The Argenplas 2006 trade fair, held March 20-24 in Buenos Aires, served as a sneak preview to a surprising tour of Argentina's plastics industry.
Exhibitors demonstrated that, after suffering the ominous effects of the crisis that devalued the country's peso and pushed consumption of plastics products in 2002 to 1993 figures, the country's plastics industry has a few frailties, but also has found a path to recovery.
According to data published by the Argentine Plastics Industry Chamber (CAIP), last year Argentina's plastics molding sector experienced its third consecutive year of growth: 3.04 billion pounds of plastics products were consumed in 2005, vs. 2.87 billion pounds in 2004, 2.40 billion pounds in 2003 and 1.74 billion pounds in 2002. As a result, consumption per capita also has been increasing, peaking at 78.2 pounds in 2005.
``The macroeconomic situation contributed significantly to this performance, as did the government's understanding that without a strong industry it is impossible to grow,'' said CAIP President Hector Mendez, who is also president of the Argentine Industrial Union.
Mendez said the federal budget surplus and gross domestic product annual growth rate of 9 percent the past three years also were factors.
``All this brought about growth in the automotive, food and packaging industries, as well as in agribusiness and civil construction, which automatically implies more plastics consumption,'' he said.
In exports, Argentina's plastic products began reaping the benefits of action aimed at diversifying the destination of its shipments and consolidating its presence in the external market. In 2005, plastic product exports increased 13.1 percent over 2004, totaling 286 million pounds or 9.7 percent of production.
``We are focused on creating a culture in which exporting is perceived as a permanent thing, rather than a substitute for weak periods in the domestic market,'' Mendez said.
Brazil continues to be the most important buyer of Argentine plastic products, with 24 percent of the total volume exported. However, less traditional countries like Venezuela, Latvia and Russia now appear on the list of client countries.
The positive performance of Argentina's molding industry in domestic and external markets led the sector to a 77 percent capacity utilization rate, Mendez said.
The country's plastics industry can process between 3.3 billion pounds and 3.52 billion pounds per year at roughly 2,300 industrial units. About 95 percent of companies in the sector are small and medium-sized businesses with up to 50 employees.
``We are getting to the point of having to expand again,'' Mendez said, recalling that the last investment boom took place in 1996-98.
``We've already begun to notice a purchase increase in primary equipment and other machinery, but investments resume in a slower fashion, due to the unfeasible interest rates charged and difficulty in obtaining loans.''
The Argentine crisis of 2001 practically put an end to loans. Just recently, some private banks began offering lines of financing, but the interest rates are 12-18 percent per year.
In addition, guarantees demanded by the financial system stand out as another obstacle to obtaining credit.
``With all the changes that the economy experienced and the reduction in consumption and liquidity levels, it's very hard for small and medium-sized companies to have precise, up-to-date information for banks about their financial statements and net worth. That prevents loans from being approved,'' said Jorge A. Reznik, sales manager of Monza, Italy-based blow molding machine supplier Magic MP SpA.
At Argenplas, the majority of deals negotiated required cash.
Even with all the complicating factors, 2005 confirmed the trend presented in 2004 of a mild return to renewal and expansion in plastics.
Official CAIP data points out that investments by plastics processors in primary equipment, auxiliary equipment and molds totaled $97.6 million in 2004 and $127.8 million in 2005. Together, these two amounts represent a 154 percent increase over what was invested in 2002-03.