China is well worth watching at the moment. Quietly, away from the headlines, the Shanghai stock exchange has been collapsing. It is now down 44% since its October peak, and fell over 5% on Wednesday.

This matters to the chemical industry for two reasons:

• The immediate cause of Wednesday’s fall was news that Sinopec and PetroChina lost money in January and February. Their shares fell over 8% as a result. This shows the level of ‘subsidy’ now being offered to Chinese consumers following the government’s decision to freeze oil product prices in January. It turn, this subsidy delays any rebalancing of demand (as I noted on Wednesday), putting more pressure on western consumers.

• The collapse itself indicates that the Chinese ‘growth story’ may be about to take a break. The government has been raising interest rates very steadily, because of worries about ‘over-heating’ in the economy, and rising inflation. The stock market is forecasting that these measures will work, and that we may well see a major slowdown after the Olympics. This would be extremely serious as China was the powerhouse behind the recent boom in global chemical demand.

Of course, stock market collapses do not always lead to economic downturns. But they are often linked. The establishment of contingency plans for dealing with a global slowdown is fast becoming an urgent priority for chemical industry managements.

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