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SHIPPING: USG-Asia liquid chem tanker rates plunge on ample space availability after Beryl

HOUSTON (ICIS)–Liquid chemical tanker rates from the US Gulf to Asia are plunging this week as plant shutdowns and delays in the aftermath of Hurricane Beryl have led to “gaping large holes of space”, shipping brokers said on Wednesday. Hurricane Beryl made landfall in Texas on 8 July between Corpus Christi and Houston, which is a key region for US petrochemical production. Some plants took precautionary measures and shut down ahead of the storm, while others sustained damage or lost power or other utilities to their sites, leading to shutdowns and force majeures. A shipping broker said the outages and delays left shipowners without contract cargoes that are typically the base volumes for vessels. “As a result, there are gaping large holes of space available for prompt loading,” a broker said. The broker expects the trend to continue for the next week or two. A different broker said it is seeing part cargo space for the rest of this month and into August across MOL and Odfjell vessels. Rates have also softened this week along the USG-Brazil trade lane as some partial space has opened. Beryl has led to a “wait and see” sentiment for players on this trade lane, a broker said. PANAMA CANAL A broker said that Stolt has joined MOL and Odfjell in resuming transits through the Panama Canal. Restrictions have gradually eased at the canal after the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) began limiting transits in July of last year because of low water levels at the freshwater lake that feeds the locks because of an ongoing drought. Water levels have improved because of the onset of the rainy season and conservation efforts enacted by the PCA to better use the freshwater available to them. The PCA will limit transits on 3-4 August for planned maintenance at the Miraflores locks. Visit the ICIS Logistics – impact on chemicals and energy topic page. Visit the ICIS Hurricane Beryl topic page. Thumbnail image shows a container ship moving through the Panama Canal. Photo courtesy of the PCA.


Pressure on seventh CfD round to meet UK offshore wind target

UK government does not rule out increasing budget for offshore wind in next auction Capacity would need to average 16.60GW in the next two auctions to procure the capacity needed to reach revised 2030 target But only 10.6GW of offshore projects have the required development consent to enter the auction LONDON (ICIS)–The UK government has left the door open to a possible budget increase for offshore wind at an upcoming renewable capacity auction under the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, after it said it intends to quadruple installed capacity for the technology by 2030. But ICIS calculations show that, depending on the strike price, the budget would have to increase between 2.3-5.4 times in order to allow for a capacity award consistent with meeting the revised target. And even if it did, planning hurdles are set to prevent this, with the pressure shifting on subsequent auction rounds. The budget for offshore wind in the upcoming round is currently £800m and the maximum strike price has been set at £73/MWh. A spokesperson for the department for energy security and net zero told ICIS that applications for the sixth allocation round are currently being assessed. “The Secretary of State will then carefully consider whether to increase the budget,” they said. The government did not confirm an exact figure for the revised offshore wind target. To present an idea of how much quadrupling offshore wind capacity by 2030 would translate into, ICIS quadrupled its forecast for installed capacity by the end of 2024, resulting in 61.08GW by 2030. Actual intended capacity may vary. A trader said: “I suspect they will increase the budget; we have had people backing out of projects and these will be the people saying they need better returns so the budget will need to be higher for the amount of capacity the government wants.” CFD BUDGET ICIS Analytics calculated that, in the next two CfD rounds, capacity will need to average 16.60GW per auction to obtain the amount needed to reach the 2030 target. This is to allow construction time which is usually between six to eight years. ICIS calculated that, if the auction cleared at a strike price of £60/MWh, a budget of £800m will be able to finance 4.2GW of capacity. If the auction cleared at the maximum strike price of £73/MWh, the budget would only be able to fund 3GW. If the budget was increased to £1bn, 5.3GW of capacity could be obtained with a clearing price of £60/MWh. Similarly, if the auction cleared at the maximum strike price of £73/MWh, 3.9GW could be obtained. SHORTFALL While an increase in budget to £1bn would procure more offshore wind capacity, a larger budget is required to obtain the capacity needed to meet the 2030 target. ICIS Analytics calculated a budget of nearly £1.8bn is needed to obtain 16.60GW of capacity in the sixth auction if it cleared at the lowest price of £44.1/MWh. This was modelled as the lowest figure as it is just above the maximum clearing price of the fifth auction round, which was £44/MWh and was too low to attract bids , If the auction cleared at £60/MWh, which is a base case scenario, the budget would need to be nearly £3.2bn. Furthermore, if the auction cleared at the maximum strike price, a £4.3bn budget is required. However, according to ICIS analyst Robbie Jackson-Stroud, there are too few entrants to obtain 16.60GW for the auction, as only 10.6GW of offshore projects have the required development consent to proceed to auction. This therefore puts increasing pressure on the seventh auction round, due to be held in 2025, to obtain offshore wind capacity needed to meet the 2030 target. As things currently stand, ICIS analytics forecasts only 39GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 under a base case scenario, therefore falling short of the ambitious target. .


