US ethylene prices near all-time lows as over-capacity arrives

Chemical companies

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US ethylene spot prices are tumbling as the major new shale gas expansions come on line, as the chart based on ICIS pricing data confirms:

  • They began the year at $617/t, but have since more than halved to $270/t on Friday
  • They are only around 10% higher than their all-time low of $240/t in September 1998
  • WTI crude oil was then $15/bbl and ethane was $0.15c/gal
  • On Friday, WTI closed at $70.5/bbl and ethane was $0.25c/gal

The collapse in margin has been sudden, but is hardly unexpected.  It is, of course, true that downstream polyethylene plants associated with the crackers were delayed by the hurricanes.  So ethylene prices may recover a little once they come online.  But unfortunately, that is likely to simply transfer the problem downstream to the polymer markets.

The issue is shown in the second chart, based on Trade Data Monitor data:

  • It shows annual US net exports of polyethylene since 2006
  • They peaked in 2009 at 2.6 million tonnes as China’s stimulus programme began
  • China’s import demand doubled that year to 1 million tonnes, but then fell back again
  • Net exports have actually fallen since 2016 to 1.9 million tonnes last year

The problem, of course, was that companies and investors were fooled by the central bank stimulus programmes.  They told everyone that demographics didn’t matter, and that they could always create demand via a mix of money-printing and tax cuts.  But this was all wishful thinking, as we described here in the major 2016 Study, ‘Demand – the New Direction for Profit‘, and in articles dating back to March 2014.

Unfortunately, the problems have multiplied since then.  President Trump’s seeming desire to launch a trade war with China has led to the threat of retaliation via a 25% tariff on US PE imports.  And growing global concern over the damage caused by waste plastics means that recycled plastic is likely to become the growth feedstock for the future.

In addition, of course, today’s high oil price is almost certainly now causing demand destruction down the value chains – just as it has always done before at current price levels.  People only have so much money to spend.  If gasoline and heating costs rise, they have less to spend on the more discretionary items that drive polymer demand.

COMPANIES HAVE TO REPOSITION FAST TO BECOME WINNERS IN THIS NEW LANDSCAPE As I suggested with the above slide at last month’s ICIS World Polymers Conference, today’s growing over-capacity and political uncertainty will create Winners and Losers:

  • Ethylene consumers are already gaining from today’s lower prices
  • Middle East producers will gain at the US’s expense due to their close links with China
  • Chinese producers will also do well due to the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI)

As John Richardson has discussed, China is in the middle of major new investment which will likely make it a net exporter of many polymers within a few years.  And it has a ready market for these exports via the BRI, which has the potential to become the largest free trade area in the world.  As a senior Chinese official confirmed to me recently:

“China’s aim in the C2/C3 value chains is to run a balanced to long position. And where China has a long position, the aim will be to export from the West along the Belt & Road links to converters / intermediate processors.”

The Losers will likely be the non-integrated producers who cannot roll-through margins from the well-head or refinery.  They need to quickly find a new basis for competition.

Luckily for them, one does exist – namely the opportunity to develop a more service-led business model and work with the brand owners by switching to use recycled plastics as a feedstock.  As I noted in March:

Producers and consumers who want to embrace a more service-based business model therefore have a great opportunity to take a lead in creating the necessary infrastructure, in conjunction with regulators and the brand owners who actually sell the product to the end-consumer.”

Time, however, is not on their side.  As US ethylene prices confirm, the market is already reacting to the reality of over-capacity.  H2 will likely be difficult under almost any circumstances.

The industry made excellent profits in recent years.  It is now time for forward thinking producers – integrated and non-integrated – to reinvest these, and quickly reinvent the business to build new revenue and profit streams for the future.

 

Given these developments, I am raising the likelihood of a C2/PE price war by the end of 2018 to 85%

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