Hurricane Harvey: lack of insurance will hit Houston’s recovery

Buffalo Bayou

“By Monday, the third straight day of flooding, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey had left much of the region underwater, and the city of Houston looked like a sea dotted by small islands.  ’This event is unprecedented,’ the National Weather Service tweeted. ‘All impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.’”

This summary from the New York Times gives some idea of the immensity of the storm that struck large parts of Texas/Louisiana last week, including the 4th largest city in the US.  And this was before the second stage of the storm.

I worked in Houston for 2 years, living alongside the Buffalo Bayou which flooded so spectacularly last week.  The photo above from the Houston Chronicle shows the area around our former home on Saturday, still surrounded by water.  Today, as the rest of America celebrates the Labor Day holiday, the devastated areas in Texas and Louisiana will be starting to count the cost of rebuilding their lives and starting out anew:

  Some parts of the Houston economy will recover remarkably quickly. It is a place where people aim to get things done, and don’t just sit around waiting for others to do the heavy lifting
  But as Texas Governor Abbott has warned, Harvey is “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced. We need to recognize it will be a new normal, a new and different normal for this entire region.”

The key issue is that the Houston metro area alone is larger in size than the economies of Sweden or Poland.  And as Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner tweeted:

An estimated 70% of the 1,800-square-mile county (2700 sq km), which includes Houston, was covered with 1½ feet (46cm) of water”

Already the costs are mounting.  Abbott’s current estimate is that Federal funding needs alone will be “far in excess of $125bn“, easily topping the costs of 2005′s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  And, of course, that does not include the cost, and pain, suffered by the majority of homeowners – who have no flood insurance – or the one-third of auto owners who don’t have comprehensive insurance. They will likely receive nothing towards the costs of cleaning up.

SOME PARTS OF THE ECONOMY HAVE THE POTENTIAL FOR A QUICK RECOVERY
Companies owning the large refineries and petrochemical plants in the affected region have all invested in the maximum amount of flood protection following Katrina, when some were offline for 18 months

  Oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are used to hurricanes and are already coming back – Reuters reports that only around 6% of production is still offline, down from a peak of 25% at the height of the storm
  It is hard currently to estimate the impact on shale oil/gas output in the Eagle Ford basin, but the Oil & Gas Journal reports that 300 – 500 kb/d of oil production is shut-in, and 3bcf/d of gas production
  ExxonMobil is now restarting the country’s second-biggest refinery at Baytown, and Phillips 66 and Valero are also restarting some operations, whilst ICIS reports that a number of major petrochemical plants are now being inspected in the expectation that they can soon be restarted

Encouragingly also, it seems that insurance companies are planning to speed up inspections of flooded properties by using drone technology, which should help to process claims more quickly.  Loss adjusters using drones can inspect 3 homes an hour, compared to the hour taken to inspect on roof manually.  But even Farmers Insurance, one of the top Texas insurers, only has 7 drones available – and has already received over 14000 claims.

RECOVERY FOR MOST PEOPLE AND BUSINESSES WILL TAKE MUCH LONGER
For the 45 or more people who have died in the floods, there will be no recovery.

Among the living, 1 million people have been displaced and up to 500k cars destroyed.  481k people have so far requested housing assistance and 25% of Houston’s schools have suffered severe or extensive flood damage.

These alarming statistics highlight why clean-up after Harvey will take a long time.  Basic services such as water and sewage are massively contaminated, with residents being told to boil water in many areas.  The “hundreds of thousands of people across the 38 Texas counties affected by Harvey” using their own wells are particularly at risk.

