AKRON, OHIO -- North American polyethylene prices have hit the ground running in 2013, increasing an average of 5 cents per pound since Jan. 1.
The increase affects all grades of high density, low density and linear low density PE and is reflected in this week's Plastics News resin pricing chart. Late-year buying patterns and feedstock production outages helped the 5-cent hike take hold, according to Mike Burns, a market analyst with Resin Technology Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas.
"There was some heavy buying in the secondary [PE] market in November and December," Burns said in a Jan. 23 phone interview. "And December was the biggest export month of 2012."
"The [producer] inventory drawdown was because of good pricing, not demand, and because of a good export market," he added. "That made the [North American PE] market tight and inventories low going into January."
Several unplanned outages at North American ethylene feedstock production sites in the last six weeks of 2012 also played a role in the 5-cent increase, Burns explained. Ethylene units operated by BASF Corp. in Port Arthur, Texas, by Dow Chemical Co. in Freeport, Texas, and by Huntsman Corp. in Port Neches, La., all remained partially down as of mid-January, according to the PetroChem Wire consulting firm.
The January PE increase "went through like a train," according to a PE buyer in the Southeast U.S. "Producers were shipping a lot [of PE] offshore and that tightened things."
The buyer added that an early-year price hike "dampens the opportunity to move away from other materials and into plastics."
"It's more a problem with volatility than with price," he said of comparing PE to other non-plastic materials.
Another PE buyer in the Northwest U.S. said that he had no problems sourcing PE in January, but he added that he had pre-bought material for his January needs in December.
Sources were split on the chances of a 4-cent hike proposed for Feb. 1 being successful. The Southeast buyer said he thought it had "a good chance," while the Northwest buyer and RTi's Burns each said they weren't sure it would go through.
In the short-term, regional LDPE supplies should be improved by Nova Chemicals Corp.'s restart of a plant in Mooretown, Ontario, that had been offline for more than a year. Supplies of ethylene feedstock also should be improved by Dow Chemical Co.'s restart of an ethylene unit in Hahnville, La. That unit had been down for almost four years.
Another boost to ethylene supply is expected in March, when Westlake Chemical Corp. completes a 230 million-pound capacity addition at its plant in Lake Charles, La. The Nova, Dow and Westlake moves all are tied to newfound supplies of natural gas throughout North America.
The January increase comes after a 2012 year when North American PE prices declined by a net of 5 cents per pound — about five percent — based on selling prices of HDPE for dairy blow molding.
Through October 2012, U.S./Canadian sales of HDPE were up about 2 percent vs. the year-ago period, while LDPE sales were up 1 percent and LLDPE sales had declined almost 2 percent, according to the American Chemistry Council in Washington.
An increase of almost 4 percent in domestic HDPE sales through October was softened by a drop of almost 6 percent in export sales. Sales of HDPE into pipe and conduit grew more than 7 percent during that 10-month period, according to ACC.
For LDPE, the domestic and export roles through October were the opposite of the HDPE showing. LDPE export sales growth of more than 9 percent helped to erase a domestic sales decline of almost 1 percent. Sales of LDPE into non-packaging film — including trash and can liners — grew almost 13 percent during that 10-month period.
The sales decline in LLDPE was the result of a plunge of almost 17 percent in export sales wiping out a domestic sales gain of almost four percent. Among major end markets, LLDPE sales growth was highest in injection molding — including lids, caps and closures — where 10-month sales were up almost 13 percent.