also seek new markets and targeting Europe.
“The US isn’t buying so many consumer goods from China any more – and that seems to be the case because container ships going from China to the US for Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t full. So NE and SE Asian chemical producers haven’t got the business they expect in China and are exporting to Europe instead. We don’t know how disruptive this will be but it has quite a lot of potential.”
US polymer start-ups
Hodges believes that the new US polymer capacities will go ahead even if the demand is not there for the product. This is because the ethane feedstocks they use need to be extracted by the producers and sellers of natural gas who must remove ethane from the gas stream to make it safe.
For these producers some of the cost advantages have already disappeared because of rising ethane prices.
“The exports of US ethane are adding one or two more crackers to the total. And without sufficient capacity ethane prices have become higher and more volatile.”
Hodges points out that pricing power is being lost as poor demand means producers cannot pass on the effect of rising oil prices. “Margins are being hit with some falling by 50-60%,” he said.
EU targets mean that all plastic packaging must be capable of being recycled, reused or composted in Europe by 2025. For the industry this could be a huge opportunity, but only if it acts fast, said Hodges: “We have to develop the technology that allows that to happen. We will need the [regulatory] approvals and if we don’t get moving in the next 12-18 months we are in trouble.”
According to Hodges: “We are in the end game for Brexit. We talk to senior politicians from both sides who don’t think there is a parliamentary majority for any Brexit option.”
He fears that if no deal can be agreed there is a chance the UK will refuse to pay its £39bn divorce bill.
“Then what happens to chemical regulation and transport? Although the bigger companies have made preparations, only one in seven in the supply chains are getting prepared,” he added. This is why we have launched ReadyforBrexit.
You can listen to the full podcast interview by clicking here.
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Sadly, my July forecast that US-China tariffs could lead to a global polyethylene price war seems to be coming true.
As I have argued since March 2014 (US boom is a dangerous game), it was always going to be difficult for US producers to sell their vastly increased output. The expansions were of course delayed by last year’s terrible hurricanes, but the major plants are all now in the middle of coming online. In total, these shale gas-based expansions will increase ethylene (C2) capacity by a third and polyethylene (PE) capacity by 40% (6 million tonnes).
ICIS pricing reports this weekend confirm my concern, following China’s decision to retaliate in response to President Trump’s $200bn of tariffs on US imports from China:
Even worse, as the chart above confirms, is that US ethane feedstock spreads versus ethylene have collapsed during 2018, from around 20c/lb to 5c/lb today. Ethane averaged 26c/gal as recently as May, but spiked to more than double this level earlier this month (and even higher, momentarily) at 55c/gal.
The issue appears to be that US producers had calculated their ethane supply/demand balances on the basis of the planned US expansions, and never expected large volumes of ethane to be exported. Yet latest EIA data shows exports doubling from an average 95kbd in 2016 to 178kbd last year. And they are still rising, with Q2 exports 62% higher at 290kbd.
The second chart from the latest pH Report adds a further concern to those of over-capacity and weak pricing power.
It focuses attention on the weak state of underlying demand. Even the prospect of higher oil prices only led to modest upturns earlier this year in the core olefins, aromatics and polymers value chains as companies built inventory. Polymers’ weak response is a particularly negative indicator for end-user demand.
This concern is supported by recent analysis of the European market by ICIS C2 expert, Nel Weddle. She notes that PE is used in packaging, the manufacture of household goods, and also in the agricultural industry and adds:
“Demand has been disappointing for many sellers in September, after a fairly weak summer. “I don’t see a big difference between now and August,” said one, “for both demand and pricing. Customers are very very quiet.” All PE grades were available, with no shortage of any in evidence.
“The market is generally quieter than many had expected, and the threat of imports from new capacities in the US looms large – particularly with the current trade spat between the US and China meaning that product may have to find a home in Europe sooner than expected.”
US producers, as would be expected, remain optimistic. Thus LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel has suggested that:
“Trade patterns are shifting as China sources from other regions and [US producers] are shifting to markets that are vacated. Supply chains are adjusting but there is a bit of inventory volatility as a result. Where product has landed [in China] and has to be redirected, there is price volatility. But we think that is [transitory].”
But the detail of global PE trade suggests a more pessimistic conclusion. Data from Trade Date Monitor shows that China was easily the largest importer, taking a net 11.9 million tonnes. Turkey was the second largest importer but took just 1.7 million tonnes, around 14% of China’s volume. And given Turkey’s economic crisis, it is hard to see even these volumes being sustainable with its interest rates now at 24% and its currency down 60% versus the US$.
As the 3rd chart confirms, the US therefore has relatively few options for exporting its new volumes:
- Total net exports have increased 29% in January-July versus 2016, but were still only 1.8 million tonnes
- Latin America remained the largest export market at 939kt, taking 52% of total volume
- China volume had doubled to 524kt, but was only 29% of the total
- Europe was the next largest market at 369kt, up 40%, but just 20% of the total
- Other markets remain relatively small; S Africa took the largest volume in Africa at just 12kt
China’s US imports will now almost certainly reduce as the new tariffs bite. And the onset of the US trade war is likely to further boost China’s existing aim of increasing its self-sufficiency in key areas such as PE. Its ethylene capacity is already slated to increase by 73% by 2022, double the rate of expansion in 2012-2017 and from a higher base. The majority of this new volume will inevitably go into PE, as it is easily the largest derivative product.
Back in May, I used the chart above to highlight how the coming price war would likely create Winners and Losers in olefin and polymer markets. Unfortunately, developments since then make this conclusion more or less certain. I fear that complacency based on historical performance will confirm my 2014 warning about the dangers that lie ahead.
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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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