Uncertainty rules in petrochemicals

The blog’s former ICI colleague, Tom Crotty, aptly summarised the mood of most petchem players at this week’s meeting in Budapest, Hungary, when telling ICIS’ Nigel Davis that “2011 is a very tough call to forecast”.
Crotty is this year’s president of EPCA (European Petrochemical Association), and it was clear from the blog’s discussions that uncertainty is the key factor in current petchem markets. In particular, people have different viewpoints based on their geographic location:
• Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American players have had a good year, supported by China’s demand. They hardly recognise that a recession has been underway, but worry China may slow next year.
• European players have seen tight markets, with feedstock supply limited by refinery cutbacks, as I describe in the above interview with ICB’s Will Beacham. But they worry that government cutbacks and austerity programmes will hit demand next year.
• US players have also been supported by Asian demand, and domestic stimulus spending. But the upcoming mid-term elections, and lack of clarity over future economic policy, create their own uncertainty.
In addition, there is the strange case of crude oil prices.
Petchems always do well when these rise, as players build inventory down the value chain (as in 2007-H1 2008). And as in 2008, the blog fears that today’s high prices will also choke off demand, as they reduce discretionary spending.
Equally, oil prices have not been supported by tight supply conditions. Inventories of crude and oil products are at near-record levels. It is only the efforts of financial players, selling the US$ and buying commodities such as oil, that has led to today’s $80+ levels.
Scenario planning seems essential when looking forward to the 2011-12 Budget period, with companies faced by extreme levels of uncertainty over future demand levels, government actions, currency movements and feedstock prices.
The blog will take up this issue in more detail, when presenting its annual Budget outlook later this month.

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