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US exports to China fall, as cost advantage grows

Chemical companies
By Paul Hodges on 15-Feb-2012

China PE imports Feb12.pngUS petchem producers are planning a major boost to ethylene capacity. They now have the 2nd cheapest feedstock in the world, due to ethane from shale gas. The only question is, where will they sell their product?

Ethylene, of course, is very expensive to export. So derivatives such as polyethylene (PE) are the main way to tap export markets. Today, using trade data from Global Trade Information Services, the blog looks at the outlook for PE in the US’s largest export market, China.

China should present a wonderful opportunity. Market growth has slowed to normal rates following the end of stimulus programmes. But its production is largely based on crude oil, and so is far more expensive than NAFTA’s. Yet, as the chart shows:

• China’s net imports from NAFTA fell 53% between 2009-11
• This was despite a major increase in their cost advantage
• The USA saw its net exports fall 51%, from 947KT to just 461KT

The reason is that China does not focus on profitability as a major driver for business. Instead, it emphasises social and political factors:

Social. Sinopec continues to increase its own production, even though its total chemicals EBIT between 1998-10 was just Rmb84bn, compared to total chemicals capex of Rmb166bn. No Western company would invest on this basis. But Sinopec’s role is to act as an utility, providing reliable supplies of raw materials to China’s factories to keep people employed.
Political. China is, however, increasing its PE imports from the Middle East (up 69%) and SE Asia (24%). The ME and China operate a ‘strategic corridor’ which balances China’s need for energy imports with the ME’s need for markets. Whilst SEA has a free trade area with China.

The result is that producers in NAFTA, NE Asia and Europe have all seen a major decline in export volumes since 2009. In turn, of course, this has led to greater competition for the USA in other markets.

Tomorrow, the blog will analyse how has impacted US exports to Brazil, currently the world’s fastest-growing major market for PE.