Contingency planning is essential in 2020 as “synchronised slowdown” continues

The IMF has now confirmed that the world economy has moved into the synchronised slowdown that I forecast here a year ago. Its analysis also confirms the importance of the issues highlighted then, including “rising trade barriers and increasing geopolitical tensions”, a sharp decline in manufacturing, contraction in the auto industry and structural forces such as the impact of ageing populations.

Capacity Utilisation (CU%) data from the American Chemistry Council has therefore once again proved to be the best leading indicator for the global economy. It has been far more reliable than stock markets, where valuations continue to be massively distorted by central bank stimulus. And unfortunately, the latest data shows no sign of any improvement as the chart confirms, with November’s CU% now back at November 2012’s level at 81.7%.

Of course, it remains very easy to ignore the warning signs. ‘Business as usual’ is always the most popular forecast, as we saw a year ago when the consensus assumed a sustainable economic recovery was finally underway. And it would be no great surprise if, in a year’s time, consensus opinion starts to claim that “nobody could have seen recession coming”.

This is why it seems likely that businesses will now start to divide into Winners and Losers. As the IMF note in their analysis, the current situation is “precarious”, with a number of potential downsides starting to crystallise. On a macro view, these include the growing supply chain risks created by Brexit, where the UK expects to leave the EU at the end of this month.

Anyone with experience of trade negotiations knows that these normally take years rather than months to complete. No Deal is therefore the most likely outcome in a year’s time at the end of the transition period.

This will have a major impact on industries with complex and highly integrated downstream value chains like autos, chemicals and aerospace. Contingency planning is therefore on the critical path for any company that currently relies on product flowing seamlessly and tariff-free across the UK-EU27 border.

Of course, potential Losers will continue to nurse the hope that the UK government might reverse its refusal to accept the 2-year extension offered by the EU. But anyone who followed the recent UK election campaign knows this is an unlikely outcome.

The chemical industry also has its own specific challenges to face, given the growing impact of US shale gas-based expansions in the polyethylene area. This is no great surprise, as I have been warning about the likely consequences of these supply-led expansions since they were first announced in 2014 . But unfortunately, the combination of stock market euphoria over the shale gas revolution and the Federal Reserve’s easy money policy meant that the core assumptions were never properly challenged.

Euphoria remained the rule even after the oil price collapse at the end of 2014 disproved the assumption that prices would always be above $100/bbl. And it continued despite President Trump’s election. As a self-confessed “tariff man”, his policies were always likely to upset the idea that plants could be sited half-way across the world from their markets.

Warning signs were also obvious around the assumption that China’s growth would remain at double-digit rates, creating an ongoing need for major imports. And more recently, concerns over climate change and plastic waste issues have created further question marks over the outlook for single-use plastic demand.

Incumbents are often slow to understand the likely impact of potentially disruptive developments on their businesses. Business discussions around the boardroom and water cooler can often take place in a parallel universe to those that happen outside the office with friends and family.

The upstream oil industry is currently providing a classic example of this phenomenon as it promotes the idea that despite mounting concerns over the role of fossil fuels in climate change, chemicals can somehow replace lost oil demand into transport. Yet as former Saudi Oil Minister Yamani warned back in 2000, “the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil”.

Unfortunately, therefore, it seems likely that 2020 will see today’s synchronised slowdown continuing to challenge consensus optimism. Contingency planning around recession risks should therefore be top of the agenda, particularly for companies with high debt levels.

But at the same time, better placed companies have a once in a generation opportunity to take advantage of the paradigm shifts now underway, as adoption rates accelerate up the typical S-curve. These Winners are likely to discover that their best days still lie ahead of them, given the range and scale of the new opportunities that are emerging.

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UK election offers voters no middle ground in December

Pity the poor UK voters as they prepare to vote in probably the most critical election of their lives.

As they battle the wind and rain to vote in the first December election for 100 years, they already know there are only 3 likely outcomes:

  • Tory majority, Brexit by end-January, EU trade deal uncertain
  • Labour majority, Brexit postponed, hard socialist agenda
  • Another minority government, outcome uncertain

The first option is less likely than the polls suggest, for the simple reason that Johnson will lose probably 40+ seats in Remain areas – to the LibDems in the South/London, and to the SNP in Scotland. To win, he therefore has to persuade large numbers of traditionally Labour Leave voters in the North/Midlands to vote Tory, for the first time in their family’s history.

