Polypropylene prices have swum against a tide of market confusion to reach higher ground since the first of the year, while injection-grade and pipe-fitting ABS continued upward, and PET makers delayed a January price increase into March. The PP increase is a confusing combination of a January increase attempt — which many processors thought had vanished before seeing it come back in late February — and a March 1 increase that producers were pushing earlier this month.
"It's part of the first one and part of the second," a Chicago-area PP processor said. "There was a lot of new capacity last year, but it's getting chewed up by demand.
"We're able to get what we need, but things are getting tighter. If I called [on Tuesday] and said I needed a [rail] car Thursday, I wouldn't be able to get it."
PP makers Epsilon Products Co., Aristech Chemical Corp., BP Amoco Corp. and Arco Products Co. added roughly 2.3 billion pounds of PP capacity in 1999, with Exxon Chemical Co. and Dow Chemical Co. slated to add another 1.1 billion pounds this year.
PP prices rose an average of 6-8 cents per pound in 1999 in spite of the onslaught, mostly because of a 12.1 percent growth rate that doubled industry expectations.
Large pending increases for propylene monomer — which could climb at least 4 cents by summer — could force PP makers to get serious about price increase attempts, according to one PP supplier executive. Propylene monomer is a byproduct of gas refining.
Producers believe that part of the March increase remains on the table, and could be passed on to customers later this month.
In ABS, demand gradually is catching up with supply, allowing injection-grade and pipe-fitting material to climb another 5 cents since Jan. 1. Those prices had climbed by 3 cents and 5 cents, respectively, in late 1999.
ABS enjoyed solid sales growth of 3-4 percent in 1999, with sales of ABS, styrene acrylonitrile and other styrenics up more than 13 percent in the building and construction market.
In PET, producers have backed off from ill-timed January increase attempts, instead opting to try for 7 cents per pound March 1, a date closer to the seasonal rise in bottled- beverage sales, which drive the market.
"Historically, the first quarter isn't a strong time for price increases," said T.A. Smith, vice president and general manager of container plastics for PET market leader Eastman Chemical Co. of Kingsport, Tenn.
Smith and other PET makers and industry consultants said PET demand grew 12-13 percent in 1999 and has a good chance of doing the same in 2000.