Growing Uncertainties Cloud Chemicals Outlook

By John Richardson

THE global growth outlook grows ever murkier as a result of credit tightening in China (or is the problem instead continued strong growth in lending?), inflation problems throughout Asia, possible monetary tightening in the West, the direction of oil prices and the Japanese tsunami-earthquake.

We feel that this is making the rest of 2011 and next year perilously hard to forecast.

What follows is a brief summary of these key challenges, which we will examine in more details over the coming days and weeks.

As always we are working closely with fellow blogger Paul Hodges in an attempt to provide valuable support to chemical industry planners.

We don’t want to get above ourselves here – this particular blog is run by journalists. But we hope that what follows helps you to challenge any blithe comments you come across about guaranteed continued strong expansion of the world’s economy.

Here goes:

1.) We have picked up anecdotal reports from polyolefin traders and producers that credit tightening in China is making it harder for small -and medium-sized businesses, including the plastic converters, to access working capital. But does China’s shadow banking system mean that, in fact, credit continues to expand? How does one then explain what appears to be flat polyolefins demand in China right now? Is this just a temporary lull due to overstocking? If Beijing cannot control credit growth, and thereby inflation, what does this mean for the battle against inflation and the long-term health of the economy? If property values continue to increase because of easy lending what will this mean for social stability and the struggle to create a more equitable society?

2.) Inflation, mainly driven by higher wages and oil and food prices, is a problem across Asia. Central banks are being criticised for being too slow to lift interest rates and allow currencies to appreciate. A repeat of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis seems unlikely because of big foreign currency reserves. But Richard Martin, the managing director of strategic consultancy IMA Asia, was recently quoted in this article in the Australian Financial Review as saying: “Everything you buy is increasing 20 per cent year-on-year – labour, materials. Margins are down. In the second quarter companies will need to lift prices that will lead to a significant shift to inflation. The pace will step up each quarter to 2012. At that point inflation pressures within the production system will be strong enough for central banks to lift rates for a mid-cycle slowdown.” His comment on weaker margins is interesting and could well be one of the reasons why Asian cracker operators are struggling compared with their western competitors

3.) Inflation in the West is also an issue, though more muted than in Asia. The Fed may decide on no further major boost to liquidity – i.e. it will complete QE2 but there will be no QE3. There are also indications that US interest rates could be increased by the end of the year. The European Central Bank is talking about rate rises while maintaining funding support for banks. Austerity programmes across Europe represent another danger to growth

4.) Once there are definite indications that there will be no QE3 this will likely result in some unwinding of the oil price, provided problems in the Middle East do not escalate. Speculators have indulged in a one-way bet on the Fed maintaining exceptionally high levels of liquidity. This has helped drive the oil price up and the dollar down. The reverse could now occur. What should this danger mean for chemical company raw-material purchasing strategies?

5.) Paul Hodges’ excellent posts on the effects of the Japanese tsunami-earthquake are well worth reading. We would add that in the short term rolling electricity blackouts, as a result of the nuclear crisis, will continue to disrupt chemicals and downstream production for the next few month. New suppliers may, as a result, be sought for some of the chemicals that Japan makes for high-end goods such as printed circuit boards. An estimated 70% of one particular grade of epoxy resins for all the world’s circuit boards is made in Japan, for example, with around 90% of Japanese production reported to be down two weeks ago. It might not be, of course, that easy to replace highly specialised chemicals technology at such short notice, leading to economic problems that will linger and continue to spread beyond Japan. This could mean further disruption for the rest of this year, for instance, in auto production in the US and final assembly of electronic goods in China. In the longer term, will procurement managers seek to move away from such a heavy reliance on one Japanese supplier because of the risk, however statistically remote, of another major earthquake in the next 5-10 years?

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