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There Is No Going Back

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By John Richardson on 02-Sep-2011

By John Richardson

“IF we build polymer capacity in India the demand will come,” a very senior industry executive told the blog last year. He amplified this statement by explaining that greater availability of plastics would always stimulate strong demand growth for low-end packaging materials etc in emerging markets in general, as the poor became a little less poor.

Back in May 2010, when he made this statement, India, China and other developing countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam were enjoying soar-away growth. “Decoupling” from troubled Western economies was once again in fashion.

Confidence was high at last May’s Asia Petrochemical Industry Conference (APIC) in Mumbai as many of the delegates talked about tight markets by 2014-15.

The search for new locations for new capacity was already on to serve this voracious emerging-market growth, given that Middle East ethane supply is so severely constrained.

The momentum continued into late 2010 as JP Morgan published its famous SuperCycle theory, claiming that it didn’t matter what happened in the US and other Western markets. Incremental polyethylene (PE) demand growth would be so strong in China that a decline in US consumption wouldn’t even matter on a global basis, the bank claimed.

Investors in commodities and equities etc quite often have very short-term perspectives and so don’t really care whether theories, such as the one above, turn out to be true over a period of years. All that matters to these investors is that enough people believe a particular idea over a millisecond (in the case of the high-frequency traders), an hour, a day, a week, a month or a quarter.

But it is the job of senior chemicals industry planners to see through all of this.

Right up until this May’s APIC, in Fukuoka, Japan, there was still talk of a peak in the cycle by 2014-15 and the need for lots of new polymer and other plants.

Denial continues in some quarters.

“Even though chemical and industrial stocks have been hammered, 2012 profit estimates still show 20%+ gains across the board for the group. Even second half 2011 estimates show double-digit earnings growth,” said an industry observer yesterday.

Emerging markets cannot by themselves provide enough momentum to save the world from a new recession – and quite likely a new Great Depression.

As we highlighted on Wednesday, China faces a debt crisis that could destabilise its financial system and across the developing world, inflation threatens growth.

And as we also point out in Chapter 4 of our e-book, Boom Gloom and the New Normal, what it means to be “middle class” in China and India is radically different from the West.

Low-end packaging sales might benefit from the poor becoming slightly less poor in India and China and other emerging markets.

But average income levels are way below those in the West, meaning that “decoupling’ was always a fallacy for manufacturers of mid-range and high-end consumer goods. It will take several decades for emerging-market average earnings to catch up with those in the US and Europe.

Even the alleviation of rural poverty is now under threat, putting into question the argument made by the senior executive we quoted at the beginning of this post – that if polymer capacity is built in countries such as India, demand will come.

The latest issue of the World Bank’s Food Price Watch shows that global food prices in July were 33% higher than a year earlier.

Maize was up by 84%, wheat by 50% and live hog prices in China were 50% higher.

In India, the wholesale prices of rice and wheat were 9% higher in the first week of August from the same period last year, says the Australian Financial Review.

Food-price inflation is also a problem in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

In 2008, during the last big run-up in global food prices, the World Bank estimated that 105 million people were pushed into its definition of extreme poverty. A further 44 million people are now faced with being pushed into extreme poverty, it adds.

Fundamentals are thought to be mainly the cause of this latest rally in food prices, as opposed to the speculators who were blamed for what happened in 2008.

The fundamentals include poor harvests caused by bad weather – and changing diets in the developing world as the relatively small but super-rich upper-classes eat a lot more meat. This is taking land away from cereal production for food, as is the rise in the use of biofuels.

A further problem is that the supply of arable land in China has been reduced due to the surge in real-estate construction since 2008, enabled by the country’s huge economic stimulus package.

In the longer-term, how does the world properly feed itself when you also take into account water shortages and climate change, if you believe that climate change is real?

Later chapters in the book will look at megatrends such as food and water. We will discuss the opportunities, as well as the challenges, that these megatrends represent for chemicals companies.

All the problems we now face are highly complex, global in nature and constantly evolving -and so this is very much work in constant and difficult progress.

But what is already crystal clear is that there is no going back to the old approach of simply building a plant on the assumption that demand will inevitably expand to consume its capacity.