By Abache Abreu
LONDON (ICIS)--High ethylene and energy costs combined with depressed conditions in downstream polyvinyl chloride (PVC) have driven the European ethylene dichloride (EDC) and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) spot markets to stagnation.
PVC producers are reluctant to purchase high-priced feedstocks when they are not confident they will manage to pass the cost of these through to their customers.
Recent negotiations in the market for EDC - 95% of which is consumed in the VCM market - have brought prices down to the high $200s/tonne FOB (free on board) WE (western Europe), market sources said on Tuesday.
However, these values are still unattractive for those who are not under severe pressure to purchase as there is very little margin once the conversion into PVC is complete.
The spot market for VCM, 99% of which is used in the production of PVC and co-polymers, has become illiquid, with very little trade during 2011. There is no clear indication of pricing ideas as the current values of $750-780/tonne (€548-569/tonne) FOB NWE have stirred little buying interest, with consumers reiterating such figures do not provide enough netback once converted into PVC.
Equally, sellers of EDC and VCM are not tempted to produce any additional material with the intention of offering into the merchant market at such prices, given the high costs of ethylene and energy. As such, material is largely used captively, with bids and offers drifting further apart.
Trading activity in the EDC and VCM markets has depended on the outcome of PVC negotiations, which have been largely unsuccessful as ample availability, slow demand and limited export opportunities continue to cap potential increases.
Conditions vary across Europe, with southern European countries said to be suffering poorer demand than elsewhere as concerns over the eurozone debt crisis coupled with the long-lasting consequences of the housing bubble have continued to dull market activity in the downstream construction market.
However, contract pricing developments in the northwest European market show this region is in no greater shape, with major producers reporting decreases of up to €35/tonne for October on slow demand, despite having announced flat prices at the beginning of the month.
The €20/tonne decrease in November ethylene contracts offered little chance of recovering margins, as major PVC producers in both the Mediterranean and northwest Europe anticipated decreases of at least €15/tonne on flat demand and the beginning of the destocking cycle.
Softening Asian and US prices and negative sentiment in the European and global economies continue to undermine export trading activity. FOB prices have decreased by around $380/tonne since June 2011.
Backward integration has become a key competitive advantage in the EDC and VCM markets, as market illiquidity is forcing non-integrated manufacturers to either store or move surplus material to other sites.
This has become increasingly difficult as the slowdown in real chemical demand since 2008 has led to a steady decrease in the amount of available storage and transport assets in Europe, making the traditional overhang of capacity disappear.
In addition, logistic costs are high and rising. Chemical firms are faced not only with escalating fuel cost but also with increasingly strict regulations and expensive regulatory compliance. For instance, the European Commission’s aim to reduce transport emissions by 60% by 2050 through a low carbon agenda is expected to add a cost burden to the distribution supply chain.
Arkema’s decision to shut its EDC plant in Jarrie, southern France, highlights the importance of backward integration in a stagnant market. The French chemical major will continue to reduce EDC output from the 90,000 tonne/year site until its permanent closure in 2013, the company announced on 10 November.
The plant is Arkema’s only non-integrated EDC facility, a company source said on Tuesday. This means surplus material needs to be transported to the company’s nearest vinyl units, located in Lavera, southern France, around 200 km (124 miles) south of Jarrie.
The slow PVC market has led to rising stocks at the site, while high logistics costs have undermined its competitiveness, the source said. “There is a lot of EDC in the European market so backward integration has become crucial,” it added.
The shutdown was announced last week as part of a €40m project to reorganise Arkema’s chlorochemicals and hydrogen peroxide activities at the Jarrie site over the next two years.
The plans entail the replacement of the site's 150,000 tonne/year mercury-based electrolysis production process with a 70,000 tonne/year membrane-based electrolysis process, allowing the company to meet regulations on the use of mercury electrolysis for chlorine production ahead of a target phase-out date of 1 January 2020.
The reorganisation of the site will also help the company implement its Technological Risk Prevention Plan, aimed at reducing the site's safety perimeter and hence local residents’ exposure to risk, and consolidate the site’s hydrogen peroxide manufacturing activity through investment in a steam methane reformer to help meet demand for hydrogen.
Depressed conditions in the European construction industry, which accounts for more than 50% of PVC consumption in the region, hit Arkema’s vinyl products third-quarter results, published on 9 November.
Third-quarter sales of vinyl products, which represent 15% of the company’s total sales, were down on the previous year, reaching €278m, compared with €284m in the same period of 2010.
Arkema’s PVC unit margins were described as low, while earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) remained at break-even.
($1 = €0.73)
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