It seems likely that this week’s European Petrochemical Association annual meeting in Berlin will mark a turning point in the petchem cycle.
Looking back over 2007, Boy Litjens, CEO of Sabic Europe, told ICIS@EPCA that performance this year had been ‘excellent’, and that they would ‘definitely report the best results ever’. He was also hopeful about the outlook for 2008, but thought that 2009 onwards might prove to be ‘difficult years’ for the industry.
Litjens went on to add, however, that ‘I am realistic enough to say that somewhere in 2008 and 2009 the economy is going to turn down’. But in his view, the pressure from new Middle Eastern and Asian capacity won’t really begin to be felt ‘until the fourth quarter’. So the key issue is whether demand begins to turn down before this.
The views that I picked up on this issue over the 4 days were mixed. The US market definitely seems to be weakening, and although European and Asian demand is still robust, industry margins are coming under pressure:
• There seemed no doubt in the minds of US delegates that the US housing market will get worse (some thought a lot worse) before it bottoms. This means there will be a lot less demand for chemicals/polymers in this important sector.
• However, US producers were encouraged by the decline in the US dollar, and hoped that this would enable them to compensate for lower domestic sales via increased exports to Asia, and Europe.
• European producers generally saw demand continuing to be strong, although many noted that the major downstream buyers were taking a more aggressive stance on pricing.
• Asian delegates, particularly those from China and India, remained very confident. They see strong demand in their domestic markets out till at least 2010.
• Feedstock pricing and availability was a major concern for everyone with whom we spoke. The volatility seen during 2007 is expected to continue, and this makes margin forecasting much more difficult.
It used to be said that ‘if America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold’. My sense from our EPCA meetings is that we may find ourselves needing to rewrite this phrase, if housing and subprime problems do tip the US economy into recession next year. This might cause us to discover instead that ‘when America catches a cold, the rest of the world sneezes’.