Reports of the death of US PP exaggerated

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain once famously said after his obituary was published before he had died.

Similarly, the US polypropylene (PP) industry had been virtually written off late last year after a calamitous collapse in pricing resulted in inventory losses totalling a staggering $700m in November alone.

But the day of reckoning has been postponed by numerous project delays and a big recovery in Chinese demand.

US PP exports to China more than tripled in the first five months of this year compared with January-May 2008, according to the US Department of Commerce.

Of the extra 2.77m tonnes/year of Middle East capacity due on stream by now, only around 1m tonnes/year has hit the market.

“What also happened from mid-November was that buyers globally, and particularly in China, recognised that prices had hit rock bottom,” says Joe Congdon, a consultant with Townsend Solutions.

“And then you had the Chinese stimulus package boosting confidence with the recovery in oil prices from around February, adding extra momentum.”

Other export markets were far weaker, however, for US producers – their shipments to Mexico were down by 20% and to Canada by 25%.

Not surprisingly, sales to Brazil tumbled by 43% as a result of a 350,000 tonne/year plant that started up there last year.

Total US PP exports in January-May of this year were 4% lower, and, as the accompanying chart from the American Chemistry Council (ACC) shows, production was substantially down during the whole of the first half of 2009.

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But without the surge in shipments to China, which perhaps bought more time for some tough decisions, the overall picture might have been a lot worse.

Nobody had the luxury of time late last year when announcements were made about closing 500,000 tonnes/year of capacity in the first half of 2009. Some of the plants being shut down are part of integrated complexes that are not necessarily entirely loss-making.

Oversupply is still big. Consumption totalled just above 7.4m tonnes in 2008, which was 8% lower than the previous year, with capacity still at 9.4m tonnes.

No further announcements about capacity closures have been made so far this year.

“What needs to happen to bring supply more in line with demand is further closure announcements. Another 500,000 tonnes/year of shutdowns would bring capacity utilisation to 85%, Congdon added.

Townsend Solutions is currently forecasting North American rates at less than 80% for the next five years.

“We are predicting global growth of 3.7%/year in 2008-13 compared with last year’s forecast of 4.9% for 2007-12. The future of PP has changed dramatically in just one year,” Congdon added.

The US domestic market looks likely to be difficult. Exports will also be hit much harder as a result of the new capacity.

And as for the more immediate prospects, current exports were characterised as “lousy” by a US industry source – the result of the high cost of feedstock.

Monomer supply has been reduced by refinery operation rate cutbacks due to weak gasoline demand. Fluid catalytic crackers (FCCs) are running at around 85%.

But if PP export opportunities existed, enough propylene could be found, according to market sources.

“The market will pay maybe 47-48 cents/lb for bagged homopolymer free on board (FOB) exported from Houston,” said a trader.

“But with a potential 4-cent spike in monomer contracts this month, PP producers are looking 53-54 cents/lb FOB Houston in a bag.”

The US PP industry has become more heavily dependent on refineries for feedstock supply. Naphtha cracking has suffered as a result of the fall in natural gas prices relative to crude, and ethane cracking is now far more economic.

“Around 70% of C3s are being sourced from refineries and 30% from crackers. The split used to be 50/50,” said a US PP producer.

Gasoline demand isn’t expected to improve due to the weak US economy.

Another factor behind the weak PP export trade is a steep fall in buying interest in anticipation of the further new volumes.

These include the recent start-up of a 350,000 tonne/year line by PetroRabigh in Saudi Arabia, which is supplied by propylene from a deep catalytic cracker.

Output from Saudi Arabia’s new propane dehydrogenation (PDH)-to-PP complexes is also expected to increase, with several start-ups set to take place in China during the second half of the year.

Mark Twain was twice feared dead before he finally passed away of a heart attack in 1910.

And, of course, the US PP industry isn’t going to really expire. This is a huge market with very sophisticated distribution and marketing networks.

A lot of acquisition interest seems likely to emerge very soon.

David Barry contributed to this article.

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