US auto sales collapse in June
'Collapse' is not a word that should be used lightly in business. But there is no other way to describe June's US auto sales figures:
'Collapse' is not a word that should be used lightly in business. But there is no other way to describe June's US auto sales figures:
Its now a year since the blog started. Since then, 213 postings have appeared. It is now read in 72 countries and 620 cities (shown above). Most encouragingly, readership continues to steadily increase. Since January, it has risen a further 301%.
The blog's aim is to identify 'the influences that may shape the chemical industry over the next 12 - 18 months', and to 'develop useful insights into the key factors that will drive the industry's future performance' . So a first birthday is a suitable moment to assess its success:
The central bankers' bank (the Bank for International Settlements) is not very impressed with its members' efforts over the past year. Readers may remember that the BIS Report last year explicitly warned of the problems that were about to occur in world financial markets. This year's Report expresses its disappointment about what central banks did in response:
European refining margins are falling, as the US's need for gasoline imports reduces. Margins have reached a 4 year low of minus $6.21/bbl, according to Bloomberg. And the problem is likely to get worse, as the US moves towards greater self-sufficiency in gasoline via refinery expansions and increased biofuels usage.
This trend could have important implications for European petchem producers, who are currently suffering from an inability to pass through today's high naphtha prices.
I'm rather surprised my fellow blogger Barbara has missed this story. Still, it shows us commercial types have a life, too.
Bloomberg reports that the economic downturn has caused major cuts in the prices of 'shoes, bags and dresses' during the current Paris fashion sales. France's biggest department stores, Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette are offering discounts of 50% to attract shoppers. Whilst smaller stores including Jonak and Maje have cut prices by 70%.
The reason, of course, is the slowing economy, and declining consumer confidence. But as the photo shows, the Grand Sale has brought the shoppers back after a very weak June. Bargains apparently include dress heels with silver straps selling for €49, down from €149.99. I'm not sure what they are, but it sounds like a bargain.
Dow's potential interest in Rohm & Haas had been much rumoured since December, when it announced the petchem/polymer JV with Kuwait's PIC. That deal has yet to close, but further evidence of the growing link with Kuwait comes with the news that the Kuwait Investment Authority will invest $1bn as part of Dow's financing for yesterday's $18.8bn purchase of R&H.
Business travel occupies a lot of time for many people in the chemical industry. So I thought I might pass on details of 2 websites that I find particularly useful when travelling:
Please add a comment below, if you'd like to pass on details of any sites that you find helpful when travelling.
Oil price movements are now dominated by the Iranian nuclear issue.
Last month, they jumped $10/bbl to $146/bbl as news leaked of Israel's training exercise against Iran's nuclear sites. I've since talked to someone who was on holiday in Southern Greece at the time, and he says it was an amazing sight - the sky was apparently filled with planes.
Early last week, prices fell $10/bbl as news agencies headlined Iran's leader saying 'There won't be war'. But his actual comments made it clear that he wasn't backing down. Rather, he was arguing that the US/Israel were bluffing, and calling the threat of an attack a 'joke'.
And then prices rose $10/bbl again. First, Iran fired missiles which it claimed could reach Israel. Then the Jerusalem Post carried reports from the Iraqi Defense Ministry that the Israeli air force had been using US bases in Iraq in further training exercises.
Last September, I wrote to the Financial Times on the subject of the US sub-prime disaster. At a time when many banking commentators were trying to minimise the problems, I suggested that 'a "buyer of last resort", such as the Federal government, would probably need to emerge if this situation is to be stabilised'.
Yesterday, 10 months later, the government took a major step in this direction with its emergency measures to support Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Between them, these two lenders guarantee 47% of all US mortgages, worth over $5 trillion. That sum is equivalent to 10% of global GDP, or about the combined size of the French and UK economies.
