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Déjà vu all over again in petchem markets

Economic growth
By Paul Hodges on 20-Feb-2012

D'turn 17Feb12.pngThis time last year, the petchem industry stood on the edge of an unseen precipice. Life seemed good. Prices were racing ahead and demand appeared buoyant. But in reality the buyers were only buying forward to protect margins, whilst end-user demand was slowing fast.

This year, the blog fears, we may be about to take one step forward.

As last year, the evidence comes from ICIS market reports. The highly experienced Linda Naylor last week reported buyers commenting as follows in European polyethylene and polypropylene markets:

“‘We expect an increase for ethylene in March, so we are buying our full contracted volumes in February, and also in January, even though our demand is poorer than we expected. That way, we won’t have to buy so much in March.”

“‘Our demand is below what we expected but we are taking our full contracted volumes to be able to have a buffer next month.”

Similar warning signs are reported by Becky Zhang in China’s ethylene glycol markets, and Helen Yan in Asian butadiene:

“‘The market is full of offers and this [has worsened the] bearish sentiment’, a major regional trader said. China’s port inventory reached a historic high of over 750KT, with increased import volumes arriving from all over the world. This is almost exceeding China’s maximum storage capacity of around 800KT.”

“‘BD prices are higher than BR and this is not sustainable,’ another synthetic rubber producer said.”

The chart shows how prices for the benchmark products have seen 3 major rallies since 2009. These followed the 3 major stimulus packages.

Today’s rally began with Q4’s US Federal Reserve’s $400bn Operation Twist programme. It is clearly much weaker than those which followed the March 2009 and August 2010 quantitative easing programmes.

Product price changes since the 29 April peak, with ICIS pricing comments, are below:

HDPE USA export (purple), down 11%. “Offers for re-exports from China were heard at lower prices than offers from the US Gulf”
PTA China (red), down 11%. “The current supply and demand balance as well as volatile external markets did not support a solid upturn”
Naphtha Europe (brown dash), down 7%. “Vitol continued its naphtha buying spree, taking 5 cargoes after it bought eight cargoes last week”
Brent crude oil (blue dash), down 5%
Benzene NWE (green), down 4%. “Continued buoyancy on crude and energy numbers counterbalanced by lower demand.”
S&P 500 Index (pink dot), no change