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Aussie on a losing wicket

Aromatics, Australia, Business, Economics, Markets, Polyolefins, US
By John Richardson on 09-May-2009

The timing of when to strike the ball is everything in the wonderful sport of cricket – and also, apparently, in the American pastime of baseball.

An Australian banker is fond of reminding the English how much better his country is at playing cricket.

But his gloating doesn’t extend to how well he’s been timing dipping in and out of equity markets of late. Like a lot of other “cashed up” people he is suffering from the “if only” syndrome.

“A lot of money seems to be pouring into stock markets because it has nowhere else to go. I didn’t expect this run to last as long,” he said.

All the moving indicators are pointing upwards with crude above $55/bbl on Thursday where he thought there would be very tough resistance.

“There’s so much crude in storage which has been acquired by the financial traders who perceive the economic recovery is just around the corner. This is a big risk.

“Equity markets are also responding as if a recovery is only three months away. They usually price in a recovery about a quarter ahead of when it actually happens, but I believe that the recovery – or rather the bottom of the market – is at least six months away.”

And in his view, you have to be very careful how you measure “recovery” in the context of the worst economic downturn since possibly the Great Depression.

The first important measure is the effect of inventory adjustments on GDP (gross domestic product) growth.

In the US, for example, total inventory reductions subtracted $50bn from growth in the fourth quarter of last year, he said.

The first quarter adjustments will see a further $100bn or so of production cuts and the second quarter possibly in excess of $150bn.

The collapse of liquidity in Q4 2008 forced companies across all sectors to make much quicker operating-rate cuts and plant closures than occurred at the start of previous recessions.

“There was simply no re-financing available so the companies had no choice.”

BASF has reduced is global production by 25%, Bayer Material Science has taken 300,000 tonne/year of polycarbonate (PC) capacity temporarily off-line and Dow Chemical’s average operating in the fourth quarter was just 64%.

“I expect some inventory replenishment down many of the production chains in Q3 in the US, and probably elsewhere,” he added.

“This could give the false impression that we have reached the bottom of this crisis and recovery has begun.”

Inventory building in Q3 would need to be measured against consumer spending, he said.

Retail sales on big-ticket durable items such as autos and homes might take longer to bounce back in the West than in Asia. Cost consciousness could also extend for some time to clothing, food and tourism.

Individual wealth has been badly dented by the fall in stock markets relative to their peak and the collapse in housing.

“Savings rates are likely to continue increasing as a result of this loss in wealth – even more so if unemployment keeps on rising.”

Recoveries in GDP growth in the third quarter of this year would also need to be measured against the same period in 2007 rather than 2008, he added.

“This will give us a measure of how far we are away from returning to the boom conditions of 2004-07.”

The crisis began in the third quarter of 2008.

Any comparison between Q4 2009 and Q4 2008 would be even more misleading as the global economy ground to a virtual halt during the last quarter of last year.

Comparing 2007 with 2009 is crucial for the chemicals industry as new capacity was planned on the belief that growth would continue at levels close to the great boom years.

“Even if were still in a global boom we would still need capacity to shut down,” said Paul Hodges, chairman of UK consultancy International eChem.

“In most building block products we are now faced with 20% oversupply.”

It could be a very long time before the world economy enjoys another period like 2004-07.

Consumer and corporate credit is likely to remain much more restricted because of financial-sector reforms.

“You also have to look at the potential for credit-card debt going bad to undermine consumer spending and the stability of the banks,” the banker added.

“The first quarter results of the Western banks were very misleading. They looked good because of a reduction in competition due to consolidations and bank failures.

(Also, the banks could hardly fail to make money as governments were practically giving money away)

“But behind the numbers you could see warnings over just how much bad debt could result from credit-card defaults.

“As much as 25% of the revenues of some commercial banks come from credit-card transactions.”

Consumers who are not in danger of default will be eager to pay off their plastic debts rather than incur 20% interest charges, he said.

The other big risk is the rate of recovery on corporate debt that’s gone bad. Optimists think it could be as high as 40%, whereas others are warning of returns of as low as just a few cents on the dollar.

There appears to be the risk of a least a double-dip recession – perhaps even three dips.

Commodity chemicals prices started going up before the current equity-market rally.

This followed the deep global production cuts in aromatics, olefins and derivatives and a rebound in feedstock costs.

It’s a moot point whether the cuts, combined with delayed start-ups in the Middle East, created genuinely tight markets or just the perception that they were tight.

In the end, though, the result was the same – raising the age-old conundrum of whether sentiment or fundamentals are driving markets.

A danger is that rising crude prices and the stock-market rally could lead to chemicals production being ramped up (if it hasn’t happened already), despite the uncertain outlook for consumption.

Confidence can be a dangerous thing.

It’s a great deal easier to off-load shares when you think the market has turned than a warehouse full of polyolefins.