INSIGHT: Asia freight rates stay elevated on heavy congestion at key ports

SINGAPORE (ICIS)–Ocean container freight rates in Asia are expected to remain high in the near term amid persistent congestion at key ports in the region, particularly Singapore. Peak demand season, capacity issues continue to push up rates Singapore port wait times reduced, but challenges remain ASEAN Express offers faster rail alternative to sea freight The Drewry World Container Index (WCI) edged up 1% to $5,901 per forty-foot equivalent unit (FEU) for the week ending 11 July, with the rate of increase easing from a double-digit pace se in recent weeks. The Shanghai Containerized Freight Index (SCFI), which measures spot rates for shipping containers from Shanghai to major global ports, meanwhile, dipped 1% week on week to 3,674.86 points in the week ending 12 July. The convergence of seasonal peak demand and strained capacity as commercial vessels continued to avoid the Red Sea and Suez Canal, are expected to keep shipping costs firm in the near term for container routes globally, said Judah Levine, the head of research at online freight shipping marketplace and platform provider Freightos. According to supply chain advisors Drewry, ocean freight rates are expected to remain high until the end of the peak season, which typically falls between August to October each year. SINGAPORE CONGESTION EASING In Singapore, the world's second-largest port and the largest transshipment hub connecting Asia and the west, the average wait time to berth has been "reduced to two days or under", port operator PSA Singapore said in a statement on 10 July. This compares to waiting times up to seven days for a berth in the port of Singapore in late May this year, according to logistics data group Linerlytica. Singapore has experienced high berth demand and unscheduled vessel arrivals since the start of 2024, leading to increased waiting times despite utilizing all available berths, PSA said. PSA has since "significantly ramped up its capabilities to support increased activity and mitigate the impact of global supply chain disruptions since the beginning of 2024". However, the PSA warned that “the Red Sea crisis has significantly disrupted global shipping and trade and we anticipate this challenging situation to persist for a prolonged period, potentially extending port congestion from Asia to Europe”. For chemical tankers, shipping brokers have reported varying degrees of congestion and delays at Singapore ports. A broker involved in bio-chemicals and clean petroleum product (CPP) trades noted congestion at all terminals with delays of at least one week. A tanker carrying methyl acetate (MEAC) was facing a two-week delay in discharging cargoes at a key terminal in Jurong Island, another broker said. Jurong Island is Singapore’s petrochemical hub. A third broker indicated that delays in unloading and loading of cargoes at Singapore ports were generally measured in days rather than weeks. A Singapore-based acrylates producer was having difficulties securing vessel space, as shipping companies were bypassing the congested port. This congestion has also spilled over into Malaysia, impacting customers in both countries which are now experiencing delays of up to a week for July shipments. Overall port congestion levels in Malaysia have been reduced, but berthing delays remain at five days at Port Klang, while Tanjung Pelepas has limited delays, Linerlytica said in an update on 10 July. In India, heavy congestion is also reported at Colombo port, resulting in backlogs and delays, with adverse weather conditions around the Cape of Good Hope compounding the situation, causing further delays, according to global digital freight forwarder Zencargo in a note on 15 July. Vessels are increasingly navigating around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the heightened risks in the Red Sea and Suez Canal due to escalating Houthi attacks since November 2023, opting for a longer-but-safer route despite the added time and costs. "The market from the Indian subcontinent to Europe is experiencing significant disruptions," it said. "Carriers have stopped accepting bookings from South India for Europe due to heavy congestion in Colombo, causing a minimum delay of three weeks in transshipment. Carriers are only quoting on spot rates due to the tight space situation​." Historically, Colombo has handled a substantial portion of India’s containerized exports and imports due to insufficient direct line-haul connections from the country’s east coast ports, according to Zencargo. However, recent months have seen an unusual surge in volumes, exacerbated by vessel diversions linked to Red Sea shipping disruptions, with ships languishing for over five days before securing a berth, it said. In China, port delays have worsened in the week to 10 July after recent improvements due to bunching of vessel arrivals, with wait times of up to four days in Shanghai and up to two days in Ningbo, Linerlytica added. China is also set to continue grappling with rising container prices and leasing rates in July, according to Haoze Lou, a member of the broker team at online shipping container leasing firm Container xChange. Scarcity of available slots for China-Europe and China-US routes has intensified, prompting offline suppliers to offer competitive prices to attract customers, Lou said. "In June, we've observed a continued rise in container prices in China, impacting both trading and leasing activities," he said, adding that a rebound is expected over the next month as slot availability tightens again. CONTAINER RATES HINGES ON CONSUMER DEMAND The outlook for the container trading and leasing market in the second half of 2024 hinges on a revival in consumer demand but faces uncertainties due to geopolitical disruptions and potential labor unrest, according to Container xChange. Continued Houthi attacks threaten supply chains, while potential labor issues in US ports could further disrupt operations, it said. "However, if the current market conditions persist without major changes, we expect container rates to ease,” Container xChange noted. “This reduction in rates could trigger an uptick in container buyer activity, as the buyer side is currently waiting for prices to decline before resuming trading and leasing activities." RAIL OPTIONS OPEN UP FOR CHINA-SE ASIA ROUTE The successful inaugural trips of the ASEAN Express – a new cargo rail service connecting Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and China – highlight its potential as a faster and more efficient alternative to traditional ocean freight as it connects new trade routes and inland ports across Asia. This includes the Kontena Nasional Inland Clearance Depot in Selangor, Malaysia; Latkrabang Inland Port in Thailand; and the Thanaleng Dry Port in Laos, which connects to a railway terminal in Chongqing, southwest China. The first ASEAN Express cargo train successfully completed a round trip between Malaysia and China on 11 July, carrying electronic appliances and agricultural products, marking a milestone in regional trade connectivity which could boost trade of petrochemical end-products. The recently launched cargo rail service has been met with optimism by Asian recyclers, though immediate impact is expected to be limited. While the service directly benefits buyers and sellers in China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos, recyclers in Taiwan, Indonesia, and Vietnam anticipate primarily using ships, potentially freeing up shipping capacity and alleviating tightness in vessel and container space. This new service significantly reduces transit time compared to sea freight, taking just under 14 days compared with up to three weeks by sea. "This service will provide smoother and more efficient goods flow throughout the region as well as enhance rail cargo transport capacity while reducing logistics costs by an estimated 20% from current market rates," Malaysian transport minister Loke Siew Fook said in a speech at the flag-off ceremony for the new rail service on 27 June. "The shorter transport times are also expected to open up new markets, with the agricultural sector in particular to benefit by allowing perishable products to be transported more quickly by rail," he added. Insight article by Nurluqman Suratman Additional reporting by Hwee Hwee Tan, Corey Chew, Arianne Perez and Ai Teng Lim Thumbnail image: At the Keppel and Brani port terminals in Singapore, 15 June 2024 (By Joseph Nair/NurPhoto/Shutterstock)


