By John Richardson
CHINA'S capacity expansions in industries including steel, aluminium and petrochemicals continue to astound.
Take polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for example., where, according to a new report by ChemSystems, "capacity (in China) has expanded from 5m tonne/year in 2003 to over 15m tonne/year in 2009, almost 90 percent of total global capacity expansion over the period.
"Despite legitimate environmental concerns, relating both to massive carbon emissions and mercury pollution, the development of acetylene-based capacity in China shows no sign of slowing.
"The government's effort to restrict the construction and expansion of less efficient, environmentally hazardous plants has had little impact on the overall pace of development, although has perhaps prevented some sub-scale projects from moving ahead."
This makes one wonder whether the huge increase in bank lending in 2009 and the first few weeks of this year has further added to the capacity-building momentum.
As China's coal/acetylene feedstock advantage is mainly located in under-developed Western China, it hardly requires an enormous leap of imagination to figure out that local authorities will have cashed-in on the opportunity while they had the chance.
Regional PVC Capacity Additions
Source of graph: ChemSystems
The consequences of big feedstock and capital-cost advantages will be felt very keenly in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. If these projects in China couldn't repay their loans would anyone have the ability or desire to attempt foreclosures?
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have a collective PVC surplus of 2.4m tonne/year which used to be shipped to China, said ChemSystems.
The search for other overseas markets - where greater distance is likely to create freight-cost and delivery-time disadvantages - could be made extra difficult by ongoing North American capacity expansions.
New projects in North America will be targeted for exported as, of course, the region's construction industry is in major crisis, the consultancy added.
Shintech, part of Japan's Shin-etsu Group, Westlake Chemical and Georgia Gulf were all scheduled to have expanded capacity by this year, according to ICIS news.
Taiwan's Formosa Plastics Corp is due to bring on-stream an 180,000 tonne/year capacity increase in Point Comfort Texas in Q1 2010, says the ICIS Plants & Projects database.
For the first 11 months of 2009, US PVC exports were up 54% from the year-earlier period at 1.914m tonnes, the ITC added.
There are yet more problems for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan: Natural gas prices which remain very low relative to naphtha could give ethane-based US ethylene-to-PVC producers an export edge, along with further weakness in the US dollar.