Facts, Fiction And Price-Rise Sustainability

fact-or-fiction.jpgSource of picture: tycoonreport.com

 

 

By John Richardson

This is a very dangerous time for petrochemicals producers as they attempt to separate real, sustainable demand from feedstock-cost related price rises and speculation.

A bubble – as we discussed yesterday - seems to have formed in purified terephthalic (PTA) and, according to ICIS news, in caprolactam.

The surge in cotton prices is a factor behind the price rallies in both these production.

You need to ask yourself: To what the extent is the rise in the price of cotton driven by fundamentals versus speculation on the cotton futures markets, and so what’s the risk of a collapse?

PTA also has its own future market in China – the Zhejiang Commodity Exchange, where, as we have also reported, trading was suspended this Tuesday because prices rose beyond their daily limit.

And as we also blogged about earlier this week, another inventory-related crisis could hit the chemicals industry if oil prices retreat – along with other commodities and equities – if there is a sudden change in the overall macroeconomic mood.

A few extra servings of scepticism about what chemicals and polymers traders are saying about demand and supply are therefore necessary in order to prevent inventory overbuilding. And my, as we shall detail later on, there are some nonsense stories out there.

This is the fourth quarter when chemicals and polymer demand in Asia usually slows down, and yet price rises in the polyethylene (PE) market continue, as my colleagues on ICIS pricing have been reporting. Click here for a slide illustrating this point:

ChinaImportPEPrices12November.ppt

Last Friday’s price increases seem to have been mainly driven by crude and what was happening on the all-important Dalian Commodity Exchange. This points to the very-strong likelihood that recent price rises have been mainly feedstock-cost and sentiment driven.

And yet, in conversations with traders this week the blog has heard a couple of curious stories to support the notion that the rallies are about real supply and demand.

For instance, one Hong Kong-based trader told of us of further production cutbacks in the Middle East as a result of more reductions in feedstock supply to crackers that are dependent on associated gas.

He justified this by claiming that OPEC has further reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil quota on weaker global crude demand.

But as we will post next week, the reverse is likely to soon be the case as global oil demand is on the up (there is still a strong argument, though, that the more-bullish forecasts on crude demand do not entirely justify the recent spikes in crude. These appear to have been mainly driven by QE2 and, as a result, what’s happening with the US dollar).

The same trader cited further outages in the Middle East, whereas other sources tell us of no major new production problems – and of output being ramped-up at the recently commissioned Borouge complex in Abu Dhabi. There is also more output from Thailand following the recent start-up of linear-low density PE (LLDPE) plant.

(Also watch out next week for a post on how financial analysts may have got ahead of themselves in predicting market-tightening from next year. There is a strong argument to be made that as rising production in the Middle East will make 2011 a more difficult year as extra output is absorbed).

Now let us look about what is being said about demand in the fourth quarter in China.

As my colleague Nigel Davis wrote earlier this week in an ICIS news Insight article, linear LLDPE and low-density PE (LDPE) are benefiting from this being an agricultural film-buying season.

I was highly amused a couple of weeks when a trader told me of how exceptionally cold weather in China had already added a further boost to agricultural film demand as farmers sought to better-protect their crops.

At that time, though, it was the expectation of very cold weather that had driven-up all sorts of commodity prices, including steel – indicating yet again the speculative influences on PE.

Since that time there have been a few days of very cold weather, but now forecasters are expecting milder-than-expected conditions across the south and east of the country. This has led to a slight retreat in oil futures pricing.

The key thing to remember here – as we said before – is that this the fourth quarter when demand traditionally slows down in Asia.

In China we are also well-beyond the peak manufacturing season for finished goods for Christmas.

There are claims out there that PE end-users in China are already ramping-up production of packaging material ahead of next year’s Chinese New Year (CNY).

But as CNY 2011 doesn’t fall until 3 February this seems exceptionally early to the blog – and any increase in packaging-related demand will not be enough to compensate for the end of the manufacturing season.

Further, it will be interesting to see if overall industrial production in China dips in Q4 as the government continues to strive to meet its 2011 emissions targets.

There are reports that electricity-supply reductions that have already taken place – aimed at achieving the emissions target – have led to a shortage in diesel fuel due to industrial users switching to diesel-powered generators.

This could exert further margin pressure on converters who might be already struggling to cope with higher resin prices.

A question the blog will attempt to explore is to what extent the converters have been able to pass-on these recent resin price increases. This might give us a firmer indication about the real state of demand.



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