For many years, many an Asian country has wanted a petrochemical industry as much as car or a textile industry.
Some of those countries have pursued investment even though their competitive advantages in petrochemicals have been somewhat dubious.
Singapore can argue that – because of its very efficient ports and corrupt-free politics – it is a good location for petrochemicals.
Shared and efficient utilities and feedstock advantages tied to mixed-feed cracker technologies by ExxonMobil, and soon Shell Chemicals, add to the argument. In the past, the case has been won by very strong profitability.
But what kind of growth will lift the West out of recession? Will it be the new-energy New Deal proposed by Obama?
Is this the only kind of growth possible, given that US and the UK consumers are leveraged up to their eyeballs and bankers will remain exceptionally cautious in lending?
In other words, no matter how many tax breaks are thrown at consumers, they might well be unable or unwilling to rush out and buy yet more junk that they do not need – made from petrochemicals shipped from Singapore to China to be manufactured into finished goods for re-export to the West.
The other danger, if the International Energy Authority is right, is that we run the risk of another crude-oil price surge if growth in the conventional economy returns to previous levels.
It seems unlikely, therefore, that we will see further crackers in the foreseeable future (beyond those already under construction) in an Asian country without a home market for petrochemicals big enough to result in only marginal export volumes.