HOUSTON — Polyethylene suppliers face more lean times before climbing out of their pricing and profit trough, PE executives and consultants said at a pair of industry conferences held recently in Houston.
As if that prediction weren't enough, the role of U.S. PE manufacturers in the global market may have changed by the time they emerge from the industry's current downturn in 2002 or 2003, according to Tim Taylor, worldwide PE manager for Phillips Petroleum Co. of Bartlesville, Okla.
At that point, the United States already might be a net importer of PE, as Canadian imports continue to gain market share and Canadian and Middle Eastern exports take market share previously held by U.S. companies, according to Taylor, who spoke at the DeWitt World Petrochemical Review, held March 24-25 in Houston.
Phillips expects PE markets to continue to grow at a 5 percent annual rate through 2005, but overcapacity will take its toll on operating rates for at least the next two years.
``Capacity was built on higher assumptions of growth,'' said Taylor, who manages a business that ranks 12th in global PE capacity, with more than 2.5 billion pounds of output.
In North America, Phillips ranks third in the high density PE market, with about 11.5 percent of market capacity.
Bob Dennett, a consultant with Houston's CMAI Inc., sees a similar picture — he expects no significant improvement in PE prices until 2001. Dennett, who spoke at CMAI's World Petrochemical Conference, held March 24-25 in Houston, expects prices to bottom out in mid-1999, to rise slightly to mid-2000 and then flatten again until mid-2001.
Dennett also expects PE operating rates to bottom out at about 80 percent in 1999 and 2000.
``At this rate, the industry [in 1999 and 2000] will have dropped to a lower operating level than occurred during the last low point in the business cycle in 1993,'' Dennett said. ``Those of us in the polymer business at that time will remember that period was not a fun time.''
Operating rates could rebound sooner if lower prices associated with oversupply give world and regional demand a boost, he added.
Both Taylor and Dennett expect low density PE to continue to lose market share to linear LDPE. Taylor estimates LDPE's share of the global PE market will drop 7 percent, to 28 percent by 2005, while LLDPE's share will rise 5 percent, to match LDPE at 28 percent.
But LDPE is proving to be more tenacious than many LLDPE boosters had thought.
``You still don't see LDPE being dealt a death blow by LLDPE,'' Taylor said. ``LDPE is still the most profitable aspect of the PE business.''
Taylor and Dennett each pointed out the need for further industry consolidation and globalization.
Seven of the world's top 12 PE producers have capacity on more than one continent. That list includes Phillips — which has operations in Texas and Singapore, as well as a project planned for Qatar.
In the short term, Taylor is enthusiastic about the 3 cent-per-pound price hike PE makers won in early 1999.
``If you would have asked me in November or December if things would be where they are now, with tight demand and pressure across the business, I would have said no,'' he said.