Polymer prices continue on upward path
Western European commodity thermoplastic producers are striving to raise prices and restore profit margins to what they consider a more acceptable level. Their efforts are, however, being held back by converters' unwillingness to buy any more material than they need for current production as they face up to the combined effects of the economic downturn and intensifying price resistance from their own customers.
HDPE prices held back by weak demand
In March, buyers of HDPE were faced with producer calls for price increases of €100-120/tonne. However, a combination of weak demand and good material availability meant that actual price increases were held at well below these levels.
Small to medium-sized customers for blown film and blow moulding grades were paying up to €80/tonne more, while larger customers kept the increase to €50-60/tonne.
For injection moulding grades, traders were prepared to see a price rise of only €30-40/tonne for smaller volume business, although for direct sales to larger accounts the price increase was €70-80/tonne. Market demand remained weak in March due to the economic slump. Buyers were reported to be refraining from buying resin as they worked off stocks. HDPE supply was good but there are mounting concerns about future material availability.
L/LDPE prices rise amid growing supply fears
Converters were stunned by announcements of further swinging price increases by L/LDPE producers in March. Dow for example, asked for price increases of €120/tonne while SABIC and Ineos announced planned hikes of €100/tonne.
Producers justified the price increases on tightening ethylene supply, the €85/tonne rise in the March ethylene contract price and a need to improve profit margins.
For those converters that needed to buy polymer, producers succeeded in raising prices by €70-80/tonne with some reports of even higher increases being forced through. However, many converters chose not to buy additional material at the prices being asked, choosing instead to run down their stock levels. There is growing uncertainty about future ethylene and L/LDPE supply after several announcements of plant shutdowns. Total Petrochemicals, for instance, announced plans to close an LDPE line at its Gonfreville site in north-western France as well as an LDPE line at Carling in eastern France as part of an upgrading programme.
PP rises but falls short of covering feedstock increases
PP producers managed to claw back part of the €42/tonne increase in the March C3 contract price last month but still fell some way short of recovering the cumulative C3 cost rise over the first three months of the year. In March, homopolymer and copolymer injection moulding grades were €30-40/tonne higher with homopolymer film grades rising by €10-20/tonne by mid-month. Film grade sales have so far failed to live up to expectations but other classes are performing better. Consumer packaging demand is holding up well, but automotive and construction sector sales remain subdued. Producers were also taking advantage of the open arbitrage window to export higher volumes to the Far East.
PS prices edge up as monomer supply shortens
PS producers took some comfort from their ability to achieve a small margin improvement in March after incurring losses in the previous two months.
General-purpose PS prices moved €30/tonne higher against a rise of €18/tonne in the average styrene monomer contract price. The price increase was, however, well below the €60/tonne that suppliers wanted. Tightness in supply of styrene monomer led to a sharp increase in spot SM prices last month. The largest European SM production unit - LyondellBassell/Bayer's joint venture at Maasvlakte in The Netherlands - is currently down, while Total's SM plant at Gonfreville in France is producing at lower than expected rates. PS demand was back to levels seen in Q4 last year, following pre-buying by converters in January and February.
Recession keeps PVC margins under pressure
The economic slump continues to take its toll on PVC markets, with key end use sectors such as construction and automotive very depressed.
Buyers in Europe are only taking from the market what they require for their immediate production needs. There are still, however, export opportunities for producers to the Far East and Turkey due to low freight costs. At the start of March, PVC producers sought price increases of €80-100/tonne in view of the €155/tonne cumulative increase in the cost of ethylene over the last two months.
However, it soon became apparent this was unrealistic and sellers returned to ask for price increases of €50/tonne. Even this proved to be unacceptable to the few converters that were buying, so sellers were forced into accepting a price increase of between €20-30/tonne in northern Europe. Slightly higher price increases were achieved in Iberia. As demand is not expected to revive in the short term, and there is plenty of material available, the most likely outlook is for further downward pressure on PVC prices and producer margins.
PET sales revival slows down
In March, the European PET market did not see the significant sales revival that would normally be expected at this time of year. PET bottle resin sales last month were not as good as they were in February. Converters held off from making additional purchases in the belief that PET feedstock costs would be lower in April. PET producers were initially targeting price increases of €100/tonne to cover an anticipated rise in feedstock costs. However, the March paraxylene contract price increased by less than expected, up €85/tonne to €695/tonne.
For MEG, there was confusion about the level at which an agreed March contract price would finally be settled. Two MEG contracts were settled lower than in the previous month, and one contract was settled higher.
Despite the uncertainty over feedstock settlement, PET producers managed price gains of €60-70/tonne in March. There may, however, have to be some downward adjustment to April PET resin contract prices if raw material costs turn out to be lower than expected. On the supply side, Invista announced the closure of its Offenbach PET plant in Germany at the end of March while Octal began first shipments of PET resin into Europe from Oman.