By John Richardson

SEVERAL contacts have said to me over the last two weeks that increased medical and food security demand for petrochemicals is a distraction from coming to terms with the huge collapse in demand for all of our products that go into the durable goods which people are no longer buying.

I agree entirely as I’ve been making this case for several weeks before it became accepted wisdom. The above chart illustrates the point well, using just polycarbonate as an example, the raw materials for which are phenol and further upstream propylene and benzene. As you can see, even assuming a strong rise in demand for protective sheets made from polycarbonate, the loss of autos demand will leave global demand much smaller over the next few years.

But some of these contacts have gone on to tell me that a return to normal consumer demand is only just around the corner, perhaps as little as a few months away as we get on top of the virus. Their worst-case scenario is that the recovery will happen sometime in 2021.

This is where I differ. I cannot see any return to normal patterns of consumer demand for several more years because the negative demand shock of the virus will I wory be at least as big as the Great Depression.

Even assuming the West can quickly get on top the crisis, we must consider the scale of the damage to the developing world. Also think of the loss of hundreds of millions of gig economy and service industry jobs. These job losses could weaken spending on non-essential items for several years to come.

Political dysfunction means we were not  adequately prepared for the pandemic, making its effects worse than would have been the case if we had better leaders.

I also see a debt crisis as likely. We didn’t learn anything from 2008. The cures for the Global Financial Crisis have instead created an even bigger debt hole than in the build-up to 2008 – something I have been warning about for several years.

Our spending behaviours will changeover the long term. For instance, a stronger sense of community could to a greater value being placed on experiences over owning things. Communities will naturally strengthen as always happens in times like this.  Less of us  may be willing to get on planes for leisure or business. Our employers may not allow us to do so as a result of new corporate risk policies.

In other words, I worry that there will be no return to the old consumer markets we were familiar with before the crisis. When it is all over, I believe we will need new ways of measuring the patterns of demand because the nature of demand will have undergone so many radical changes. This will require us to rethink what quantities of petrochemicals and polymers we make and what grades of polymers.

If you are a CEO of a petrochemicals company don’t think of meeting medical and food security needs as a temporary priority that will quickly disappear. Prepare for the long haul while of course hoping for a better outcome.

Petrochemical company C-suites need to work with governments to ensure that manufacturing value chains function properly, so we have enough medical equipment, hand sanitisers, protective screens, face masks and food and other packaging materials. This should be their main focus.

The reputational gains for our industry will be huge. People will understand the value of what we do much better by understanding what we actually do – for example, there will be hardly anyone left when this crisis is over who won’t know that modern food supply chains would collapse without plastic packaging. No longer will plastic packaging be only seen as a scourge of the environment.

Further, if the petrochemical companies work closely with governments, they will get the financial support they need to stay in business. Financial support won’t come without any strings attached. The strings will include retooling production to meet medical needs and ensuring that food supply chains remain intact.


Be very, very cautious about buying into the idea of a Q2 crude price rally


By John Richardson IT IS the unprecedented nature of the demand shock that’s t...

Learn more

After COVID-19: How US petrochemicals could become the laggard


The big oil, gas and petrochemicals companies have already started planning for ...

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