PODCAST: China petrochemicals gets complicated

BARCELONA (ICIS)–Rampant overcapacity in China may change as limits to refinery expansions and new plants stifle feedstock availability. Big structural reforms needed to improve China’s economy China petrochemical trends become more complicated Country plans to cap refinery capacity at 1 billion tonnes/year from 2027-2040 China forging closer relations with Saudi Arabia Swift rise in China electric vehicles threatens petrochemical feedstocks Zero carbon rules limit future plant construction in China Europe needs to act fast to protect its industry In this Think Tank podcast, Will Beacham interviews ICIS Insight editor Nigel Davis, ICIS senior consultant Asia John Richardson and Paul Hodges, chairman of New Normal Consulting. Editor’s note: This podcast is an opinion piece. The views expressed are those of the presenter and interviewees, and do not necessarily represent those of ICIS. ICIS is organising regular updates to help the industry understand current market trends. Register here . Read the latest issue of ICIS Chemical Business. Read Paul Hodges and John Richardson's ICIS blogs.


INSIGHT: Colombia’s wide single-use plastics ban kicks off amid industry reluctance

MADRID (ICIS)–Colombia’s single-use plastic ban, which affects a wide range of products, kicks off amid some industry reluctance after a hurried implementation, and with provisions to revise the legislation after a one year trial period. The law that came into force on 7 July implemented a ban on eight plastics: carrier bags for packing supermarket purchases; bags for fruits and vegetables; plastic packing for magazines and newspapers; bags for storing clothes coming out of the laundry; plastic holders for balloons; cotton swabs; straws; and stirrers. The regulation establishes that those plastic products must be replaced by sustainable alternatives, such as biodegradable and compostable materials or recycled materials, or reusable non-plastic materials. It is a wide-ranging ban approved in parliament in 2022, although the plastics industry has criticized that details about the implementation of the law were only published at the end of June, barely two weeks before the kick-off date. Environmental groups have welcomed the measure, hoping more countries in Latin America will implement similar legislation in a region where plastics are omnipresent. MORE TO COMEApart from the eight plastic products banned from 7 July, the ban has set a transition period ranging from two to eight years, depending on the type of plastic, to allow merchants time to adapt to the new regulations. By 2030, plastics to be eliminated or transformed into reusable materials include containers, packaging, and bags for non pre-packaged liquids; disposable plates, trays, and cutlery; confetti, tablecloths, and streamers; containers, packaging, and bags for deliveries; sheets for serving or packaging foods for immediate consumption; wrappers for fruits and vegetables; stickers for fruits; handles for dental floss; and straws for containers of up to three liters. The law establishes exceptions for single-use plastics in certain cases, including exceptions for plastics used for medical purposes; packaging of biological or chemical waste; food products of animal origin; and those made with 100% recycled plastic raw material sourced from national post-consumer material. The regulation also mandates that public entities cannot acquire prohibited single-use plastics if sustainable alternatives are available, and these entities must implement reduction campaigns. Colombia’s National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA in its Spanish acronym) will oversee and enforce these measures. Among the measures included in the law, there is a request from distributors of plastic bags to submit reports on the rational use and recycling of bags in their inventory and must submit an Environmental Management Plan for packaging waste by 31 December. The law clearly will put an administrative burden on companies, not least distributors and the role they have been assigned as guardians of the law. In an interview with ICIS, the CEO of QuimicoPlasticos, a chemicals distributor in Colombia, said he thinks many aspects of the law will have to be reversed, not least points such as the nationally sourced recycled plastics as substitutes, given that recycling is in its infancy in the country and there will not