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.

US ethylene prices near all-time lows as over-capacity arrives

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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Saudi oil policy risks creating perfect storm for Aramco flotation

Good business strategies generally create good investments over the longer term. And so Aramco needs to ensure it has the best possible strategies, if it wants to maximise the outcome from its planned $2tn flotation. Unfortunately, the current oil price strategy seems more likely to damage its valuation, by being based on 3 questionable assumptions:

  • Oil demand will always grow at levels seen in the past – if transport demand slows, plastics will take over
  • Saudi will always be able to control the oil market – Russian/US production growth is irrelevant
  • The rise of sustainability concerns, and alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, can be ignored

These are dangerous assumptions to make today, with the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle fast receding into history.

After all, even in the SuperCycle, OPEC’s attempt in the early 1980s to hold the oil price at around today’s levels (in $2018) was a complete failure.  So the odds on the policy working today are not very high, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) himself acknowledged 2 years ago, when launching his ambitious ‘Vision 2030:

“Within 20 years, we will be an economy that doesn’t depend mainly on oil.  We don’t care about oil prices—$30 or $70, they are all the same to us. This battle is not my battle.”

As I noted here at the time, MbS’s bold plan for restructuring the economy included a welcome dose of reality:

“The government’s new Vision statement is based on the assumption of a $30/bbl oil price in 2030 – in line with the long-term historical average. And one key element of this policy is the flotation of 5% of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. Estimates suggest it is worth at least $2tn, meaning that 5% will be worth $100bn. And as I suggested to the Wall Street Journal:

“The process of listing will completely change the character of the company and demand a new openness from its senior management“.

MbS is still making good progress with his domestic policy reforms.  Women, for example, are finally due to be allowed to drive in June and modern entertainment facilities such as cinemas are now being allowed again after a 35 year ban.  But unfortunately, over the past 2 years, Saudi oil policy has gone backwards.

SUSTAINABILITY/RENEWABLES ARE ALREADY REDUCING OIL MARKET DEMAND

Restructuring the Saudi economy away from oil-dependence was always going to be a tough challenge.  And the pace of the required change is increasing, as the world’s consumers focus on sustainability and pollution.

It is, of course, easy to miss this trend if your advisers only listen to bonus-hungry investment bankers, or OPEC leaders.  But when brand-owners such as Coca-Cola talk, you can’t afford to ignore what they are saying – and doing.

Coke uses 120bn bottles a year and as its CEO noted when introducing their new policy:

“If left unchecked, plastic waste will slowly choke our oceans and waterways.  We’re using up our earth as if there’s another one on the shelf just waiting to be opened . . . companies have to do their part by making sure their packaging is actually recyclable.”

Similarly, MbS’s advisers seem to be completely ignoring the likely implications of China’s ‘War on Pollution’ for oil demand – and China is its largest customer for oil/plastics exports.

Already the European Union has set out plans to ensureAll plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030”.

And in China, the city of Shenzhen has converted all of its 16359 buses to run on electric power, and is now converting its 17000 taxis.

Whilst the city of Jinan is planning a network of “intelligent highways” as the video in this Bloomberg report shows, which will use solar panels to charge the batteries of autonomous vehicles as they drive along.

ALIENATING CONSUMERS IS THE WRONG POLICY TO PURSUE
As the chart at the top confirms, oil’s period of energy dominance was already coming to an end, even before the issues of sustainability and pollution really began to emerge as constraints on demand.

This is why MbS was right to aim to move the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil within 20 years.

By going back on this strategy, Saudi is storing up major problems for the planned Aramco flotation:

  • Of course it is easy to force through price rises in the short-term via production cuts
  • But in the medium term, they upset consumers and so hasten the decline in oil demand and Saudi’s market share
  • It is much easier to fund the development of new technologies such as solar and wind when oil prices are high
  • It is also much easier for rival oil producers, such as US frackers, to fund the growth of new low-cost production

Aramco is making major strides towards becoming a more open company.  But when it comes to the flotation, investors are going to look carefully at the real outlook for oil demand in the critical transport sector.  And they are rightly going to be nervous over the medium/longer-term prospects.

They are also going to be very sceptical about the idea that plastics can replace lost demand in the transport sector.  Already 11 major brands, including Coke, Unilever, Wal-Mart  and Pepsi – responsible for 6 million tonnes of plastic packaging – are committed to using “100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025“.

We can be sure that these numbers will grow dramatically over the next few years.  Recycled plastic, not virgin product, is set to be the growth product of the future.

ITS NOT TOO LATE FOR A RETURN TO MBS’s ORIGINAL POLICY
Saudi already has a major challenge ahead in transforming its economy away from oil.  In the short-term:

  • Higher oil prices may allow the Kingdom to continue with generous handouts to the population
  • But they will reduce Aramco’s value to investors over the medium and longer-term
  • The planned $100bn windfall from the proposed $2tn valuation will become more difficult to achieve

3 years ago, Saudi’s then Oil Minister was very clear about the need to adopt a market share-based pricing policy:

“Saudi Arabia cut output in 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell, so we lost on output and on prices at the same time. We learned from that mistake.”

