Every dark cloud has a silver lining…
By John Richardson
GLOBAL polyolefins markets are being kept very tight be a collection of what might seem like only temporary factors.
But in the case of the butene-1 shortage, for example, (see below) this has been restricting linear-low density polyethylene (LLDPE) for more than a year.
And many of the other reasons for supply restrictions have been dragging on for a long time now, enabling Asian consumption to grow – thus making it easier to absorb new capacities.
This is all well and good provided there is no double-dip recession, of course.
Here’s our list for the reasons for persistent tightness, resulting in unexpectedly strong margins for those able to operate:
1.) Reduced feedstock availability in the Middle East. This includes both ethane and also liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). LPG has been tight because of, among other factors, reduced refinery operating rates and increased demand from petrochemicals in the Middle East.
2.) Plants keep falling over in the Middle East and new plants are taking a long time to stabilise because of manpower, technical issues etc.
3) Logistics factors which include port congestion, repositioning problems with ethylene vessels (see the link to the first article above), lack of sufficient ethylene vessels and not enough container vessels. Shortage of enough shipping space is also placing a cap on operating rates because this prevents arbitrage (e.g. polyolefins to Europe from the Middle East).
4) Europe’s inability to sell gasoline in big volumes to the States anymore. When the US was enjoying an economic boom, ethanol blending wasn’t as big and fuel-efficiency regulations were more relaxed, Europe was able to export its gasoline surpluses to the States. But now that cannot happen, this is forcing operating rates at refineries down, thereby restricting the availability of feedstock to petrochemicals, according to my fellow blogger, Paul Hodges.
5) In the US, the drop in gasoline demand is restricting the availability of propylene; in Europe most of the propylene comes from steam crackers so the lack of naphtha is the problem here. Also, the increased demand for polypropylene) PP due to innovation is another factor behind propylene becoming more expensive than ethylene.
6) Lack of spending on maintenance is reportedly the cause of numerous outages in Europe. Lack of maintenance spending is also a problem for PP production in the US, we have been told
7) In Europe also, the product managers are maintaining margins rather than market share (unlike the state-run companies, such as Sinopec, and the South Koreans). This is further restricting production.
8) Lack of enough low-density PE (LDPE) capacity, with the plants that do exist being pushed so hard to meet demand that outages are occurring very frequently.
9) The butene-1 shortage limiting LLDPE production.