turn sign.jpg2010 should be a better year for the chemical industry, as demand grows in line with a recovery in global GDP.

But a quick V-shaped return to the 2003-7 Boom years in terms of volumes/margins seems unlikely.

Governments will worry about budget deficits, and may well scale down support for critical end-uses such as autos and housing. Equally, major amounts of new capacity, planned during the Boom years, will start to come onstream in the Middle East and Asia.

In effect, therefore, 2010 will be a year of transition to a ‘new normal’. The blog expects global GDP growth rates to average around 2.5%- 3% for the next few years, the 1980-2000 average. This will be a significant reduction from the 3.5%-4% levels seen in the Boom years.

The rationale for this change is that we will start to see a rebalancing of the global economy. The West will see lower consumption, as people rebuild their savings, and borrow less. In turn, this will mean lower export demand for the emerging economies. The outcome will be a more sustainable world economy, but it will be a difficult journey.

Growth Forecasts. Most chemical markets are mature, and growth rates are therefore tied to GDP. The blog would therefore suggest that companies review their forecast growth rates for individual businesses in the light of their expectations for global GDP growth. One of the problems of the Boom years was that arbitrary growth rates (often of 5% or more), were assumed for many products. This also led to a perception that major amounts of new capacity were needed to meet this assumed demand. A more realistic view of demand would highlight potential problems of over-capacity, and perhaps encourage companies and governments to address the problems this will bring.

Demand. On a global basis, chemical output is now back at 2006 levels, having lost 3 years of growth. If GDP now grows as the blog expects, then demand from key sectors such as construction/housing, autos and electronics should improve next year. But the impact of government stimulus measures will make for a bumpy ride. The end of specific measures will cause major falls in perceived demand, whilst new stimuli will create short-term upward fluctuations. Excellent supply chain management will therefore be required, and Boards will need to keep a very careful eye on underlying trends.

Protectionism. Unemployment is set to become a key political issue in the West, as economies adjust to the ‘new normal’. Hopefully, it should peak in 2010, but is unlikely to quickly return to previous levels. Arguments about the ‘export of jobs’ will therefore increase, and lead to a rise in anti-dumping activity. In turn this will cause job losses in emerging economies. Chemical companies will need to keep a close eye on the political arena, as they operate in a complex value chain, and may not otherwise appreciate the potential impact of a development in a key supplying or consuming industry.

Credit issues. A recovery in demand puts great strains on cash-flow, and many companies go bankrupt as a result. This could be a particular problem in the current recovery, given the underlying fragility of large parts of the banking system. CFOs will need to institute robust monitoring mechanisms, and be prepared to keep customers on ‘cash before delivery’ terms if they have grounds for concern. New customers represent a particular risk, if their credit history is weak, even though their promised volume may be attractive.

Oil prices. These are likely to remain volatile in 2010, as speculative price movements linked to traders’ bets on the US$’s value will continue. Neither $100/bbl, nor a return to $40/bbl, would be a great surprise on a day-to-day basis. But underlying supply/demand balances may well remain weak in 2010, in spite of the expected economic recovery. Thus we might see prices coming under more pressure during 2010. $50/bbl might be an average price, in the absence of major geo-political events.

Overall, the blog expects 2010 to be a transition year. Full economic recovery is unlikely to take place much before the 2011/13 timeframe. But the return of economic growth will offer companies the opportunity to identify likely future market needs. Those that focus on this new reality, rather than simply hoping for a quick return to the Boom years, will position themselves for future success.

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