BASF worries about China, India

Martin Brudermuller.pngBASF opened its first China plant 20 years ago. Its Asian strategy focuses on China, Japan, S Korea and India.

Thus yesterday’s comments by vice chairman Martin Brudermüller deserve careful study by any company or investor who is interested in the outlook for the region.

The background was an unexpected 5% fall in BASF’s regional sales in Q1. Of course, Q1 2011 had been very strong, as buyers built stocks whilst crude oil prices rose. But crude also rose in Q1 this year, so clearly something else has been happening.

Brudermüller suggested that “the region is becoming more vulnerable”, and highlighted two key issues, which will both be familiar to blog readers:

China’s political direction. He expressed a “certain amount of unease” over the leadership transition now underway, and added that “the struggle over China’s future direction seems to be harder fought than we had imagined.”
India’s slowdown. “The political paralysis in certain areas does hold things up, and its sad to see how the country is currently falling short of its potential.”

BASF is not about to retreat from the Asian positions it has worked so long to develop. And it continues to consider further expansion in SEA, even into Myanmar, as part of its next leg of growth.

But when BASF worries about something, then the blog worries with it.

US PE exporters face more competition in Brazil

Brazil PE Feb12.pngAs promised, the blog looks today at the performance of US polyethylene (PE) exporters in Brazil.

It was the fastest-growing of the major markets in 2011, as the wider economy benefitted from China’s demand. Since 2008, Brazil’s PE net imports have grown 78%, from 445KT to 793KT in 2011. But as the chart shows (based on data from Global Trade Information Services):

• NAFTA (red square) has seen its market share decline from 40% to 38%, despite its growing cost advantage since 2010 due to shale gas
• The reason is that China’s changing market dynamics (as discussed yesterday), has led to greatly increased competition

USA net exports have grown 51% over the period, from 171KT to 258KT. Canada’s exports have also increased from 6KT to 32KT. But at the same time, many more players have entered the market:

• Latin American exporters (blue line) have been the big losers
• Their share has dropped from 42% in 2008 to 24% in 2011
• The Middle East (dark blue) has jumped from 2% to 13%
• Europe (green) has maintained its position, rising from 8% to 10%
• SEA (brown) has jumped from 1% to 6%
• NEA (dark green) has increased from 3% to 4%
• India (purple) has gained a 1% share

In turn, this has led to a decrease in relative profitability. GTIS data also shows that Thailand, for example:

• Sold in 2008 at an average $1825/tonne, $100/t above USA levels
• But in 2011 it sold at $1546/t, $50/t below USA levels

Brazil’s market dynamics therefore highlight the increasing challenge being faced by US exporters. Countries no longer able to sell their output to China will not simply reduce production. Instead, they will target new markets, increasing competitive pressures around the world.

US exports to China fall, as cost advantage grows

China PE imports Feb12.pngUS petchem producers are planning a major boost to ethylene capacity. They now have the 2nd cheapest feedstock in the world, due to ethane from shale gas. The only question is, where will they sell their product?

Ethylene, of course, is very expensive to export. So derivatives such as polyethylene (PE) are the main way to tap export markets. Today, using trade data from Global Trade Information Services, the blog looks at the outlook for PE in the US’s largest export market, China.

China should present a wonderful opportunity. Market growth has slowed to normal rates following the end of stimulus programmes. But its production is largely based on crude oil, and so is far more expensive than NAFTA’s. Yet, as the chart shows:

• China’s net imports from NAFTA fell 53% between 2009-11
• This was despite a major increase in their cost advantage
• The USA saw its net exports fall 51%, from 947KT to just 461KT

The reason is that China does not focus on profitability as a major driver for business. Instead, it emphasises social and political factors:

Social. Sinopec continues to increase its own production, even though its total chemicals EBIT between 2000-10 was just Rmb84bn, compared to total chemicals capex of Rmb166bn. No Western company would invest on this basis. But Sinopec’s role is to act as an utility, providing reliable supplies of raw materials to China’s factories to keep people employed.
Political. China is, however, increasing its PE imports from the Middle East (up 69%) and SE Asia (24%). The ME and China operate a ‘strategic corridor’ which balances China’s need for energy imports with the ME’s need for markets. Whilst SEA has a free trade area with China.

The result is that producers in NAFTA, NE Asia and Europe have all seen a major decline in export volumes since 2009. In turn, of course, this has led to greater competition for the USA in other markets.

Tomorrow, the blog will analyse how has impacted US exports to Brazil, currently the world’s fastest-growing major market for PE.