It helps to have the right partner

By Malini Hariharan

And Sumitomo Chemical has discovered this.

The company recently said that PetroRabigh, its joint venture with Saudi Aramco in Saudi Arabia, has managed to secure fresh ethane allocation of 30m scf of ethane for a second phase of projects.

Ethane is running short in Saudi Arabia and getting an allocation, even a small one, is an achievement. But the second phase will need to use naphtha – about 3m tonnes. This will come from PetroRabigh’s phase one which includes a refinery.

For phase one PetroRabigh had received an allocation of 95m scf of ethane sufficient to support a 1.25m tonnes/year cracker.

Details about the second phase are still sketchy. A feasibility study is due to be completed in the third quarter of this year and if viability is confirmed the projects will start up in Q3 2014, says Sumitomo

Pic source: PetroRabigh

The products being studied include ethylene propylene rubber, thermo plastic olefin, methyl methacrylate monomer (MMA) and poly methacrylate (PMMA), low-density polyethylene (ldPE), ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), caprolactam, polyols, cumene, phenol, acetone, acrylic acid (AA), superabsorbent polymer and nylon 6.

But PetroRabigh phase two does not figure in Sumitomo’s three-year plan, unveiled recently, as the plan runs only till fiscal 2012.

The plan does not have any surprises in terms of company strategy but Sumitomo has set some very tall sales and profit targets which might be difficult to achieve.

Despite an uncertain global economic outlook the company has set a sales target of Yen2,400bn and operating income of Yen190bn in fiscal 2012. This would mean a return of equity of 20%, up from the 1.8% projected for 2009-10.

“The numbers are too aggressive. Sumitomo has large exposure to cyclical businesses such as petrochemicals and information technology (IT); it will be quite difficult to achieve [the targets] if the recent price trend continues. The price assumptions for ethylene and polyethylene are very optimistic. A recovery in domestic petrochemicals is a dream story,” says a Tokyo-based analyst.

To achieve its overall targets Sumitomo has said that it will quickly maximize profits and cash flows from major investments including its PetroRabigh cracker and derivatives joint venture with Saudi Aramco.

In petrochemicals, the company’s policy is to ensure sustained profitability by establishing global operations. To achieve this Sumitomo plans to establish a worldwide marketing operation built on globally standardized products.

Profitability of operations in Japan would be strengthened, says the company without giving specific details on how this will be achieved.

“The issue of [improving] petrochemical competitiveness in Japan has been discussed for a decade; many people are sick of the discussion. The product mix is important. There should be more high performance chemical products. Sumitomo and Mitsui Chemicals have to change its business structure and not rely on ethylene derivatives,” says a second analyst.

Sumitomo too is thinking along the same lines.

“We will increase the proportion of value-added petrochemical products we produce domestically from the current 70-80%,” says a company spokesman. All options are being explored including new technologies and feedstocks and alliances.

A recent example of activity in this area is the new 150,000 tonnes/year propylene demonstration facility, a 50:25:25 joint venture by Idemitsu Kosan, Sumitmo and Mitsui.

Each company will contribute C4 fractions to the new unit and offtake propylene in proportion to their investment.

Sumitomo is unwilling to give details on what it plans to do with the extra propylene and would only say that it would be used for downstream production.

These and other initiatives are expected to help Sumitomo achieve petrochemical sales of Yen785bn and operating profit of Yen30bn in fiscal 2012, up from forecasted sales of Yen500bn and an operating loss of Yen9bn in the current financial year.

But the share of petrochemicals and basic chemicals in total sales is projected to shrink in the future from 43% in 2009-10 to 30% in fiscal 2020 as Sumitomo’s priority is to achieve a balanced business portfolio.

Pharmaceutical and agrochemicals would contribute about 30% of total sales in 2020 almost unchanged from the current level, while the share of information and communications technology (ICT), battery and fine chemicals portfolio would expand to 30%, up from 21%.

Investments will be made to ensure this balance. The petrochemicals and basic chemicals segment would draw only about 20% of the company’s investment dollars through 2020 while the other two segments would each draw 40%.

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