Chemical industry data shows reflation remains hope, not reality

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ACC Jul17Western central bankers are convinced reflation and economic growth are finally underway as a result of their $14tn stimulus programmes.  But the best leading indicator for the global economy – capacity utilisation (CU%) in the global chemical industry – is saying they are wrong.  The CU% has an 88% correlation with actual GDP growth, far better than any IMF or central bank forecast.

The chart shows June data from the American Chemistry Council, and confirms the CU% remains stuck at the 80% level, well below the 91% average between 1987 – 2008, and below the 82% average since then.  This is particularly concerning as H1 is seasonally the strongest part of the year – July/August are typically weak due to the holiday season, and then December is slow as firms de-stock before Christmas.

FMs Jul17

The interesting issue is why these historically low CU% have effectively been ignored by companies and investors. They are still pouring money into new capacity for which there is effectively no market – one example being the 4.5 million tonnes of new N American polyethylene capacity due online this year, as I discussed in March.

The reason is likely shown in the above chart of force majeures (FMs) – incidents when plants go suddenly offline, creating temporary shortages.  These are at record levels, with H1 2017 seeing 4x  the number of FMs in H1 2009.

In the past, most companies prided themselves on their operating record, having absorbed the message of the Quality movement that “there is no such thing as an accident”. Companies such as DuPont and ICI led the way in the 1980s with the introduction of Total Quality Management. They consciously put safety ahead of short-term profit and at the top of management agendas. As the Chartered Quality Institute notes:

“Total quality management is a management approach centred on quality, based on the participation of an organisation’s people and aiming at long-term success.”

  Today, however, the pressure for short-term financial success has become intense
  The average “investor” now only holds their shares for 8 months, according to World Bank data
 This time horizon is very different from that of the 1980s, when the average NYSE holding period was 33 months
  And it is a very long way from the 1960s average of 100 months

As a result, even some major companies appear to have changed their policy in this critical area, prioritising concepts such as “smart maintenance”. Such cutbacks in maintenance spend mean plants are more likely to break down, as managers take the risk of using equipment beyond its scheduled working life. Similarly, essential training is delayed, or reduced in length, to keep within a budget.

ICIS Insight editor Nigel Davies highlighted the key issue 2 years ago as the problems began to become more widespread around the world:

“The situation in Europe has exposed underlying trends and issues that will need to be addressed. Companies appear not to have sustained an adequate pace of maintenance capital expenditure. That has been for economic as well as structural (cost) reasons. Spending in high feedstock and energy cost Europe has certainly not been considered de rigeur….Having maintained plants to run at between 80% and 85% of capacity, suddenly pushing them hard does little good. Sometimes, they fail.”

The end-result has been to mask the growing problem of over-capacity, as plants fail to operate at their normal rates. This has supported profits in the short-term by making actual supply/demand balances far tighter than the nominal figures would suggest. But this trend cannot continue forever.

THE END OF CHINA’S STIMULUS WILL HIGHLIGHT TODAY’S EXCESS CAPACITY
Shadow Jul17The 3rd chart suggests its end is now fast approaching.  It shows developments in China’s shadow banking sector, which has been the real cause of the apparent “recovery” and reflation seen in recent months:

  Premier Li began a major stimulus programme a year ago, hoping to boost his Populist faction ahead of October’s 5-yearly National People’s Congress, which decides the new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)
  Populist Premier Wen did the same in 2011-2 – shadow lending rose six-fold to average $174bn/month
  But Wen’s tactic backfired and President Xi’s Princeling faction  won a majority in the 7-man PSC, although the Populist Li still had responsibility for the economy as Premier
  Li’s efforts have similarly run into the sand

As the 3-month average confirms (red line), Li’s stimulus programme saw shadow lending leap to $150bn/month. Unsurprisingly, as in 2011-2, commodity and asset prices rocketed around the world,funding ever-more speculative investments.  But in February, Xi effectively took control of the economy from Li and put his foot on the brakes.  Lending is already down to $25bn/month and may well go negative in H2, with Xi highlighting last week that:

“China’s development is standing at a new historical starting point, and … entered a new development stage”.

“Follow the money” is always a good option if one wants to survive the business cycle.  We can all hope that the IMF and other cheerleaders for the economy are finally about to be proved right.  But the CU% data suggests there is no hard evidence for their optimism.

There is also little reason to doubt Xi’s determination to finally start getting China’s vast debts under control, by cutting back on the wasteful stimulus policies of the Populists.  With China’s debt/GDP now over 300%, and the prospect of a US trade war looming, Xi simply has to act now – or risk financial meltdown during his second term of office.

Prudent investors are already planning for a difficult H2 and 2018.  Companies who have cut back on maintenance now need to quickly reverse course, before the potential collapse in profits makes this difficult to afford.

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