And as the New York Times adds:

Flooded sewers are stoking fears of cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases. Runoff from the city’s sprawling petroleum and chemicals complex contains any number of hazardous compounds. Lead, arsenic and other toxic and carcinogenic elements may be leaching from some two dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area”

FEW IN HOUSTON HAVE FLOOD INSURANCE
Insurance Aug17Then there is the issue that, as the chart from the New York Times shows, most of those affected by Harvey don’t have home insurance policies that cover flood damage.  Similarly, a survey in April by insurer Aon found that:

“Less than one-sixth of homes in Harris County, Texas, whose county seat is Houston, currently have active National Flood Insurance Program policies. The county has about 1.8 million housing units.”

As the Associated Press adds:

Experts say another reason for lack of coverage in the Houston area was that the last big storm, Tropical Storm Allison, was 16 years ago. As a result, people had stopped worrying and decided to use money they would have spent for insurance premiums on other items.”

Even those with insurance will get hit by the low levels of coverage – just $250k for a house and $100k for contents. Businesses carrying insurance also face problems, according to the Wall Street Journal, as they depend on the same Federal insurance scheme, which:

Was primarily designed for homeowners and has had few updates since the 1970s. Standard protections for small businesses, including costs of business interruption and significant disaster preparation, aren’t covered, and maximum payouts for damages haven’t risen since 1994.

The maximum coverage for business property is $500k, and the same cap applies to equipment and other contents, far below many businesses’ needs.  And even those with insurance find it difficult to claim, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York after Hurricane Sandy in 2012:

“More than half of small businesses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that had flood insurance and suffered damages received no insurance payout. Another 31% recouped only some of their losses.”

Auto insurance is a similar story. Only those with comprehensive auto insurance are likely to be covered for their loss – and even then, people will still suffer deductions for depreciation.  According to the Insurance Council of Texas:

15% of motorists have no car insurance, and of those who do, (only) 75% have comprehensive insurance. That leaves a lot of car owners without any protection.”

In other words, around 1/3rd of car owners probably have no insurance cover against which to claim for flood damage.

HARVEY’S IMPACT WILL BE LONG-TERM
It is clearly too early, with flood waters still rising in some areas, to be definitive about the implications of Hurricane Harvey for Houston and the affected areas in Texas and Louisiana.

Of course there are supply shortages today, and the task of replacement will created new demand for housing and autos.  But over the medium to longer term, 3 key impacts seem likely to occur:

  It will take time for the supply of oil, gas, gasoline and other refinery products, petrochemicals and polymers to fully recover.  There will inevitably also be some short-term shortages in some value chains. But within 1 – 3 months, most if not all of the major plants will probably be back online
  It will take a lot longer for most people affected by Harvey to recover their losses.  Some may never be able to do this, especially if they have no insurance to cover their flooded house or car.  And those working in the gig economy have little fall-back when their employers have no need for their services
  The US economy will also be impacted, as Slate magazine warned a week ago, even before the full magnitude of the catastrophe became apparent:

“For the U.S. economy to lose Houston for a couple of weeks is a human disaster—and an economic disaster, too….Given that supply chains rely on a huge number of shipments making their connections with precision, the disruption to the region’s shipping, trucking, and rail infrastructure will have far-reaching effects.

 

Trump, Xi have 100 days to avert US-China trade war

War of Words Apr17Last week’s summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping was initially overshadowed by Friday’s news of US missile strikes on Syria.  But from the details since released, it is clear the summit will likely have far-reaching impact on the global economy.  As US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross revealed afterwards, the 2 leaders agreed to implement:

“A 100-day plan with way-stations of accomplishment.  We made very clear that our primary objectives are twofold:

   One is to reduce the trade deficit quite noticeably between the United States and China
   The second is to increase total trade between the two countries

Ominously, he added, “Words are easy, discussions are easy, endless meetings are easy. What’s hard is tangible results, and if we don’t get some tangible results within the first 100 days, I think we’ll have to re-examine whether it’s worthwhile continuing them.”

Ross has set a tough target to be met with 100 days (18 July), especially given the range of major issues involved.

