What I Want to Know in H2 – Part One

Aromatics, China, Europe, Middle East, Polyolefins, US

How will this one run?

steam_cracker.jpg

Source of Picture: chemicals-technology.com

In the 12 years I’ve been covering the chemicals industry I don’t think I have come across a time of such exceptional market muddle.

The traders love it. As a wise man said to me the other day, “When I was a trader I only cared about the price today if I was cashing in and not tomorrow.”

But for the producers and buyers there are so many more factors that will shape the outcome of the second half, requiring fortunately for me hopefully some more business for ICIS training (one should always live in hope)

Here is Part 1 of what I plan to try and piece together over the next few months. Let’s try and keep cooperating on data and analysis – but at the outset, does this make sense to you?

The Impact of Operating Rates, Plant Closures and New Petrochemical Capacities

Production from existing plants

This will be determined by overconfidence versus realistic confidence in the economy. This comes down to your view on the sustainability of the rebound.

To what extent have operating rate and inventory-management lessons been learnt from the oil collapse of H2 last year?

How are imminent new capacities affecting the behaviour of producers and buyers? In the first half, the tightness in some markets (for example, PP and PE) was partly the result of producers and buyers maintaining low stock levels because they expected new-capacity start-ups that didn’t happen. To what degree has this experience made them less cautious?

It might be helpful to analyse Q2 chemical company results to get a feel for what production levels might be for the rest of this year.

Do the numbers add up and do the content and tone of what’s been said sufficiently take into account all the risks? (Note: there are some individual company numbers on plans for overall average operating rates in H2).

The pace of permanent shutdowns in the West to reduce domestic oversupply and weaker exports positions also needs to be tracked.

Last year sudden decisions to temporarily or permanently close whole complexes – which were not necessarily entirely loss making – were forced on companies.

This was the result of the collapse in oil, the credit crisis and steep falls in demand.

To use PP as an example again, 500,000 tonne/year of US capacity-closure announcements were made in 2008 to take effect in the first half of this year.

Oversupply is still big: US PP consumption totalled just above 7m tonnes in 2008, 8% lower than the previous year with capacity still at 9.4m tonnes. So far this year (as of July) there have been no further announcements of closures.

Further factors affecting the pace of permanent closures could be divestments.

Trade buyers for distressed Western assets now seem much more likely than further private equity players and so attitudes to running marginal, or clearly uneconomic, plants might be different.

You also have to take into account environmental clean-up costs and regulations – and contractual and labour commitments.

And next: How will petchem operating rates be affected by refinery economics?

Dealing with the US refineries first:

How will refinery economics affect availability of PP and aromatics in H2? In the first half we saw a big increase in shipments from the US to Asia due to the global rate cuts, production problems in the Middle East, the peak of the Asian refinery and petrochemical turnaround seasons between April-June and the unexpectedly strong Chinese demand.

But since May/June, PP arbitrage from the US has closed on lower refinery operating rates resulting from weak gasoline demand. Benzene trade flows seem to have also reversed – in July we have heard of cargoes moving from Asia to the US, whereas in H1 there were record-high shipments the other way.

What’s the outlook for gasoline, middle distillate etc demand for the rest of the year? (gasoline and middle distillate stocks are high on speculation and weak demand)

Some of the same questions need to be asked about Europe with a few
important differences, which are:

*Europe is a major exporter of gasoline to the US and so the price and availability of naphtha, and therefore petchem economics, will also be affected by US demand for the fuel

*Fuel demand in Europe is heavily weighted towards diesel and how will the European economies perform in H2 and what affect will this have on demand for gasoline, more importantly diesel, and how the refineries run? (Note: most propylene in Europe is produced from steam crackers because of the lower gasoline demand. But there is still a big link as naphtha is the main steam cracking feedstock in Europe).

I don’t follow currency or shipping and other logistics markets, but these are obviously also critical factors.

Next question: How will the new petrochemical capacities run?

It’s worth considering that there could be many more start-up delays, and
problems with operating new plants already on-stream, because resources were so stretched when these projects were planned and they remain stretched.

There is a shortage of engineers with the right levels of experience. Many of the projects were also planned when raw material, equipment and other costs were sky-high.

Budgets were stretched and so choices had to be made – for example, “Do I focus on my PE debottlenecking using ethylene from my new cracker or do I prioritise starting up the cracker and its new plants on time?”

Another problem is “project bunching”. There seem to have been attempts to start up too many projects at the same time, further stretching already-scarce resources (a few years ago there was a lot of fevered excitement over the global economy. There was a rush to take advantage of financing while it was available in order to cash in on this growth and to maintain economies of scale).

There is, reportedly, a lack of the right kind of experience. Even companies with long track records in petrochemicals are confronting start-ups of projects bigger in scale and more complex than ever before.

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