C2 OR% Jan12.pngLatest data from the IMF shows that the EU remains the world’s largest economic unit. Its GDP in 2010 was $16.2tn, 26% of the global economy. The USA was next with $14.5tn, and China 3rd with GDP of $5.9tn.

So what happens in Europe matters greatly to the global economy.

Equally, petchems are one of the best leading indicators that we have for monitoring the health of the broader economy. So the chart above of ethylene production in the EU 15 (plus Norway), based on APPE data, provides good insight into what lies ahead:

• Q4’s 4.4MT output (red line) was the lowest since 1995, excluding 2008
• Total 2011 output of 19.6MT was the lowest since 2000, excluding 2009
• Q4 operating rate was just 72%, and H2 only 77%

This is not good news, by any standard.

Another way of interpreting the data is to average 2010-2011 volumes. This takes account of 2010’s stock-build as crude oil prices rose, and then 2011’s destocking. It gives an average volume for the 2 years of 19.9MT. This would be the lowest volume since 2001, excluding 2009.

The conclusion is obvious. Demand destruction is underway in the world’s largest economic region. It also seems unlikely that things will improve short-term with oil prices at a sustained record level, and with EU governments committed to an austerity approach.

Producers and consumers have done a superb job over the past few months in reducing output in line with demand. In the short-term, they should hope for a reward in terms of a bounce in orders. H1 should be the seasonally strongest part of the year.

But only an extreme optimist will regard this as a sign that the economy itself is turning the corner. And policymakers’ continuing inability to finalise Greece’s inevitable default is a reminder, if one were needed, of the banana skins that now litter the world’s economic outlook.