This is why ICIS and International eChem have combined their expertise to produce a new Report, The War of Words, focused on the implications of any deal – or lack of any deal – on the global petrochemicals industry.  The Report highlights how a “business-as-usual scenario” is the least likely outcome for the years ahead.  As my co-author, John Richardson of ICIS highlights:

“Our aim is to provide a clear understanding of the tectonic shifts now under way in the world’s two largest economies, and to offer a detailed road map outlining the potential impact of these developments on business and investments.”

The Report provides companies and investors with the insight and analysis needed to prepare for almost inevitable change to today’s business models.  It highlights how today’s globalised world – whereby raw materials are routinely shipped half-way around the world, and then returned as finished product – is most unlikely to survive for much longer.

The “War of Words” Report is the first in a quarterly series of “Uncertainty Studies“.  It provides a clear understanding of the tectonic shifts now under way in the world’s two largest economies, and a detailed road map highlighting the likely impact of these developments on business and investments. It is essential support for decision-makers.

Please click here for subscription details, or contact me directly at phodges@iec.eu.com

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)

Trump’s $1tn infrastructure plan likely dead as focus moves to tax

President Trump’s defeat on healthcare makes it very unlikely that he will be able to push through his proposed $1tn infrastructure boost, as I discuss in a video interview with Will Beacham, deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business
Healthcare Mar17BARCELONA (ICIS)–Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan is unlikely to be approved because of a legislative bottleneck, denying the US chemical sector a key source of demand growth to absorb the 4.5m tonnes/year of new polyethylene capacity due on stream this year, according to a chemicals industry consultant.

In a video interview, International eChem chairman Paul Hodges said that the US chemical sector will have to find innovative ways to stimulate domestic demand in the face of possible restrictions on global free trade in petrochemicals and polymers. The industry cannot rely on the infrastructure programme or President Trump’s strategy to re-shore industrial production to create enough demand growth, he added.

New Presidents only have a very short window for action, Hodges said: “The record of the last few administrations is that Congress can only deal with one topic at a time. The battle on healthcare had been getting in the way of tax reform, which was President Trump’s top priority. And as for infrastructure – his third priority – I can’t see Congress getting through three major programmes in the next 12 months.

YouTube Mar17

Hodges believes US presidents only really have the first year of their term to achieve major goals. By 2018 the run-up to the mid-term elections will make it very hard to achieve change. He points out that it took President Ronald Reagan until his second term to achieve his tax reforms.

We have to assume infrastructure is dead. There is no magic wand to be waved and the industry has to look at self-help,” says Hodges, unless President Trump does a deal with the Democrats. However, he believes there are huge opportunities for innovative US chemicals and polymers in serving the water and food sectors with commodity and specialty polymers to help reduce waste.

The US has a major water shortage problem, says Hodges, and yet 30-40% never reaches the customer because it leaks out of the system. It also has a major problem with food where 30-40% is thrown away because of wastage.

According to the consultant: “The industry has a fantastic opportunity to employ a lot of technical development people to work with the utility and food companies in order to stop that waste. You have to employ more people … or the product just won’t be sold – let’s get out there and do something to sell more PE and PVC into the water and food industries.

Please click here to watch the full interview.

Industry needs new strategy to spread benefits of globalisation

Opportunities

The Brexit vote, and Donald Trump’s election, confirm that we are in a New Normal world.  In the interview below with Will Beacham, Deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business, I highlight some ideas about how industry needs to adapt.

BARCELONA (ICIS)–The global chemical sector needs to stimulate demand for innovative products and services in mature economies so that the benefits of globalisation are felt by people who have been left behind, a leading consultant says.

Globalisation is a very efficient method of production, but it shifts manufacturing to low-cost areas, leaving workers in mature economies at risk of under-employment.  The chemical sector should adopt more service and solution-oriented business models which will boost demand and employment in high-cost regions, says International eChem chairman.

This innovative approach is particularly important for a country like the US where the election of Donald Trump has highlighted anger among voters about falling incomes and hostility to the effects of globalisation.

