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To Cut Rates Or Not To Cut…

China, Economics, Middle East, Olefins, Polyolefins, Projects, Thailand, US
By John Richardson on 02-Nov-2009

A Famous Ditherer


Source of picture: sarafinewordpress.com


Chasing higher oil prices and/or a response to the now long-running recovery in Chinese demand that’s become sustainable?

Not wanting to sound too much like the start of a famous Shakespeare soliloquy, these are the questions that should be wracking everyone’s brains as they try to figure out price rises, which continued last week.

Ethylene rose again and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) was up by $50 a tonne to $1,235-1,300 tonne CFR China, according to ICIS pricing.

The polyolefin was at $1,130-1,180/tonne CFR China four week. Click here for a graph showing the price history for all the PE grades since January last year – Olefin-PEprices.ppt.

But interestingly, while the sentiment in the China market was described as bullish due to stronger crude and second and third tier traders and distributors were stocking up, actual end-user demand was characterised by market players contacted by ICIS as weak.

This suggests stocking up ahead of the assumption that oil prices will go higher, even though the outlook for the next few weeks is mixed given recent negative reports over the US economy. 

It then comes down to the sustainability of the eight-month long rebound in demand from China. Head-scratching continues as to where all this stuff is going, more of which later this week.

Asian cracker operators, according to my colleague Peh Soo Hwee, ICIS pricing’s ethylene editor in Asia, seem to believe its worth running hard for the time being at least.

“Some of the cracker operators, notably in Japan, had reduced production to below 90% in September-October, partly due to turnarounds at derivative plants,” she said in a recent note to one of our customers.

“Most of them now expect to increase rates to close to 100% next month (November).”

“So far, with the exception of a few crackers in the region running at lower rates – Chandra Asri in Indonesia at 75% and South Korea’s YNCC at 90% – the bulk of producers aim to keep ethylene production at 90-100% in November.”

Supporting these decisions were improvements in margins last week. Ethylene margins rose for the second week in a row as a result of the pace of C2 price increases outpacing those for naphtha, according to the ICIS weekly Asian Ethylene Margin Report.

But still, October ended up as the worst month for ethylene margins since June.

PE margins also rose on a better spread between C2s and the polymer and improved co-product credits, according to our Asian PE Marging Report – also weekly. 

Again, though, overall margins were down in October over the previous month. Stand-alone players did better than integrated operators.

Plan cutbacks and/or sell November stocks early and you miss the potential of better returns. Some polyolefin producers sold October volumes earlier than they should have done because they expected prices to fall.

The flipside of the risk is being left holding overpriced inventory as oil prices fall and more new polyolefin capacities hit the market.

Nothing new in having to make these decisions, of course; the difference is the absence of any consistent and reliable patterns from all the data to support planning.