OUTLOOK ’18: US caustic soda could push higher on restricted global supply

Bill Bowen


HOUSTON (ICIS)–US liquid caustic soda prices saw their steepest price increases in almost a decade during 2017, and 2018 holds prospects for further increases.

US producers have separately proposed price increases of $70-115/dry short ton (dst) for January and the first quarter on the basis of tight supply and structural changes in global production capacity and trade flows.

The changes in supply are occurring globally and already were affecting trade flows at the end of 2017.

In the second week of December, Europe prohibitions went into effect against mercury cell production methods. While some plants are in the midst of conversions to newer production methods, an estimated 1m dry metric tonne (dmt)/year in capacity is estimated to be taken down.

It will turn Europe into a net importer of caustic from a net exporter.

Most of those imports are expected to be supplied by producers in the US and the Middle East.

But that is only half of the equation.

China, which produces and consumes about half of global caustic supply, has over the past five years reduced exports by about 100,000 dmt/year. That is the result of greater domestic demand and anti-pollution initiatives taken by the government that has closed some plants in coastal cities.

That leaves the US to pick the supply slack for both regions. As the US becomes a larger global supplier, prices are likely to continue upward as US plants churn at near capacity, and any production upset will ripple through markets around the world.

That was evident as US prices moved up in 2017 by $140/dmt for spot export business and contracts up $110/dst, according to the ICIS assessment.

Hurricane Harvey accelerated the upward spiral of prices by further constraining production during September.

“Harvey came at exactly the wrong time if you’re a buyers of liquid caustic soda,” said one distributor in the US.

The US exports about 25% of its overall production, for a 2016 tally of 2.86m tonnes of 11.66m tonnes produced, according to archived data from the Chlorine Institute and the US International Trade Commission (ITC).

Production and export figures in 2017 are expected to show 1-2% growth when the numbers are tabulated in early February. The numbers will likely only go up from there, given the lower production in Europe and organic growth in demand from the alumina sector.

Caustic soda is a mature chemical commodity, with a number of mostly industrial uses and slow, predictable demand growth. It is used to refine bauxite into alumina to make lightweight metals, used in the pulp and paper industry, in chemical production as a reactant or catalyst, and in the manufacture of textiles and for soap and detergents.

The importance of the alumina sector, the largest caustic demand sector, was highlighted in the first week of December when China implemented a new rule for alumina refineries to reduce production by 30% of operating capacity from mid-November 2017 to mid-March 2018.

Caustic supply backed up quickly and prices softened by 6% in the week, a reminder that markets are global and that intrusive events, like hurricanes and environmental rules, can lead to unexpected outcomes.

The lengthening supply and lowering prices in China could widen into global markets, especially with global prices now at a high not seen since 2008 when the financial market credit freeze killed off construction activity and demand for co-product chlorine to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Caustic production went down dramatically, and prices flared to near $1,000/dmt FOB (free on board) US Gulf.

In the recent elevated price environment, spot export business out of the US Gulf has been trimmed as buyers of larger volumes commit more of their sourcing to contractual business to ensure supply.

That has left less volume for producers to offer on a spot basis and left buyers of smaller volumes seeing the fastest price increases, likely to be a feature of the 2018 market.

In the US domestic market, it is likely that distributors in 2018 will be doing most of the spot business as producers focus on large-volume buyers.

Market participants are hoping that the big price jumps after Hurricane Harvey will soften a bit before the upward incline from the structural market changes in Europe and Asia continue their work of gnawing on the supply side of the equation. That makes slow and incremental prices increases a likely feature of 2018.

But not all are optimistic that increases will be slow.

“I would be surprised if things don’t tighten up again in January,” said a trader familiar with the US market.

That would give the price increase initiatives support.

But buyers are hoping that supply in China will continue to lengthen and provide a break from the steep upward price curve of October and November.

“Still, I’m going to fill my tanks in December, just in case,” said a distributor with long market experience.

Major US producers of caustic soda include Olin, Occidental Chemical, Westlake Chemical, Shintech and Formosa Plastics.


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