China Capacity Closures? Stop Whistling In The Dark

Business, China, Company Strategy, Economics, Middle East, Olefins, Polyolefins, US


By John Richardson

Measured in US dollars, the price of US imports from China has risen just by 4% over the last ten years, but measured in Yuan, it has actually fallen by no less than 20% (see our above chart).

What does this tell us? It tells us that:

  • China, following its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, did what it had to do to create hundreds of millions of jobs for all its migrant workers.
  • This meant that profitability was of far less importance than volume. The key was to seize market share in export markets in order to create these jobs.
  • And then the priority was to maintain, and wherever possible add to, these jobs.
  •  It really didn’t matter, in this context, if Sinopec was losing money or if a plastics factory wasn’t even covering its variable costs.

The headline priority – maintaining employment for the sake of social stability – hasn’t changed. How could any set of leaders stay in power in China if employment wasn’t guaranteed? The very legitimacy of the Communist Party would also be challenged if mass unemployment happened.

China must, therefore, maintain unemployment, whilst pressing ahead with the boldest, most risky programme of domestic economic reforms for at least the last 20 years.

How will it achieve this incredibly difficult balancing act? By exporting the huge manufacturing surpluses that have been left over from its old, failed economic growth model. This is one of the biggest single reasons why we need to prepare for a prolonged period of global deflation.

The data already tells us that China is pursuing this course. For example:

•  China imported 6.5m tonnes of  purified terepthhalic acid (PTA) as recently as 2011, but this had fallen to just 2.76m tonnes in 2013.

• In January–September 2014, import volumes more than halved to less than 1m tonnes compared with the same period last year.

• China has also begun exporting PTA for the first time in its history, with 340,000 tonnes sent overseas in the year to September.

•  If these trends were to continue, China would end up as a net PTA exporter by around this time next year.

A lot of people might say, “not to worry, this is just a temporary imbalance in PTA markets and reflects the mistake that China has made in building too much capacity too soon. In other petrochemicals they remain in deficit.”

But this entirely misses the point. Here is how events could play out in polyolefins – one of the industry segments where China is in big deficit:

  • It decides not to become self-sufficient, or almost self-sufficient, by adding lots of capacity via the coal-to-olefins (CTO) route. The government instead thinks that there will be plenty of global supply to keep it happy over the next ten years or so.
  • China will then welcome all the low-cost imports from North America, and also the Middle East with open arms.
  • North America and the Middle East will at first be delighted because they will have no trouble in placing all their surplus volumes, as they hugely ramp-up capacity over the next decade.
  • But what will be the price of these exports? In dollars per tonne, very cheap, I think, as China will remain the world’s most important export market and will, thus, retain the upper hand in all negotiations.
  • And there is another price that North American polyolefins producers would, in particular, have to pay in return for gaining more market share in Asia: The increased volumes of resin that they export will end up returning to their home markets in the form of finished plastic products. This will, of course, damage sales in the big local North American polyolefins market.
  • China will be happy, though, because it will have obtained lots of cheap raw materials that will help keep millions of people in work in plastics processing plants.

Alternatively, of course, China might decide that global polyolefins balances will not be in its favour unless it presses ahead with lots of CTO investments. In the end, though, how China gets there is academic, as the outcome will be the same for the global industry.

No criticism whatsoever of China is intended here, by the way. I think its leaders are absolutely right to follow this set of priorities. And I also think that, as the New Normal develops, more and more countries will start doing the same thing. Trade policies, industrial policies and economic policies in general are set to become much more regional.

But to return to our main point: Anyone who thinks that China will rationalise petrochemicals and other industrial capacity, based on a Western definition of economics, is whistling in the dark. 


Coming To Terms With Global Deflation


By John Richardson YOU used to be able to take, say, a World Bank report on GDP ...

Learn more

European Petrochemicals: Making Money Despite Deflation


By John Richardson THE European petrochemicals industry has done staggeringly we...

Learn more
More posts
Polyethylene producers must avoid repeating the mistakes of Q1

By John Richardson AFTER a very challenging first quarter, nobody wants to make further write-downs ...

China’s PP production growth could lead to big declines in 2020 imports

By John Richardson PLEASE DON’T say I didn’t warn you. China is rapidly moving towards polypropy...

Coronavirus, impact on the developing world and the scale of demand losses

By John Richardson ALL OF us are struggling to come to terms with a collapse in the global economy t...

Coronavirus, reshoring and the polyester industry: Good luck with that

By John Richardson POLITICIANS, not just including the Populist variety, are talking a lot about res...

Beware of the fragile nature of the oil and petrochemical price recovery

By John Richardson RECENT rises in oil and petrochemicals prices should not in my view be taken as a...

China petrochemical inventories build on what could be false hopes of a V-shaped rebound

By John Richardson AS PETROCHEMICALS storage space in China fills up on the hope that the country ca...

Further polyethylene rate cuts seem inevitable with no certainty on who will blink first

By John Richardson IT IS NOT just a razor-like focus on petrochemicals demand that will get you thro...

What petrochemical companies must do to adapt to a smaller coronavirus economy

By John Richardson PETROCHEMICAL companies can adapt to the coronavirus New Normal by running their ...


Market Intelligence

ICIS provides market intelligence that help businesses in the energy, petrochemical and fertilizer industries.

Learn more


Across the globe, ICIS consultants provide detailed analysis and forecasting for the petrochemical, energy and fertilizer markets.

Learn more

Specialist Services

Find out more about how our specialist consulting services, events, conferences and training courses can help your teams.

Learn more

ICIS Insight

From our news service to our thought-leadership content, ICIS experts bring you the latest news and insight, when you need it.

Learn more