Anti-pollution drive hits China’s role as global growth engine

China is no longer seeking ‘growth at any cost’, with global implications, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

A pedestrian covers up against pollution in Beijing © Bloomberg

China’s President Xi Jinping faced two existential threats to Communist party rule when he took office 5 years ago.

He focused on the first threat, from corruption, by appointing an anti-corruption tsar, Wang Qishan, who toured the country gathering evidence for trials as part of a high-profile national campaign.

More recently, Mr Xi has adopted the same tactic on an even broader scale to tackle the second threat, pollution. Joint inspection teams from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the party’s anti-graft watchdog and its personnel arm have already punished 18,000 polluting companies with fines of $132m, and disciplined 12,000 officials.

The ICIS maps below confirm the broad nature of the inspections. They will have covered all 31 of China’s provinces by year-end, as well as the so-called “2+26” big cities in the heavily polluted Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area.

The inspections’ importance was also underlined during October’s five-yearly People’s Congress, which added the words “high quality, more effective, more equitable, more sustainable” to the Party’s Constitution to describe the new direction for the economy, replacing Deng’s focus from 1977 on achieving growth at any cost.

It is hard to underestimate the likely short and longer-term impact of Mr Xi’s new policy. The Ministry has warned that the inspections are only “the first gunshot in the battle for the blue sky”, and will be followed by more severe crackdowns.

In essence, Mr Xi’s anti-pollution drive represents the end for China’s role as the manufacturing capital of the world.

The road-map for this paradigm shift was set out in March 2013 in the landmark China 2030 joint report from the World Bank and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This argued that China needed to transition “from policies that served it so well in the past to ones that address the very different challenges of a very different future”.

The report focused on the need for “improvement of the quality of growth”, based on development of “broader welfare and sustainability goals”.

However, little was achieved on the environmental front in Xi’s first term, as Premier Li Keqiang continued the Populist “growth at any cost” policies of his predecessors. According to the International Energy Agency’s recent report, Energy and Air Pollution, “Average life expectancy in China is reduced by almost 25 months because of poor air quality”.

But as discussed here in June, Mr Xi has now taken charge of economic policy. He is well aware that as incomes have increased, so China is following the west in becoming far more focused on ‘quality of life issues’. Land and water pollution will inevitably take longer to solve. So his immediate target is air pollution, principally the dangerously high levels of particulate matter, PM2.5, caused by China’s rapid industrialisation since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.

As the state-owned China Daily has reported, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region is the main focus of the new policy. Its high concentration of industrial and vehicle emissions is made worse in the winter by limited air circulation and the burning of coal, as heating requirements ramp up. The region has been told to reduce PM2.5 levels by at least 15% between October 2017 and March 2018. According to Reuters, companies in core sectors including steel, metal smelting, cement and coke have already been told to stagger production and reduce the use of trucks.


The chemicals industry, as always, is providing early insight into the potentially big disruption ahead for historical business and trade patterns:

  • Benzene is a classic early indicator of changing economic trends, as we highlighted for FT Data back in 2012. The chart above confirms its importance once again, showing how the reduction in its coal-based production has already led to a doubling of China’s imports in the January to October period versus previous years, with Northeast and Southeast Asian exporters (NEA/SEA) the main beneficiaries
  • But there is no “one size fits all” guide to the policy’s impact, as the right-hand panel for polypropylene (PP) confirms. China is now close to achieving self-sufficiency, as its own PP production has risen by a quarter over the same period, reducing imports by 9%. The crucial difference is that PP output is largely focused on modern refining/petrochemical complexes with relatively low levels of pollution

Investors and companies must therefore be prepared for further surprises over the critical winter months as China’s economy responds to the anti-pollution drive. The spring will probably bring more uncertainty, as Mr Xi accelerates China’s transition towards his concept of a more service-led “new normal” economy based on the mobile internet, and away from its historical dependence on heavy industry.This paradigm shift has two potential implications for the global economy.

One is that China will no longer need to maintain its vast stimulus programme, which has served as the engine of global recovery since 2008. Instead, we can expect to see sustainability rising up the global agenda, as Xi ramps up China’s transition away from the “policies that served it so well in the past”.