be enough supply for years. QuimicoPlastics is a family-run distributor founded in 1982 and employs 80 people. It imports raw materials which distributes to the plastic packaging sectors (rigid and flexible) with end markets such agriculture, construction, food, and hygiene. The company was founded by the father of the current CEO, Federico Londoño, who has been on the post for 12 years. He has got low opinions about the law. “The law goes much further than a country like Colombia can afford. Moreover, globally and here in Colombia there are investments companies have made which are researching alternatives to, say, trays made of EPS [expandable polystyrene], but with laws like this the burden on companies grows and incentives for investment diminish,” said Londoño. It is a criticism shared across Latin America. In an interview with ICIS in June, the head of Chile’s plastics trade group Asipla also said parliamentarians push for sustainability was at times detached from the country’s reality. Before QuimicoPlasticos’ Londoño, the head of Colombia’s plastics trade group Acoplasticos also showed skepticism in an interview with ICIS about the law banning such wide range of single-use plastics. Before the law on single-use plastics, Colombia had already approved a tax on plastics production, which was marred with confusion in its initial stages of implementation. The moves around plastics have been welcome by environmental groups, some of them with the support of major consumer goods producers such as Washington-based Ocean Conservancy; in its website, it says some of its partners include Coca-Cola, Ikea, or Garnier, among many others. “With over 11 million tonnes of plastics entering the ocean each year, this law [banning single-use plastics] is a huge win for Colombia and the ocean,” said in a statement Edith Cecchini, director of international plastics at Ocean Conservancy. “Single-use plastic bags, straws, and stirrers are among the top ten most commonly found items polluting beaches and waterways worldwide by Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. Ocean Conservancy applauds Colombia for this important step to prevent plastic pollution and protect marine life, and we hope that other countries will follow suit.” EXPANDING PUBLIC SERVICESThe push for sustainability by the left-leaning cabinet presided over by Gustavo Petro goes hand in hand with plans to increase tax receipts to finance the expansion in the welfare state Petro campaigned for. The cabinet has been under pressure to put the public accounts in order after posting fiscal deficits for most of Petro’s term. In June, the government published its fiscal plan for the coming years, hoping to quell fears among investors. Most analysts argued that the cabinet’s plans are too optimistic. For instance, it forecasts crude oil prices at around $90/barrel on average for the coming years, as a big chunk of Colombia’s income comes from its state-owned oil major Ecopetrol. To reassure investors, Finance Minister Ricardo Bonilla announced spending cuts worth Colombian pesos (Ps) 20 trillion ($5.1 billion, equivalent to 1.2% of GDP) to meet the target set out by the new fiscal plan 2024. “Even so, there’s reason for concern. For one thing, the government made clear that there would be no cuts to social spending; instead, a lot of the adjustment (around one third) will come in the form of cuts to public investment,” said Capital Economics at the time. Manufacturing, meanwhile, has been in the doldrums for much of 2023 and 2024, except for a positive spell in the first quarter. According to QuimicoPlasticos’ CEO, the government’s economic policy is deterring investments and creating uncertainty. “The economy is not going well. Industrial companies are suffering a high degree of uncertainty, because the fiscal burden on them continues to increase. This is no surprise, of course, when some public official within the cabinet have publicly said companies ‘steal from the people’ and they should be taxed more,” said Londoño. “Treating industrial companies as cash cows is wrong: these are the companies which need large sums in capital investments, and increasing taxes on them only deters that. If we add to that, for example, that the cabinet wants to reduce the role of fossil fuels in the country’s exports due to environmental reasons, you get a worrying picture for the coming years.” ($1 = Ps3,946) Insight by Jonathan Lopez


