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Old Assumptions Might Belatedly Change

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By John Richardson on 31-May-2010


doom-and-gloom.jpgSource of picture: http://www.andrewgriffithsblog.com/



By John Richardson

DOOM-MONGERS are scratching their heads as to why the global petrochemicals industry has remained in such a healthy state over the past 18 months.

Old assumptions are, as a result, being challenged. It would be a painful irony if these assumptions are changed just as a new global economic crisis creates yet another set of realities.

Right now, it is far too early to say that the end is nigh.

Sure, we have seen Asian ethylene margins take a hammering over the last couple of weeks – but all that seems to have happened is that they have gone from obscenely good to still pretty good in historic terms.

The correction was always going to take place as the full impact of Shell Chemicals in Singapore switching from a major net buyer to a net seller of ethylene was felt by a thinly-traded spot market.

The fall in oil, polyethylene (PE) and mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) prices on the escalation of the euro crisis for the week ending 21 May were obvious other factors.

Last Friday (28 May), ICIS pricing reported no further reductions in PE values, whereas ethylene had tumbled a further $160/tonne to $980-1020/tonne FOB Korea.

But the decline in ethylene came before the end-of-the-week rebound in crude to around $75/bbl.

This reaffirmed that the weakness in petrochemicals pricing is all about the euro crisis, China’s economy, geopolitical tensions in Korea and their impact on confidence across many economies and industries.

To get back the original point of this article, just why therefore have the doom-mongers been proved wrong – and why do the optimists believe that this will continue to be the case?

“I think it could be because petrochemicals demand-growth in the four biggest emerging economies in Asia – China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam – is much-higher than many of us had expected,” said a former doom-merchant.

“I think we need to go back and re-examine our assumptions and re-crunch our data. Maybe, for example, we are no longer looking at growth multiples of 1.2 times GDP (gross domestic product); perhaps they should be more like 1.5 times.”

The other big factor we’ve well-documented on this blog is delays in project start-ups.

These look set to continue because of a myriad of issues including manpower, technologies and the use of inferior equipment when building costs were at their peak.

The iron operating-rate discipline of Western producers also looks likely to persist.

Highly-nervous shareholders will accept nothing less and for private equity companies such as LyondellBasell and Ineos, cash-flow remains King.

My London-based colleague Nigel Davis, editor of the Insight section of ICIS news, reports that inventory management in Europe remains exceptionally rigid down all the value chains.

“European crackers are running at an average operating rate of around 80%”, added a source with a North American PE producer.

So if the euro crisis does escalate, resulting in damage to strong Asian economic fundamentals and the moderate improvement in the US, production is likely to be cut even further. This might be enough to bring markets back into balance, provided this new economic crisis isn’t worse than the last one.

And if the oil price was to fall to the low $60s/bbl and stay there, a further output cut by OPEC is likely to happen in attempt to get the crude price back up to the target range of $70-80/bbl.

This would mean even less associated gas for Saudi Arabia’s crackers. They are already operating at below 100% because of feedstock supply reductions resulting from the current OPEC production quotas. 

A further factor behind strong margins has been the steep drop in ethane-gas prices in the US thanks to the rise in overall gas supply.

We all knew that butadiene, and C4s in general, would become tight because most of the new cracking capacity is gas-based. What nobody had predicted was the big switch to lighter feeds in the US by existing cracker operators.

So anybody operating a liquids cracker with butadiene extraction is enjoying excellent returns.

As we said, it is still very possible that we will get through this current crisis intact with margins remaining very strong.

And with so little new capacity planned for post-2011, what are the odds against another fly-up sooner than is expected by the pessimists?