A second is that, as the chart below shows, China’s producer price index has been a good leading indicator for western inflation since 2008. Its recovery this year under the influence of the shutdowns suggests an “inflation surprise” may also await us in 2018.

Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.

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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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Baby boomers’ spending decline has hit demand and inflation

FTThe Financial Times has kindly printed my letter below, wondering why the US Federal Reserve still fails to appreciate the impact of the ageing BabyBoomers on the economy

Sir, It was surprising to read that the US Federal Reserve is still puzzled by today’s persistently low levels of inflation, given that the impact of the ageing baby boomers on the economy is now becoming well understood (“An inflation enigma”, Big Read, September 19).

As the article notes, factors such as globalisation and technological advances have all helped to moderate price increases for more than two decades. But the real paradigm shift began in 2001, when the oldest boomers began to join the lower-spending, lower-earning over-55 generation. As the excellent Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) confirms, Americans’ household spending is dominated by people in the wealth creating 25-54 age cohort. Spending then begins to decline quite dramatically, with latest data showing a near 50 per cent fall from peak levels after the age of 74.

This decline was less important when the boomers were all in the younger cohort. BLS data show it contained 65m households in 2000, with only 36m in the older cohort. But today, lower fertility rates have effectively capped the younger generation at 66m, while the size of the boomer generation, combined with their increased life expectancy, means there are now 56m older households.

Consumer spending is around 70 per cent of the US economy. Thus the post-2001 period has inevitably seen a major shift in supply/demand balances and therefore the inflation outlook. So it is disappointing that the Fed has failed to go up the learning curve in this area. Demographics are not the only factor driving today’s New Normal economy, but central bankers should surely have led the way in recognising their impact.

Paul Hodges
Chairman,
International eChem

China’s used cars put a dent in global industry

China is now developing a used car market for the first time in its history.  This means the end of global auto sales growth, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

Autos Top 7 Aug17

China’s car market has been key to the recovery in global auto sales growth since 2009, as the chart shows.

Its passenger car sales in the first half of each year have risen threefold between 2007 and 2017, from 3.1m to 11.3m today, while sales in the other top six markets have only just managed to recover to 2007 levels.

But now major change is coming to China’s market from two directions.

The first sign of change is the fact that H1 sales rose just 2.7% this year. This is the lowest increase since our records began in 2005 (when sales were just 1.8m), and compares with an 11% rise last year.

Official forecasts for full-year growth have also been revised down, to between 1% and 4%, by the manufacturers’ association. A further sign of the slowdown is the rise in price discounting, with Ford China suggesting prices were down 4% on average in the first half.

The second change may be even more important from a longer-term perspective. It seems likely that China’s used car market is poised for major growth. As the second chart shows, only 10m used cars were sold last year, versus 24m new cars.

Yet used car sales are typically between 2 and 2.5 times new car sales in other large markets such as the US, where 2016 saw 39m used car sales versus 18m new car sales.

China autos Aug17The background to this unusual situation is that China’s new car sales were relatively small until the government’s stimulus programme began in 2009. Their quality was also poor, as most cars were produced domestically and only lasted an average of three years. As a result:

 The auto market only really began to take off in 2009 under the influence of the stimulus packages, when annual new car sales jumped 53% from 6.7m to 10.3m. About 200m Chinese were able to drive a car in that year, and the stimulus programme suddenly provided them with the cash to buy one
 Used car sales were much slower to develop, as it took time for the introduction of western manufacturing techniques to gradually extend the average life of a car from 3 years in 2012 to 4.5 years today. But now the pace of change is rising, and it is expected to reach 10 years by 2020

The chart also shows our forecasts for the used car market out to 2020, when we expect used car sales to equal new car sales at 23.5m. This would still only represent a 1x ratio, but the forecast is in line with a new report from Guangzhou-based analysts Piston, who told WardsAuto:

“The used-car market in China is expected to have an explosion in the coming decade, because the ratio of used to new is [the opposite of that in] the US.

One sign of the change under way was seen last month, when Guazi.com, China’s largest used car trading site, was able to raise a further $400m from investors to expand its service.

Guazi, like BMW and others, have seen that the used car market offers very favourable prospects for growth prospect — as long as attention is paid to boosting buyer confidence by providing sensible warranties and service packages.

