"Only another thousand or so years to go....."
Source of picture: Atlantic Council
By John Richardson
HERE we go again, eh? Yes, as rising crude-oil prices and overall inflation pose a major threat to the petrochemicals industry.
Nothing the blog has read or heard over the last two weeks has given us any great confidence that the fundamentals in polyolefin markets (the market we track most closely) have changed for the better since December to support rising raw-material costs.
And you can make an argument that the fundamentals look weaker than they did in late 2010.
The Chinese New Year (CNY) is, of course, on the way and this year it falls on 3 February.
How will buyers of resin effectively estimate their purchases ahead of the holiday period as during that period they - and the rest of China - will not be around to assess the feel of markets in general, from crude through to polyolefins? In other words, they might over or under-stock and be hit by an unanticipated shift in feedstock prices.
This fear, very evident from our discussions with a couple of converters this week, is based on the idea that if you are in the market you are able to predict what is going to happen. Sure thing....
The other big worry is on China growth, as we discussed yesterday in terms of the impact of a major government policy shift ahead of the official start of the 12th Five-Year Plan in March.
GDP (gross domestic product) and export growth is expected to slow down during the period of the plan. This would be the result of policies designed to switch the economy away from over-reliance of exports and investment and towards more domestic consumption.
Are the inflationary pressures mainly core (excluding energy, other commodity and food costs) or non-core?
In China the inflationary pressures seem to be very-much core, despite the big contribution that rising oil and food costs have played in the recent surge in the consumer-price index.
Too much money is still sloshing around in the system following the late 2008 economic stimulus package, a symptom of which is the continued increase in property prices.
So China keeps on raising its bank-reserve requirements. Several more interest-rate increases seem to be on the cards for this year.
The rise in the cost of living sets back the government's agenda of reducing dependence on exports and investment as drivers of GDP growth towards increased domestic consumption, as higher costs are hurting the "sandwich generation". These are the young people too rich to qualify for the limited social housing available in the major cities, but also too poor to afford the now astronomically high costs of private accommodation.
An email that went viral just before Christmas, written by disgruntled Bejingers, calculated how long peasant farmers, blue-collar workers and prostitutes would have to work to afford a condo in the city.
As long as there were no natural disasters, a peasant farmer working an average plot of land would just have been able to afford an apartment if he or she somehow had worked since the Tang dynasty, which ended in 907AD, until today, the email calculated.
In another popular e-mail, an anonymous author describes the misery facing ordinary people in China's increasingly unequal society.
"Can't afford to be born because a Caesarean costs Rmb50,000; can't afford to study because schools cost at least Rmb30,000; can't afford to live anywhere because each square metre is at least Rmb20,000; can't afford to get sick because pharmaceutical profits are at least 10-fold; can't afford to die because cremation costs at least Rmb30,000," the e-mail reads.
Social stability is crucial for continued strong economic growth and for the Communist Party to remain in power, both of which, some would argue, are connected.
Inflation across Asia, driven by, as we've said, higher crude and also higher commodity prices in general, have prompted recent interest-rate rises in South Korea and India.
And as we said at the beginning, quite possibly here we go again as inflation is arguably being largely drive by speculative funds pouring into oil and other commodity futures markets.
This year is to date is reminding everyone of 2008 when oil and crop prices surged to record highs and then collapsed.
There are two radically opposed schools of thought about the role of speculators rising commodities prices.
"I feel it is a combination of both speculation and stronger demand, but the essential danger remains a sudden unwinding of the price if the speculators head for the exit," said a Singapore-based oil and refining consultant earlier this week.
"As of a few weeks ago, there were far more non-commercial contracts (the quant funds, the hedge funds and the pension-fund managers etc) open on the NYMEX compared with June 2008, when oil reached its peak of $147/bbl.
"This suggests a huge increase in speculative money and in my view poses a significant risk.
"As I said, though, there are strong demand factors behind the price - for example, the recent minus 15 degrees temperatures in South Korea that have raised heating-oil demand. There has been the drive to hit emissions targets in China that resulted in a big surge in demand for diesel.
"But on the supply side there is a lot of surplus capacity still around - 6m bbl/day of crude, for example - and crude and crude-product inventories are high.
"This suggests that to some extent OPEC is deliberately keeping the market tight by keeping supply off the market, and that speculators are able to keep crude and oil products in inventory because interest rates remain low.
"And so nothing really has changed. The big concern remains what will happen if and when interest rates rise in the US and easy lending conditions disappear.
"My feeling is that a crude price of $80-85/bbl is justified based on demand and so an unwinding from current levels is possible."
Our fellow blogger Paul Hodges pointed to the extent of the oil oil-product inventory overhang in a post earlier this week.
OPEC seems to be happy provided prices don't consistently move above $100/bbl - good news in a way because it doesn't seem to have any immediate plans to raise output. Thus there is no risk of more associated gas increasing polyolefin supply. But supply could still increase substantially in 2011 if plants operate more smoothly.
In a worrying echo of 2008, purchasing managers down all the petrochemical chains could be tempted to chase higher oil prices. A sudden collapse in crude could, as we have warned many times before, lead to inventory losses similar to those in Q4 of that year.
Chasing higher oil prices is a huge risk in such an uncertain, and potentially a lot weaker, demand-growth environment.