Yesterday's US government data on gasoline consumption gives the clearest picture yet of what is happening to US demand. The data compares the 4 weeks covering the July 4 Independence Day weekend, with the same period last year. And it shows gasoline demand was down just 2.1%, even though oil prices have doubled since last year. Demand still averaged 9.3 mbd, about equal to Saudi Arabia's total oil exports. This tends to confirm the argument that US demand is relatively inelastic, in the absence of a major economic recession.
Andrew Sentance of the Bank of England has issued a very clear analysis of current oil and commodity price movements. It rejects the view that these have been primarily caused by speculators. Instead, it points to increasing demand, and lack of supply, as the main causes of today's higher prices. The slide above sums up his case, showing recent increases in non-OECD oil demand in light blue, the OECD increase in dark blue, and supply increases in purple.
I suggested at the weekend that the Iran issue had the potential to move oil prices by $50/bbl either way. Since then, prices have fallen $20/bbl to $130/bbl, on news that the USA and Iran will meet tomorrow for the first time in nearly 30 years. If they reach agreement on the nuclear issue, oil prices will almost certainly fall further, as the threat to exports via the Strait of Hormuz is removed. Alternatively, if diplomacy fails, any bombing by Israel of Iran could easily cause prices to soar to $200/bbl.
Maintaining price hedges against both outcomes therefore seems the right strategy for chemical companies, given this uncertainty. If prices do fall further, working capital will take a major hit, as stocks are revalued downwards. Current price initiatives will probably also collapse. Equally, if bombing does take place, and oil prices jump in response, it is most unlikely that these higher costs will be quickly recovered in product prices.
A new debate about increasing US energy security, by reducing gasoline dependence, may be getting underway. Leading the move is Andy Grove, the man who made Intel into the leading global chip company. His key phrase, and the title for his 1996 book, was 'Only the paranoid survive'. Now he is taking this approach into the energy sphere, commenting that the US may end up 'starving to death economically', if nothing is done to reduce US gasoline consumption.
Grove's focus is on developing electric cars that can cover 40 miles (65km) before switching to gasoline. He is calling for 10 US million vehicles to be converted within 4 years. And he already has some powerful backers, in the shape of the big Silicon Valley venture capital firms who helped power Intel to its current $38bn of sales.
The current downturn is different from anything that has occurred in the last 15 years. Policy makers are clearly worried. The UK's Finance Minister, Alistair Darling, told Bloomberg today that 'the effect of what has happened is going to be far more profound than people predicted at the start of the year'. He added that 'conditions have become much worse across the world'.
Noting that banks have already had to raise $324bn in new capital, Darling warned that `I don't think anyone would be wise to start speculating on how long the present difficulties will last. We are dealing with them here (in the UK), and other countries are dealing them as well. If you look at the problems the banks have had, they have moved into a different phase and governments have to take account of that.'
I suppose when an industry has lost $400bn in a year, some sacrifices have to be made. In May, I documented how Deutsche Bank was no longer approving expense claims for 'adult entertainment'. Well, things have got worse since then, as the losses have continued to mount:
• Goldman staff have to contribute to repair costs for their Blackberries, if the damage is their fault
• UBS bankers in the US now fly economy if the flight is less than 5 hours
• Several banks are asking staff to use taxis rather than limousines
And the C-suite are also setting an example. After a record 4 consecutive quarters of losses, Merrill Lynch executives now have to 'seek clearance from the global head of investment banking' before using private jets.
Europe is the world's largest auto manufacturer, accounting for 32% of the global market. So news that European auto sales fell 8.3% last month, compared to 2007, is worrying. Italy's sales fell 20%, and were today described as 'disastrous' by CEO Sergio Marchionne, who announced that 4 of their 6 plants will shut for 3 weeks later this year. Fiat's truck plant will shut for 6 weeks, due to lack of demand. Spain was even worse, with sales down 31%. Whilst Irish sales halved.