Local governments have also played their part under pressure from central government. The state-owned China Daily reports that 135 local authorities have now removed barriers that prevented used cars from one province being sold in another. The effect of these changes is having an effect, with used car sales in January-May jumping 21% versus 2016.

Such strong growth rates, and the slowdown in new car sales, suggest China’s auto market may have reached a tipping point.

All good things come to an end eventually, and it seems prudent to assume that China will no longer be the main support for global auto sales. We expect China’s new car sales to plateau because of the combined impact of the end of stimulus (as discussed here in June), and the rise of used car sales, as these will inevitably cannibalise their volumes to some extent.

Clearly this is not good news for those western manufacturers that have made China the focus of their growth plans in recent years. And there may be worse news in store, given the government’s determination to combat urban pollution by promoting sales of electric vehicles and car-sharing.

Yet it will be good news for those prepared to develop new, more service-related business models. Used-car sales themselves can be highly profitable, while servicing and spare parts supply are likely to become equally attractive opportunities.

Paul Hodges publishes The pH Report.

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.

Debt, demographics set to destroy Trump’s GDP growth dream

US debt Apr17Unsurprisingly, Friday’s US GDP report showed Q1 growth was just 0.7%, as the New York Times reported:

“The U.S. economy turned in the weakest performance in three years in the January-March quarter as consumers sharply slowed their spending. The result fell far short of President Donald Trump’s ambitious growth targets and underscores the challenges of accelerating economic expansion.”

And as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) added:

The worrisome thing about the GDP report is where the weakness was. Consumer spending grew at just a 0.3% annual rate—its slowest showing since the fourth quarter of 2009… As confirmed by soft monthly retail sales and the drop off in car sales, the first-quarter spending slowdown was real“.

The problem is simple.  Economic policy since 2000 under both Democrat and Republican Presidents has been dominated by wishful thinking, as I discussed in my Financial Times letter last week.

The good news is that there are now signs this wishful thinking is finally starting to be questioned.  As the WSJ reported Friday, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, who runs the world’s largest asset manager, told investors:

“Part of the challenge the U.S. faces, Mr. Fink said, is demographics. Baby boomers, the largest living generation in the country are aging, reaching retirement age.  “With our demographics it seems pretty improbable to see sustainable 3% growth.””

And earlier this year, the chief economist at the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, suggested that the importance of:

“Demographics in mainstream economics has been under-emphasized for too long.”

Policymakers should have focused on demographics after 2001, as the oldest Boomers (born in 1946) began to join the low-spending, low-earning New Old 55+ generation.  The budget surplus created during the SuperCycle should have been saved to fund future needs such as Social Security costs.

But instead, President George W Bush and the Federal Reserve wasted the surplus on futile stimulus policies based on tax cuts and low interest rates.  And when this wishful thinking led to the 2008 financial crisis, President Obama and the Fed doubled down with even lower interest rates and $4tn of money-printing via quantitative easing.

This wishful thinking has therefore created a debt burden on top of the demographic deficit, as the chart confirms:

  Between 1966 – 1979, each $1 increase in US public debt created $4.49 of GDP growth, as supply and infrastructure investment grew to meet the needs of the Boomer generation
  Debt still added to GDP in 1980 – 1999 during the SuperCycle: each $1 of debt created $1.15 of GDP growth
  But since 2000, debt has risen by $13.9tn, whilst GDP has risen by just $4.6tn

Each $1 of new debt has therefore only created $0.33c of GDP growth – value destruction on a massive scale

It is therefore vital that President Trump learns from the mistakes of Presidents Bush and Obama.  Further stimulus policies such as tax cuts will only make today’s position worse in terms of debt and growth.  Instead, he needs to develop new policies that focus on the challenges created by today’s ageing population. as I suggested last August:

“3 key issues will therefore confront the next President. He or she:

□  Will have to design measures to support older Boomers to stay in the workforce
□  Must reverse the decline that has taken place in corporate funding for pensions
□  Must also tackle looming deficits in Social Security and Medicare, as benefits will otherwise be cut by 29% in 2030

It has always been obvious that the Fed could not possibly control the economic fortunes of 321m Americans. Common sense tells us that demographics, not monetary policy, drive demand. Unfortunately, vast amounts of time and money have been wasted as a result. The path back to fiscal sanity will be very hard indeed.”