Asian petchems: A H2 Outlook

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Petrochemical markets, as is the case with stock markets, are I believe in the midst of a bear-market rally.

As chemicals consultant Paul Hodges predicted on his blog last year, restocking in Q1 was inevitable after the great inventory run-down of the fourth quarter.

Paul has consistently made the right calls on the economic crisis and on its implications for the chemicals industry. His accuracy in predicting the major events – from crude-oil pricing to the collapse of Bear Stearns – can be demonstrated by visiting his blog.

Read his post today which provides are summary of how we got we are and where the global chemicals industry appears to be heading.

Petrochemicals benefited from the Q1 restocking, of course.

We have also seen an across-the-board price rally sustained by a lot of speculation in China made possible by ample availability of credit. The question now is whether credit will be restricted as China becomes concerned over inflation.

Petrochemicals pricing has also been supported by stronger naphtha due to firmer crude, first of all because of refinery rate cuts when the Q4 crisis occurred and more latterly a huge programme of refinery turnarounds in Asia. According to oil and gas consultancy Purvin & Gertz, this turnaround programme is due to come to an end around June.

Naphtha supply will increase in H2 on more exports from India, higher production from one condensate splitter in the Middle East and the start-up of another splitter. Supply could increase in Asia by 20-30%.

I think crude is likely to trade around the $50/bbl mark for the rest of this year so this will set a floor for liquid-feedstock costs.

However,I don’t believe that petrochemical producers will be able to use tight naphtha as a justification for maintaining current price levels because of the increased supply.

Petrochemicals supply will also lengthen when Asias’ big cracker turnaround season ends after June.

Middle East project delays are likely to continue, but some further extra supply in polyolefins, MEG, aromatics and propylene oxide (PetroRabigh is in the process of starting up the region’s first PO plant) can be expected in H2.

The second half of the year could also see the start-up of lots of capacity in China. But how much volume actually hits the markets will have to be closely tracked.

Demand will be better this year than in 2008, but hey, so what?

Last year was exceptional bad because of the destocking, and all the economic uncertainties will not be compensated for by the boost from government stimulus packages.

So, in short, expect feedstock-price support to weaken and for petrochemical supply to lengthen in a persistently weak demand-growth environment.

The big unanswered question is to what extent the recent price prices were also the result of speculation in China. In methanol, an incredible two-thirds of Q1 imports were for speculation on futures markets.

As Paul again points out on his blog, the volume of contracts being traded on the Dalian Commodity Exchange is nothing short of staggering (an average of 1Om tonnes a day during the first quarter!).

Has this contributed to LLDPE prices trading above LDPE over the last few weeks for the first time in two years?

How much of the chemicals and polymers that have been imported into China recently, or purchased locally, and are being held in inventory for speculation purposes? To what extent has this speculation been made easier by increased credit?

With as many as 30m migrant workers laid off in China and export-focused factories operating at only 50% of capacity, how can all this increased chemicals trade be justified by an improvement in the final demand for finished goods?

China’s economic stimulus package is kicking in. Over the last few days I hear of improved sentiment in China that the worst might be over.

But given that 10-30% of China’s economy (depending on who you believe) is dependent on exports, it would take a heck of an effective stimulus package to boost domestic growth sufficiently to replace all the lost export trade in the second half of this year.

We’ve also picked up anecdotal reports that factories are being kept running by soft loans from banks for social stability reasons.
It’s unlikely that the total extra production will replace all the volumes lost through factory closures.

But at the end of certain product chains you could see China exporting deflation in H2 to relieve inventory – another reason to believe that chemicals pricing will decline in the second half.

However, it might not be in China’s interests to flood oveseas markets with goods at bargain-basement prices if this triggers international tensions and a further rise in protectionism.

Overseas chemicals players seem to have benefited from the relative strength of China’s market with volumes of benzene and polystyrene, for exampe, being shipped from Europe.

Large increases in polyolefin shipments from the US to China are also being reported, in the case of PE the result perhaps of comparatively cheaper ethane versus naphtha.

The word on the street, from our price-reporting team, is that nobody can really say for certain whether the recent price rises are the result of improved demand or speculation.

But add all the above factors together and it seems a sharp correction from June onwards remains very likely.

And the more uncertain that price direction remains the closer the correlation might be between oil and naphtha and chemicals pricing on a daily, weekly or perhaps even a longer-term basis.

In the absence of clear direction, crude and equities might end up as the only guides available (or perhaps chemicals might even move in the opposite direction to equities in China as a lot of traders traditionally move their money between the two – and also property – depending on where they think the next gains can be made).

For the traders in China and those who know know how to play the domestic markets extremely well, it’s also a question of maximising returns from micro-price movements.

On a weekly basis, one trader estimates that domestic polyolefin prices have fluctuated by $50-100/tonne in 2009 compared with $40-50/tonne in 2007. Last year can be discounted as an exceptional year because of the inventory building and the H2 collapse so, hence the comparison with 2007.

The Dalian exchange must also be adding to this volatility.

Bear-market rallies are better than no rallies at all, of course, and we could several more rises and sudden dips in chemicals pricing before this crisis is over.

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