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Chemicals company H2 complacency?

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By John Richardson on 03-Aug-2009

Chemical companies as a whole displayed “dangerously complacent” views about second-half 2009 prospects when they released their Q2 results late last week, argues chemicals analyst Paul Satchell in his blog.

“They believe that demand has bottomed. Although they can’t see the upturn yet they believe the worst is definitely behind us,” writes Satchell.

“This blog sees this as dangerously complacent, particularly as analysts and investors have returned to a positive stance on the sector.”

When you look at the results themselves, the numbers look better but only on a sequential basis (and watch out for some misleading year-on-year numbers in H2 when performances are very likely to be better than the disastrous second half of 2008. A more useful comparison might be with H2 2007).

Most companies reported year-on-year volume declines in the low 20% range – better than reductions of more than 30% in the first quarter of 2009.

Margins were again lower than in the same quarter last year but up on Q1 2009.

In the case of basic upstream petrochemicals, producers have largely been playing catch up with higher crude prices in this year’s second quarter.

The overall margin improvements are likely to be the result of stronger returns further down the product chains.

These relatively better downstream performance could well be the result of extraordinary increases in apparent demand for polymers and other commodity chemicals. These have occurred at a time of tight global supply (the result of market-driven deep production cutbacks after the Q4 2008 price collapses and turnarounds).

The true nature of the demand increases is at the heart of the complacency Paul is worried about.

Numbers emerging from China remain counter-intuitive.

In January-May over the same period last year high-density PE (HDPE) general trading was up by more than 130%, even though re-exports were down by 16%.

To repeat yet again, how can this happen while China remains so heavily dependent on exports and the global economy remains weak?

BASF, when it disclosed its Q2 results, said that it expected global chemicals output to fall by 8% this year.

This would mean that by the end of this year, production would be back to 2005 levels.

In other words, the global chemicals industry will have lost three years of growth.

The broad-based chemicals giant is signalled out by Satchell as one of the few companies that has acknowledged the risk of another downturn caused by overcapacities, bankruptcies and growing unemployment.

The end of the bubble in oil and oil-product prices might cause severe problems in H2 this year. This could be before new petrochemical capacities and/or a winding down of speculation in China start directing markets.

“The risk from a potential fall in oil is only being thought about in terms of raw materials pricing. People seem to have already forgotten what triggered the de-stocking from last summer,” adds Paul Satchell.