Capacity closures are always hard to achieve in the petchem industry:
• First, these are a ‘zero sum game’ – if I shut my plant, then other producers gain in terms of overall operating rates and margins, at my expense
• Secondly, there is the integration issue. Closing a consuming plant also impacts output from an upstream plant, and may make it unviable
Dow Chemical’s announcement of US capacity closures reflects this underlying logic. By shutting downstream consuming plants, and an ageing cracker, Dow will align its overall US ethylene balance. It will no longer purchase ethylene in the merchant market. Dow is therefore passing on the pain of any necessary upstream closures to its suppliers.
But Dow also added a wholly new dimension to the debate, when Brian Ames, Global Hydrocarbons Business director, spoke to ICIS’ Nigel Davis. His comment, no doubt carefully prepared, was that US capacity had to shut because “demand overall is lower than it used to be”.
The blog shares Ames’ view. US exports must suffer, in spite of the Gulf Coast’s ethane advantage, as major new capacity arrives in the Middle East and Asia. Equally, there must be doubts about underlying US demand, unless housing and autos recover quickly to their former levels.
Dow’s moves are therefore likely to prompt further debate about how to best manage capacity closures during depressed market conditions.