Supply shortages drive olefin market profitability

C2 v C3 C4 Jan12.pngThe above chart would have seemed unbelievable at any time in the past 30 years. It shows the performance of propylene and butadiene relative to ethylene.

Not because it shows butadiene prices racing ahead relative to ethylene (green line). This happens routinely during a downturn, as tyre demand is more robust than for polymers. If people are not buying new cars, they still have to buy new tyres for existing cars – for legal and safety reasons.

But the record level of the butadiene premium to ethylene, an average of 170% in 2011, does give a clue to the dramatic nature of the disruption that has taken place.

The real shock, however, is that propylene sold at parallel prices to ethylene through the year (blue line). Not only has this never happened before. But it is also contrary to the main rationale for propylene sales, as this developed during the 1980’s.

The blog discussed this emerging trend back in July 2010, in a major series of posts that anticipated recent developments. They were also summarised in its ICB analysis of September 2010. New readers may like to refer to these for background detail by clicking the links:

Major changes underway on relative olefin pricing
Propylene prices reach parity with ethylene
Benzene develops security of supply issues
Lower Western gasoline demand helps paraxylene
Major changes underway in chemicals markets

The key is that markets have become supply-driven. Oil production and refinery output have been reduced due to lack of demand. This has reduced ethane availability in the Middle East, and naphtha availability in the West.

Equally, the dramatic increase in the price of crude oil versus natural gas in the USA, due to financial speculation, has prompted a major switch from liquid to ethane feeds on the crackers.

Propylene supply has therefore been reduced both by lower refinery runs, and by the switch to ethane feeds, as these produce virtually no propylene or butadiene. Lower cracker operating rates have also helped to tighten markets, particularly for butadiene.

The question ahead is now twofold:

• Will buyers still be interested in using propylene for its commodity applications such as packaging, if it is no longer price competitive?
• Can crude oil really maintain its current premium to natural gas?

The answers to these questions are really a zero-sum game. Those who get them right, stand to make a lot of money. Those who get their analysis wrong, will likely lose a lot of money.

The blog itself would be extremely cautious about ignoring affordability issues, and simply assuming current trends will automatically continue.

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