BLOG: China petrochemicals capacity growth: A new normal of much greater uncertainty

SINGAPORE (ICIS)–Click here to see the latest blog post on Asian Chemical Connections by John Richardson: Understanding what was going to happen to petrochemicals capacity additions in China used to be easy as all you had to do was read the state-run press. I am referring to comments in the local media way back in 2014 that China was going to push much harder towards petrochemicals self-sufficiency. This helps explain why in products such as polypropylene (PP), China’s percentages of capacity over demand could this year exceed 100%. But conversations with industry sources indicate that interpreting what will happen next to China’s capacity growth has become way more complex. Let’s start with the decision to cap China’s refinery capacity at some 1 billion tonnes a year from 2027 onwards up to at least 2040. This is a huge change from 2000-2026 when capacity is forecast to increase by more than 250%. The reason for the cap on refinery capacity is that China wants 40% of its car fleet to comprise electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030. It also wants all new car sales to be EVs by that year. At first glance, this indicates that China won’t have sufficient local petrochemicals feedstock to maintain its aggressive self-sufficiency push. One could thus reach the conclusion that deficits or imports will rise given the weaker economics of importing feedstocks. But local refineries may be turned into petrochemicals feedstock centers. As local transportation fuels demand declines, maintaining good refinery operating rates may hinge on China’s ability to export increasing quantities of gasoline and diesel which in a world of increasing trade tensions may be difficult. I had thought that China’s push towards peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060 would make it difficult to get approval for heavy industrial projects for start-up after 2030. Now, though, I’ve been told that the push to reduce carbon emissions is already making it hard to win approvals. Each province in China has reportedly been given a carbon budget. If a province wants to make room in its budget for a heavy industrial project, it might have to shut down an existing plant. Combine this with the small scale of some petrochemicals plants in China and we will or already are seeing closures of older plants to make way for new facilities, I’ve been told. This especially applies to the more developed provinces with high carbon output. If all of this is true, do not assume that this is automatically good news for all petrochemicals exporters to China because of the demographic-driven demand slowdown, China’s sustainability push and the country’s closer relationship with Saudi Arabia. As I’ve been stressing over the last three years, events in China point to a much more confused and blurred picture. Don’t panic and embrace confusion as this is the only sensible response. Editor’s note: This blog post is an opinion piece. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of ICIS.


