OUTLOOK '12: CEE players ponder investments amid the economic malaise

28 December 2011 09:38  [Source: ICIS news]

By Will Conroy

LONDON (ICIS)--BorsodChem in Hungary and Spolchemie in the Czech Republic are two companies which may provide a bellwether of the 2012 impact of the ongoing economic squeeze on the chemical industry of central and eastern Europe (CEE).

An isocyanates producer and a synthetic resins maker respectively, both companies have this year announced full recoveries from extreme difficulties caused by the financial crisis to the point where they feel poised to pursue delayed global ambitions.

Now under the ownership of China’s Wanhua Industrial Group and Chinese CEO Jason Ding, BorsodChem inaugurated a 160,000 tonne/year toluene di-isocyanate (TDI) plant in September despite market uncertainty.

BorsodChem, also the only European producer to increase methyl di-p-phenylene isocyanate (MDI) capacity this year, enjoys the leeway provided by a €1.1bn ($1.4bn) financing agreement with the Bank of China, but concedes it may have to apply the brakes to some “very ambitious” expansion objectives if there are too many global economic obstacles in the year ahead.

Spolchemie, on the other hand, has only just dusted off expansion plans for Asia and North America, but is awaiting market events before deciding whether it can commit to any kind of implementation schedule.

Over in Poland, the treasury ministry once more finds its plans to sell off of what remains of the country’s state-held major chemical assets stalled by headwinds stemming from the volatile European and world economies.

So much so that the postponement of the privatisation process is this time indefinite, with the ministry anxious that the investment environment would again lead to unsatisfactory offers for controlling stakes in prized domestic enterprises.

These include the largest Polish chemical group by revenue, Zaklady Azoty Tarnow – whose products include nitrogen and multi-component fertilizers, caprolactam (capro), polyamide 6 (or nylon 6), titanium dioxide (TiO2) and oxo-alcohols – soda ash and toluene di-isocyanate (TDI) maker Ciech and nitrogen fertilizer, capro and melamine producer Zaklady Azotowe Pulawy.

Polish oil, chemicals and petrochemicals group PKN Orlen, meanwhile, stands ready to cancel its second attempt at selling Anwil, the largest CEE polyvinyl chloride (PVC) producer and nitrogen fertilizer maker in the CEE in the face of slowing markets.

It also has decisions to make on whether to follow up on its so far successful new 600,000 tonne/year purified terephthalic acid (PTA) plant with a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) downstream investment that would further capitalise on the PTA output, and on what speciality petrochemical investments its Czech subsidiary Unipetrol – threatened by expanding commodity petrochemical capacities in the Middle East – could pursue in its long-delayed and awaited new company strategy.

Czech Republic-based agrochemical and foodstuffs group Agrofert and Slovakian refining and petrochemical producer Slovnaft, owned by Hungary’s MOL group, are taking contrasting approaches to the threat on the horizon of a double-dip recession.

Agrofert is to slow its rapid expansion despite having just achieved a record nine-month net profit, but Slovnaft has decided that despite the economic malaise it will go ahead with a €300m investment programme that includes the construction of a 220,000 tonne/year low density polyethylene (LDPE) installation.

Back in Poland, latest analysis from Raiffeisen Centrobank cautions that styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) producer Synthos could soon see an end to the bull run in synthetic rubber, sustained for the past two years, as demand levels off in emerging markets and natural rubber, several times hit by severe weather during 2010 and 2011, makes something of a comeback.

Bound to be in the news again is Romanian PVC and polyols producer Oltchim. Its management and activist shareholder, Germany’s PCC, have since 2008 been involved in a tug of war over what investment strategy can rescue the firm from it mounting debts and losses.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is hoping a privatisation of the state’s controlling stake in the company, agreed with ministers for April, will find a way forward.

But with offer prices likely to be dragged down by the pressure of the ongoing international market woes, analysts are warning the sell-off could turn into the latest grim chapter in the company’s recent history.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Will Conroy
+44 20 8652 3214

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