President Trump’s proposed solution – an alliance with the Brexit Party – would avoid splitting the Leave vote and might gain the Brexit Party some Labour seats. But Trump’s personal unpopularity with most UK voters means his intervention on Friday is unlikely to help. Britons, like Americans, don’t like foreigners interfering in their domestic elections.

And then, of course, there are the dark arts of social media. Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, pioneered the UK’s use of these when running the Leave campaign.  Who knows what lies and half-truths will be circulated this time, and what impact they might have?

The second option depends critically on whether Labour can neutralise the Brexit issue by saying they will ‘trust the people’ with a second vote in a summer referendum – and not go into detail about the question that would be asked.

If they can, then their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has a perfect opening for the old-fashioned campaigning at which he excels. He can simply attack the Tory record of the past 10 years and focus on issues such as the economy, climate change, the NHS and education, which are natural vote winners for Labour.

In normal circumstances, Labour would then be odds-on favourites to win.  But their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has the lowest favourability ratings of any recent Opposition leader. He seen as an hard-line socialist and as weak on tackling anti-semitism in the party. As a result, the party struggles in the polls.

The 3rd option of another minority government includes a wide range of outcomes.  It could put the UK back in the chaos of the past 3 years, with nobody able to agree anything. Or, it could mean a second referendum on both Brexit and Scottish independence.

The key will be the level of LibDem support. Can they get to 75+ seats, and become ‘kingmakers’ along with the SNP and the other smaller parties?

Both Tories and Labour are vulnerable to them in Remain seats, due to their clear anti-Brexit policy.

Their focus on the characters of the Tory and Labour leaders is also a likely vote-winner.  But their problem is the UK’s ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system, which usually means they win a lot of votes, but relatively few seats.

THE MAIN UK PARTIES HAVE ABANDONED THE MIDDLE GROUND
The problem for most voters is that there is no middle ground for them to choose, as in the past:

  • The Tory Party has swung to the right and is promoting English nationalism to avoid losing votes to the Brexit Party
  • The Labour Party has swung to the left and wants to overturn capitalism and adopt 1970s-style socialism
  • The LibDems and SNP agree on Remain, but the SNP also wants to break-up the UK

Johnson’s gamble depends on him winning a large number of seats from Labour to compensate for his losses in Remain areas.

Despite today’s poll ratings, Labour could therefore well take power as a minority government if they campaign effectively. The reason is that it is easier for them to do a deal with the other parties – by offering a referendum with a Remain option to the LibDems, and one on Scottish independence to the SNP.

Pity, therefore, the traditional middle-of-the-road Tory, Labour and LibDem voters,. They need to choose their ‘least worst option’ if they want to affect the result – Brexit, socialism or possible UK break-up. This would not be a great choice for a G7 country at the best of times. It would be even worse today, as an increasingly protectionist world slides into recession,

 

Oil market weakness suggests recession now more likely than Middle East war

Oil markets remain poised between fear of recession and fear of a US attack on Iran. But gradually it seems that fears about a war are reducing, whilst President Trump’s decision to ramp up the trade war with China makes recession far more likely.

The chart of Brent prices captures the current uncertainties:

  • It shows monthly prices for Brent since 1983 and highlights the conflicting risks
  • The bulls have been battling to push prices higher, but their confidence is weakening
  • The bears were hurt by the stimulus from US tax cuts and OPEC output cuts
  • But June’s abandonment of the Iran attack lifted their confidence

As a member of the President’s national security advisory team has noted:

“This is a president who was elected to get us out of war. He doesn’t want war with Iran.”