Westlake appoints Jean-Marc Gilson as new CEO, effective today

NEW YORK (ICIS)–US-based chemical and building materials producer Westlake Corp has appointed Jean-Marc Gilson as president and CEO, effective 15 July. He succeeds Albert Chao, who becomes executive chairman of the Westlake board of directors. Gilson most recently served as president and CEO of Japan-based Mitsubishi Chemical Group from 2021 until March 2024. From 2014-2020, Gilson served as CEO of France-based Roquette, a family-owned global leader in plant-based ingredients and a leading provider of pharmaceutical excipients. James Chao, the current chairman of the board, will become senior chairman. All these appointments take effect 15 July. “I am excited to welcome Jean-Marc as the newest addition to Westlake’s management team. Westlake is in a very strong position supported by a world-class team, and, having served as the CEO of Westlake for the last 20 years, now is the right time to implement our succession plan,” said Albert Chao, who noted Gilson’s 25 years of executive experience in the chemical industry in the US, Europe and Asia. “I am honored and humbled to become the second, and first non-family, CEO of Westlake,” said Gilson. “I have long admired Westlake as a best-in-class company at the forefront of delivering life-enhancing products through innovation in essential materials and building products,” he added. Jean-Marc Gilson also becomes president and CEO and a director of Westlake Chemical Partners GP LLC, the general partner of Westlake Chemical Partners LP. Albert Chao will become executive chairman and James Chao will become senior chairman of the Westlake Chemical Partners GP LLC board of directors. UBS analyst Joshua Spector said the timing comes as a “bit of surprise”. The Chao family owns around 75% of Westlake Corp, and Gilson’s 25 years of experience skews towards specialty chemicals, he noted. Key questions will be around Westlake’s strategy and commitment to growing the building products business, Spector added.


BLOG: The time for action to protect European chemicals is now

LONDON (ICIS)–Click here to see the latest blog post on Chemicals & The Economy by Paul Hodges, which looks at the growing risk that Europe will deindustrialise. Editor’s note: This blog post is an opinion piece. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ICIS. Paul Hodges is the chairman of consultants New Normal Consulting.


Europe top stories: weekly summary

LONDON (ICIS)–Here are some of the top stories from ICIS Europe for the week ended 12 July. Europe ethylene spot prices turn firmer on demand, feedstock, looming cracker turnarounds European ethylene spot prices have firmed week on week on the back of better-than-expected demand amid higher feedstock values and an increasing focus on upcoming planned cracker maintenance outages. Global crude demand slows in Q2, China consumption contracts – IEA Global crude oil demand slumped to 710,000 bbl/day in Q2 2024 as China’s post-pandemic economic rebound ran its course, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Thursday. Storm Beryl damage, economic loss to US estimated at $28-32 billion Total damage and economic loss in the US from Storm Beryl amounted to $28-32 billion, according to meteorology firm AccuWeather. Europe chemicals players expect construction demand to remain sluggish until H1 2025 Chemicals players in Europe do not expect any substantial recovery from the building and construction industry until the first half of 2025 at least. Flooding to continue across central US as Beryl moves inland Flash flooding is expected as Storm Beryl continues to progress across the central US, with blackouts and logistic shutdowns seen in parts of Texas. ‘Life-threatening’ storm surge in Texas as Hurricane Beryl makes US landfall Hurricane Beryl has made landfall in eastern Texas and looks set to batter parts of the state’s key petrochemicals production hubs, with the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) warning of a life-threatening storm surge on Monday.