The situation has echoes of how US auto sales began to fall away this time last year. Last August, I noted how the US majors were starting to report a fall in consumer confidence. Similarly ACEA, the European manufacturers association, is now warning of 'difficult economic circumstances' in its latest monthly report. The auto industry is a very important market for chemical sales. This new trend towards falling home market sales is therefore not good news for European chemical companies, already facing a difficult H2.
Germany is the powerhouse economy of Europe. Its also a late-cycle economy, relying more on engineering and equipment sales than consumer spending. So until recently, its growth has seemingly not been affected by the global slowdown. But Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, indicated yesterday that a 'significant fall' was likely in economic growth next year.
Industrial production, a key indicator for the chemical industry, fell by 2.4% in May - the largest drop in a decade. And in a comment that will find echoes in many boardrooms, Merkel added that 'the economic context in which we are operating is certainly not getting any easier'. Her forecast that a 'clear economic slowdown appeared unavoidable' is rapidly becoming a consensus view.
There is little doubt that chemical growth is weakening. The above chart, taken from Kevin Swift's excellent weekly report for the American Chemistry Council, indicates that a serious downturn is underway.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) says Asian governments 'are caught in the pincer grips of slowing growth and rising inflation'. Whilst the cost of subsidies is ballooning. India, for example, will spend $42.5bn in oil subsidies this year, 'six times the entire education budget'. As the ADB notes, `increased food and energy subsidies erode fiscal ability to provide social protection and support for a slowing economy and reduce funds available for development.'
In a perfect world, Asian governments would abandon subsidies and instead spend their money on critical areas for future growth, such as education and infrastructure. But they 'missed the opportunity in the good times to change the subsidies' according to former IMF head Rodrigo de Rato. Now they risk riots if they allow fuel and food prices to rise.
Thus the ADB forecasts that inflation will continue to rise, whilst growth slows. It expects just 7.6% growth this year, and 6.3% inflation, compared to 8.4% growth and 3.2% inflation between 2004-7. This will squeeze chemical demand - already Hong Kong companies expect to close 20,000 plants in the Guangdong area this year due to 'higher wages and fuel prices'.
I noted back in February that US banks were tightening lending standards into the housing sector. Now they are doing the same with business loans. The New York Times reports today that businesses around the country are finding it more difficult to borrow. As a result, companies that depend on bank financing are having to delay or cancel expansion plans.
The NYT reports one thriving company who called their bank for a routine loan to be told 'We're saying 'no' to almost everyone'. And their experience is not unique. In June, bank credit declined by an annualised pace of 6%, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis. This is a sharp turnaround from 2007, when credit was still growing at double-digit rates.
Back in February, one hoped that it would take 'months' rather than 'years' for domestic US chemical sales into housing and autos to recover. Now, with business loans being cut back as well as mortgages, one fears that it could indeed be years before a genuine recovery is underway.
When a leading banker says things look 'terrible', one know they must be really bad. Jamie Dimon is CEO of JP Morgan Chase, the only major US bank not to take write-downs on its housing loans to date. He described the US housing market as follows: 'We saw subprime go first, then you see home equity go and then you see prime go.' He then added, 'the prime looks terrible. We're sorry, but it looks terrible.'
'Prime' is comprised of loans made to high quality borrowers, who would normally have negligible default levels. These are people who have steady jobs at executive levels. But the latest Case-Shiller US house price index shows why Dimon was so downbeat. Compared to last year, US house prices are now:
• Down 16% on a national basis, and falling in every major US city
• Down nearly 30% in Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas
And it is likely that there is worse to come. Inventories of new and existing homes are still very high, even though the spring is usually the peak time for home sales. Last month, existing home inventory actually rose to 11.1 months.
Statisticians love re-writing economic history. And a notable example of this has occurred today. US government statisticians reported that the US economy actually declined by 0.2% at the end of last year. Whereas, 6 months ago, they reported it as having grown by 0.6%.
Few readers of this blog will be too surprised. Earlier this year, Warren Buffett and Martin Feldstein (the Harvard professor responsible for officially defining recession), were both quoted here as saying that they thought the US was already in recession during Q1.