As philosopher George Santayana wisely noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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2018 will see Winners and Losers appear in plastics markets

Two major challenges face petrochemical and polymer producers and consumers in 2018:

  • The likely disruption created by the arrival of the ethylene/polyethylene expansions in the US
  • The growth of the circular economy and the need to dramatically increase recycling capacity

My new interview with Will Beacham, deputy editor of ICIS Chemical Business, focuses on both these key issues and suggests they will create Winners and Losers.

The new US product will likely change the global market. Its ethane feedstock is essentially a distressed product, which has to be removed to enable the shale gas to be sold.  It is also clear that this 40% expansion of USA polyethylene capacity, around 6 million tonnes, cannot be sold into the US domestic market, which is already very mature:

  • US net exports have actually been in decline in recent years, so it will also be a challenge to export the volumes
  • President Trump’s apparent wish to start a trade war with China will make that market difficult to access
  • It is likely, therefore, that a significant volume will end up arriving in Europe, causing a price war

We have seen price wars before, and the “Winners” are usually the integrated producers, who can roll through margins from the well-head or the refinery into ethylene and polyethylene sales.

The economics of this are relatively simple.  In the US, producers will have to absorb lower margins on the small percentage of shale gas that is used as ethane feed into the cracker.  Similarly in Europe, refinery-integrated producers will have to absorb lower margins on the small percentage of oil that is used as naphtha feed into the cracker.

As the chart shows, this development will be good news for ethylene consumers.  As Huntsman CEO, Peter Huntsman noted a year ago:

“There is a wave of ethylene that is going to be hitting the North American markets quite substantially over the next couple of years. I’d rather be a spot buyer than a contract buyer. I can’t imagine with all of the ethylene that is going to be coming to the market that it’s not going to be a buying opportunity.”

In turn, of course, this will pressure other plastics via inter-polymer competition

Non-integrated producers clearly face more difficult times.  And like the integrated producers, they share the challenge being posed by the rise of sustainability concerns, particularly over the 8 million tonnes of plastic that currently finds its way into the oceans every year.

This issue has been building for years, and clearly consumers are now starting to demand action from brand owners and governments.

In turn, this opens up major new opportunities for companies who are prepared to realign their business models with the New Plastics Economy concepts set out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum.

The New Plastics Economy is a collaborative initiative involving leading participants from across the global plastic packaging value chain, as the second chart illustrates.  It has already prompted action from the European Union, which has now set out its EU Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy.  This aims to:

“Transform the way plastics and plastics products are designed, produced, used and recycled. By 2030, all plastics packaging should be recyclable. The Strategy also highlights the need for specific measures, possibly a legislative instrument, to reduce the impact of single-use plastics, particularly in our seas and oceans.”

Clearly this represents a paradigm shift for the industry, both producers and consumers.

It may seem easier to do nothing, and to hope the whole problem will go ahead.  But the coincidence of the arrival of all the new US shale gas capacity makes this an unlikely outcome.  Companies who do nothing are likely instead to become Losers in this rapidly changing environment.

But as I discuss in the interview, companies who are prepared to rethink their business models, and to adapt to changing consumer needs, have a potentially very bright future ahead of them.  Please click here to view it.

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Goodbye to “business as usual” model for plastics

Polymer markets face two major challenges in coming months. The most immediate is the arrival of the major US shale gas-based ethylene and polyethylene expansions. The longer-term, but equally critical challenge, comes from growing public concern over plastic waste, particularly in the ocean.

The EU has set out its vision for a new plastics economy, where:

“All plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030”.

Similarly, China has launched a ‘War on Pollution’, which has already led to all imports of plastic waste being banned.

Together, these developments mean there is unlikely to be a “business as usual” option for producers or consumers. A paradigm shift is under way which will change business models.

Some companies will focus on being low-cost suppliers, integrated back to the well-head or refinery. Others will become more service-led, with their revenue and profits based on exploiting the value provided by the polymer (virgin or recycled), rather than just the value of the virgin polymer itself.

The next 18 months are therefore likely to see major change, catalysed by the arrival of the new US production, as I discuss in a new analysis for ICIS Chemical Business.

The second chart indicates the potential impact of these new capacities by comparison with actual production since 2000, with 2019 volume forecast on basis of the planned capacity increases. But can this new PE volume really be sold? It certainly won’t all find a home in the US, as ExxonMobil Chemicals’ then President, Stephen Pryor, told ICIS in January 2014:

The domestic market is what it is and therefore, part of these products, I would argue, most of these products, will have to be exported”.

And unfortunately for producers, President Trump’s new trade policies are unlikely to help them in the main potential growth market, China. As John Richardson and I noted a year ago, China’s $6tn Belt and Road Initiative:

“Creates the potential for China to lead a new free trade area including countries in Asia, Middle East, Africa and potentially Europe – just as the US appears to be withdrawing from its historical role of free trade leadership”.

