The consensus viewpoint is an easy way of keeping up to speed on a variety of issues outside one’s daily experience. But the signs are that the consensus may be leading to complacency, when it comes to the assumptions being used to finalise 2008 budgets. There are a number of areas where some new thinking is required:

• Oil prices. Many companies are already having to revise up their budget assumptions, now that crude is approaching $100/bbl.
• Housing markets. It was said that US prices would never fall on a national basis. But they have, and other key markets (UK, Spain, France) look weak.
• Inflation. After 10 years of Great Stability, central banks were widely believed to have inflation under control. This looks increasingly unlikely today.
• US $. This was supposed to stabilise or strengthen, but is now declining quite rapidly against the Yen (109 as I write), and the euro (0.67).
Leverage. This was thought to be ‘a good thing’, forcing managers to ‘make assets sweat’. But it also makes it easy for companies to go bust in a downturn.

The current consensus may still be right, that 2008 will be a relatively good year for the industry. But core areas for chemical demand such as US housing and autos are already looking quite difficult. Financial markets are also growing more nervous. And when things go wrong, the decline is often quite sudden, leaving little time to think.

Time spent now on preparing contingency plans, in case there is a downturn, may well prove a good investment.

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