On 21 November, Trump confirmed that he plans to exit the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership as soon as he is inaugurated. This indicates he does intend to follow through with a protectionist agenda which could result in higher tariffs against US-made chemicals and polymers if a trade war develops.

Hodges says the US industry can harness unmet domestic polymer demand to help swallow up the wave of new shale-based capacity due onstream over the next 2-3 years.

“It’s highly likely that all the new capacity will come onstream at a time when the US is pushing towards protectionism. This makes it critical for the US industry to move away from wishful thinking about selling all the new PE capacity into Asia and other foreign markets. They will have to refocus on creating domestic demand.”

Hodges believes it is critical to look at new opportunities in areas such as water and food; otherwise the industry will not be able to sell these new volumes. “Companies will move towards being designers of materials and solutions. There are opportunities as well as threats for people who can revise their business models. It’s critical for people to take decisions now.”

He highlights the example of California which has been in drought for the last five years. “Why not sell more PE pipes as we know that 40% of water is lost before it reaches the consumer. Why waste capital on new reservoirs when you are going to lose 40%?”

He also suggests developing materials for intelligent packaging to tell people when food is really out of date because 35% of food is currently thrown away.

“There must be a big focus on being efficient: these are enormous markets and the industry needs to become more demand-focused. Some of the new [wave of ethane-based] plants will struggle but in principal there is a lot of new demand that could be generated by taking a demand-orientated approach.”

Looking globally, a new political and trading power block will develop as a result of China’s “One Belt One Road” policy which includes countries representing 40% of global GDP, says Hodges. This strategy aims to boost cooperation and trade between China and around 60 countries including Russia, much of eastern Europe, Asia including India and Indonesia, and parts of North Africa and the Middle East.

Hodges also believes the chemical industry should adopt the use of smaller, leaner and more efficient manufacturing systems.

“In an uncertain world the biggest risk is that you can’t sell product: this was always the risk before and it is today. We need smaller, more flexible, cheaper production with units located next to customers, as well as a greater focus on sustainability in the plastics chain.”

“We won’t return to a world of unbridled production – services and solutions are the way smart companies will make money in the future.”

Hope is not a strategy

Hope Sept16Chemical companies face difficult times if they cling to the hope that current challenges will simply disappear.  This is my main concern in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business.

It argues that major change is underway in petrochemicals and polymers markets, which will create winners and losers. The current round of major capacity expansions has been based on two flawed assumptions:

   Oil prices would always be above $100/bbl and provide US gas-based producers with long-term cost advantage
   China would always grow at double-digit rates and require ever-increasing volumes of petrochemical imports

Life would be difficult enough if just one of these assumptions had proved to be wrong.  But now the industry is going to labour under the burden of spare capacity for years to come. Even worse, this surplus will be occurring at a time when global trade is being impacted by rising protectionism, as governments focus on preserving local jobs.

The winners will be those who develop new business models, aligned to future market needs.  The losers will simply carry on, business as usual, heading into an inevitable brick wall.

The good news is that two major new opportunities are available to spur future revenue and profit growth, as we highlight in the joint ICIS/International eChem study “Demand – the New Direction for Profit”. Both require new business models, but are closely aligned with core business competencies:

  One opportunity is based on the future megatrends of water and food – two of the five critical risks highlighted by the World Economic Forum for the next decade
  The second opportunity is to develop a more service-based offering, using industry expertise in areas such as process engineering and research and development

There is no doubt that the industry faces difficult times in the next few years. Its previously successful growth models are going to be increasingly challenged by overcapacity, protectionism and the climate change agenda.

Losing companies will ignore the mounting evidence of paradigm shift, as well as the potential for growing revenue and profit by helping customers to “do more with less”. But winners will recognise that new, more service-driven strategies will provide an excellent base from which to develop the new offerings required for future success.

Please click here if you would like to download a free copy of the analysis.