With fears about a potential war reducing, at least for the moment, attention has instead turned to issues of supply and demand.  And here, again, the balance of different factors has turned negative:

  • As the second chart shows, supply from the 3 major countries remains at a high level
  • The US is the largest producer, and August’s output is now recovering after the slowdown in the Gulf of Mexico due to Hurricane Barry, and the EIA is forecasting new record highs this year and 2020
  • 3 new pipelines are also coming online during H2, which will boost US oil export potential
  • Meanwhile Russia, as usual, has failed to follow through on its commitment to the OPEC cuts. Its output rose by 2% in January-July versus 2018, despite May/June’s contamination problems
  • As always with OPEC output cuts, Saudi Arabia has been forced to fill the gap. Its volume dipped to 9.8mbd in July, well below the 11mbd peak last November

Overall, global supply has remained strong with EIA estimating Q2 output at 100.6mbd versus 99.8mbd in Q2 last year. Contrary to last year’s optimism over global economic recovery, EIA suggests Q2 consumption only rose to 100.3mbd, versus 99.6mbd in Q2 last year.

And the normally bullish International Energy Agency last week cut its demand forecast for this year and 2020 warning:

“The outlook is fragile with a greater likelihood of a downward revision than an upward one…Under our current assumptions, in 2020, the oil market will be well supplied.”

The third chart, from Orbital Insight, highlights the changes that have been taking place in inventory levels in the major regions.

Generated from satellite images of floating roof tank farms, it is based on estimates of the volume of oil in each tank, which are then aggregated to regional or country level.

Oil markets are by nature opaque. But Orbital’s data does show a very high correlation with EIA’s estimates for  Cushing – where the official data is very reliable.

As discussed here many times before, the chemical industry is the best leading indicator for the global economy, due to its wide range of applications and geographic coverage.  The fourth chart shows the steady downward trend since December 2017 in the data on Capacity Utilisation from the American Chemistry Council.

Q2 has shown the usual seasonal ‘bounce’,  but key end-user markets such as electronics, autos and housing are also clearly weakening, as discussed last week for smartphones.  And Bloomberg has reported that US inventory levels at major warehouses are close to being full.

I suggested back in May that prudent companies would develop a scenario approach that planned for both war and recession, given that the outcome was then essentially unknowable.

Today, both scenarios are clearly still possible. But it would seem sensible to now step up planning for recession, given the downbeat signals from oil and chemical markets.

 

 

 

Resilience amidst headwinds is key for H2

Resilience is set to become the key issue as we look forward to H2, as I note in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business. None of us have ever seen the combinations of events that are potentially ahead of us. And none of us can be sure which way they will develop. So it seems essential that we start to create contingency plans to build corporate resilience ahead of their possible arrival.

Of course, we can all hope that we are just seeing a series of false alarms, and that business as usual will end up as the outcome. But hope is not a strategy. Even if we optimistically believe it is an 80% probability, the scale of the potential problems under more pessimistic scenarios suggests it would be prudent to decide ahead of time how to tackle them. Everyone will have their own list of possible outcomes. Mine is as follows:

  • Business as usual. Central bank rate cuts avoid recession risk; Presidents Trump and Xi reach stable agreement to roll back tariffs; oil market tensions disappear in the Middle East; Brexit uncertainty is put on hold with another extension period; sustainability concerns over single use plastics are put on back-burner
  • Gathering clouds. China’s vast offshore borrowing creates increasing risk of corporate defaults as growth slows, particularly if the trade war continues; geo-political risks mount in the Middle East; Brexit leads to major friction between the UK and EU27; more major consumer products companies decide to end use of single-use plastics
  • Storm warnings issued. Debt problems morph into major bankruptcies, impacting a range of supply chains around the world; US – Iran tensions mount in the Middle East causing oil prices to rise sharply; regional tensions mount as the world settles into a new Cold War between the USA and China; polymer volumes are hit by a rapid escalation of consumer concerns over single-use plastics

Asia is likely to prove the catalyst for this potential next crisis, if it hits. China has begun to deleverage over the past 2 years, taking $2tn out of its high-risk shadow banking sector. But unfortunately this tightening has driven many of the riskiest businesses into the offshore dollar markets, where naïve western fund managers have rushed to place their bets – driven by their need to achieve higher returns than are available in their domestic bond markets.