INSIGHT: China maps out economic strategy to wiggle out of slump

SINGAPORE (ICIS)–China kicked off a major meeting in Beijing on Monday to map out the economic future of the world’s second-biggest economy, whose recovery is being hindered by a property slump now on its third year, and a manufacturing overcapacity. Q2 GDP growth slows to 4.7% Fiscal reforms, US/EU protectionism, private sector promotion to be discussed Government may push for more affordable housing measures The Communist Party of China (CPC) is holding a third plenary session or plenum since the members were elected in October 2022, in the Chinese capital from 15-18 July. The pivotal meeting began just as China reported a slowdown in annualized GDP growth in the second quarter at 4.7% from a 5.3% pace in the January-March 2024. The world awaits policy announcements from the closed-door meeting, in which Chinese leaders are expected to discuss fiscal and tax reforms, strategies to counter protectionism from the US and EU, promotion of domestic private sector, and address the country’s ailing real estate market. The third plenum typically sets China’s economic agenda over the medium term, with Xi Jinping serving his third term as Chinese president. The CPC’s Central Committee typically holds seven plenary sessions during its five-year term, with the third plenum typically garnering significant international interest. China is currently on its 14th Five-Year Plan, which covers 2021 to 2025. “The third plenum is in the middle of the five-year plan of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore is unlikely to witness major policies,” Alex Ng, founder and head of research at Hong Kong-based Fortress Hill Advisors, said in a note for investment research and analysis firm Smartkarma. “Rather, there will be fine-tuning of existing policy direction and some sector-specific measures.” The third plenum was delayed from late-2023 as Chinese leaders have had to grapple with a multitude of domestic and external headwinds. First-quarter annualized economic growth was robust at 5.3%, driven by strong manufacturing and industrial output, despite patchy consumer spending. However, second-quarter GDP growth has slowed to 4.7% as consumption weakened, official data showed on Monday. China's government has already taken measures to stabilize growth further this year. In March, the country’s State Council issued an action plan to promote large-scale equipment renewals and trade-ins of consumer goods. This was followed by the latest property rescue package in mid-May, comprising of both supply and demand side measures. KEY AREAS TO WATCH A resolution will be presented at third plenum focused on "comprehensively deepening reform and advancing Chinese modernization", aiming to establish a "high-level socialist market economy" by 2035, according to an official CPC document. “This indicates that the focus of the reforms will be on promoting long-term high quality economic development that centers on innovation, technology, green transition and the people,” said Ho Woei Chen, economist at Singapore-based UOB Global Economics & Markets Research. “The youth unemployment, ageing population, hukou system and promotion of domestic consumption may also come into the picture.” FISCAL AND TAX REFORMWith local government’s revenue from land sales drying up and a high debt overhang, the central government will need to transfer more resources to the local governments and broaden their income sources, Ho said. This would help to sustain the economic recovery as the local governments oversee stimulating their own regional growth, leading to more equitable development, she said. “Reforms to the consumption tax and a broad-based property tax to provide steady income streams for local governments could be considered,” Ho said. China's central government collects the majority of the country's revenue but allocates most of it to provincial and local governments, which are responsible for the majority of government expenditures. This leaves local governments strapped for cash, especially with the struggling property market. As a result, many local governments are now facing a serious debt crisis. EYES ON PROPERTY MEASURESWhile the continuing property market downturn requires further attention from the government, new stimulus measures are unlikely to be unveiled at the third plenum. China announced its latest rescue package for the property market in May. The measures to-date have relaxed buying restrictions and downpayment requirements, reduced the borrowing costs and established a yuan (CNY) 300 billion ($41 billion) re-lending program for social housing. Nonetheless, the government could reiterate the direction towards affordable housing market, including the conversion of unsold homes into affordable housing. As of end-2023, the housing ministry has achieved two thirds of its target to provide 8.7 million units of government-subsidized rental housing in the 14th five-year plan for 2021-2025. NEW FORCES FOR PRODUCTIVITYDuring a visit to Heilongjiang province in September 2023, China President Xi urged the nation to mobilize "new quality productive forces" to stimulate economic growth. This refers to the promotion of new growth drivers for the economy, specifically innovation in advanced sectors and industrial system modernization, alongside the upgrading of traditional sectors such as property and lower value-added manufacturing and assembly to enhance efficiency and sustainability. Xi emphasized that China wants quality growth and not just high growth for its economy. This was clearly the CPC's top priorities at this year’s National People's Congress (NPC) in March, critical for its economic sustainability, stability, and security. CPC officials have also emphasized education, the development of science and technology in its efforts to build a modern industrial system. Insight article by Nurluqman Suratman ($1 = CNY7.26) Thumbnail image: Large machinery loading containers onto the China-Europe freight train in Lianyungang, China, on 14 July 2024. (Costfoto/NurPhoto/Shutterstock)


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