The task is also made more difficult by the inventory-build that took place from June onwards as Brent oil prices rose 60% to peak at $71/bbl. As usual, buyers responded by building inventory ahead of price increases for their own raw materials. Now they are starting to destock again, slowing absolute levels of demand growth all around the world, just at the moment when the new capacity comes online.

SUSTAINABILITY CONCERNS ARE DRIVING MOVES TOWARDS A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
At the same time, the impact of the sustainability agenda and the drive towards the circular economy is becoming ever-stronger.  The initial catalyst for this demand was the World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on ‘The New Plastics Economy’, which warned that on current trends, the oceans would contain more plastics than fish (by weight) by 2050 – a clearly unacceptable outcome.

Last year’s BBC documentary Blue Planet 2, narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough, then catalysed public concern over the impact of single use plastic in packaging and other applications. Even Queen Elizabeth has since announced that she is banning the use of plastic straws and bottles across the royal estates, as part of a move to cut back on the use of plastics “at all levels”.

Single use plastic applications in packaging are likely to be an early target for the move to recycling and the circular economy. This will have a major impact on demand, given that they currently account for more than half of PE demand:

    • Two-thirds of all low density and linear low density PE is used in flexible packaging – a total of 33 million tonnes worldwide
    • Nearly a quarter of high density PE is used in packaging film and sheets, and a fifth is used in injection moulding applications such as cups and crates – a total of 18 million tonnes worldwide

Virtually all of this production is potentially recyclable. 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.

Please click here to read the full analysis in ICIS Chemical Business.

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The return of volatility is the key market risk for 2018

We are living in a strange world. As in 2007 – 2008, financial news continues to be euphoric, yet the general news is increasingly gloomy. As Nobel Prizewinner Richard Thaler, has warned, “We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping.” Both views can’t continue to exist alongside each other for ever. Whichever scenario comes out on top in 2018 will have major implications for investors and companies.

It therefore seems prudent to start building scenarios around some of the key risk areas – increased volatility in oil and interest rates, protectionism and the threat to free trade (including Brexit), and political disorder. One key issue is that the range of potential outcomes is widening.

Last year, for example, it was reasonable to use $50/bbl as a Base case forecast for oil prices, and then develop Upside and Downside cases using a $5/bbl swing either way. But today’s rising levels of uncertainty suggests such narrow ranges should instead be regarded as sensitivities rather than scenarios. In 2018, the risks to a $50/bbl Base case appear much larger:

  • On the Downside, US output is now rising very fast given today’s higher prices. The key issue with fracking is that the capital cost is paid up-front, and once the money has been spent, the focus is on variable cost – where most published data suggests actual operating cost is less than $10/bbl. US oil and product exports have already reached 7mbd, so it is not hard to see a situation where over-supplied energy markets cause prices to crash below $40/bbl at some point in 2018
  • On the Upside, instability is clearly rising in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman is already engaged in proxy wars with Iran in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He has also arrested hundreds of leading Saudis, and fined them hundreds of billions of dollars in exchange for their release. If he proves to have over-extended himself, the resulting political confusion could impact the whole Middle East, and easily take prices above $75/bbl

Unfortunately, oil price volatility is not the only risk facing us in 2018. As the chart shows, the potential for a debt crisis triggered by rising interest rates cannot be ignored, given that the current $34tn total of central bank debt is approaching half of global GDP. Most media attention has been on the US Federal Reserve, which is finally moving to raise rates and “normalise” monetary policy. But the real action has been taking place in the emerging markets. 10-year benchmark bond rates have risen by a third in China over the past year to 4%, whilst rates are now at 6% in India, 7.5% in Russia and 10% in Brazil.

An “inflation surprise” could well prove the catalyst for such a reappraisal of market fundamentals. In the past, I have argued that deflation is the likely default outcome for the global economy, given its long-term demographic and demand deficits. But markets tend not to move in straight lines, and 2018 may well bring a temporary inflation spike, as China’s President Xi has clearly decided to tackle the country’s endemic pollution early in his second term. He has already shutdown thousands of polluting companies in many key industries such as steel, metal smelting, cement and coke.

His roadmap is 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”.

But, of course, transitions can be a dangerous time, as China’s central bank chief, Zhou Xiaochuan, highlighted at the 5-yearly Party Congress in October, when warning that China risks a “Minsky Moment“, where lenders and investors suddenly realise they have overpaid for their assets, and all rush together for the exits – as in 2008 in the west.

Business as usual” is always the most popular strategy, as it means companies and investors don’t face a need to make major changes. But we all know that change is inevitable over time. And at a certain moment, time can seem to literally “stand still” whilst sudden and sometimes traumatic change erupts.

At such moments, as in 2008, commentators rush to argue that “nobody could have seen this coming“. But, of course, this is nonsense. What they actually mean is that “nobody wanted to see this coming“. Nobody wanted to be focusing on contingency plans when everybody else seemed to be laughing all the way to the bank.

I discuss these issues in more detail in my annual Outlook for 2018.  Please click here to download this, and click here to watch the video interview with ICB deputy editor, Will Beacham.

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