If world trade continues to slow as the chart from Reuters shows, and the remnimbi starts to weaken, then some of these borrowers will inevitably default. In turn, this risks a chain reaction across world markets, impacting not only the zombies but also their supply chain partners.

What would your company do in these circumstances? As the American writer Ernest Hemingway noted in ‘The Sun also Rises’, there are two ways to go bankrupt, “gradually, then suddenly”. And the suddenness of the final stage makes it almost impossible for companies to survive if they have not used the gradual stage to create contingency plans. History unfortunately shows that when markets turn, executives suddenly find they have very little time in which to think through how to respond.

Governments will also be in the line of fire, due to their debt levels. And it is unlikely that politicians will know how to respond. They used to be clear about the key issue for the voters, as Bill Clinton famously observed in 1992 – “it’s the economy, stupid”. But today’s politicians instead simply assume that central banks can always print more money to overcome financial and economic crises. They have forgotten the simple mnemonic that many of us learnt at school, namely that “to ASSUME can make an ASS of U and ME”.

Time spent now on building your company’s resilience to potential future challenges may therefore prove time very well spent, if hopes for ‘business as usual’ turn out to have been wishful thinking.

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Recession risk rises as Iran tensions and US-China trade war build

Oil markets are once again uneasily balanced between two completely different outcomes – and one again involves Iran.

Back in the summer of 2008, markets were dominated by the potential for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, as I summarised at the time:

“Nothing is certain in life, except death and taxes. But it is hard to see markets becoming less volatile until either an attack takes place, or a peaceful solution is confirmed. And with oil now around $150/bbl, two quite different outcomes seem possible:

• In the event of an Israeli attack, prices might well rise $50/bbl to reach $200/bbl, at least temporarily

• But if diplomacy works, they could easily fall $50/bbl to $100/bbl”

In the event, an attack was never launched and prices quickly fell back to $100/bbl – and then lower as the financial crisis began.

Today, Brent’s uneasy balance around $70/bbl reflects even more complex fears:

  • One set of worries focuses on potential supply disruption from a war in the Middle East
  • The other agonises over the US-China trade war and the rising risk of recession

It is, of course, possible that both fears could be realised if war did break out in the Gulf and oil prices then rose above $100/bbl.

The issue is highlighted in the Reuters chart on the left, which shows that Brent has moved from a contango of $1/bbl at the beginning of the year into a backwardation of nearly $4/bbl on the 6-month calendar spread. As they note:

“Backwardation is associated with periods of under-supply and falling inventories, while contango is associated with the opposite, so the current backwardation implies stocks are expected to fall sharply.”

But as the second Reuters chart confirms, traders are also aware that forecasts for oil demand are based on optimistic IMF forecasts for global growth. And recent hedge fund positioning confirms that caution may be starting to appear.

Traders are also aware of the key message from the above chart, which shows that periods when oil prices cost 3% of global GDP have almost always led to recession.  The only exception was after the financial crisis when central banks were printing as much money as possible to boost liquidity.

The reason is that consumers only have a certain amount of discretionary income.  If oil prices are low, then they have spare cash to buy the products and services that create economic growth. But if prices are high, their cash is instead spent on transport and heating/cooling costs, and so the economy slows.

“To govern is to choose” and President Trump therefore has some hard choices ahead:

  • His trade war with China currently appeals to many voters, Democrat and Republican.  But will that support continue as the costs bite?  The New York Federal Reserve reported on Friday that the latest round of tariffs will cost the average American household $831/year
  • Similarly, many voters favour taking a hard line with Iran.  But average US gasoline prices are already $2.94/gal as the US driving season starts this weekend, and today’s high prices will particularly impact the President’s core blue collar and rural voters

History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes as the famous American writer, Mark Twain, noted. If the President now chooses to fight a trade war with China and a real war with Iran, then he risks losing popularity very quickly as the costs in terms of lives and cash become more apparent.  Yet as we have seen since Lyndon Johnson’s time, this is usually something that politicians only learn after the event.

Investors and companies therefore have little to lose, and potentially much to gain, by accepting that we can only guess at how the two situations may play out.  Developing a scenario approach that plans for all the possible outcomes – as in 2008 – is much the most prudent option.

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.