Dow Chemical Co. is moving ahead with plans to add plastics capacity in North and South America, and is advancing other strategic options as well.
“If you're not ahead of commoditizing trends, you're going to be out of business,” chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris said in a Nov. 12 media conference call. “You have to be ahead of it.”
The call was held in advance of the firm's investor forum at its complex in Freeport, Texas. Officials with Midland, Mich.-based Dow said that construction began June 30 on a new ethylene cracker in Freeport. New ethylene and polyethylene capacity there is set to come online in the first half of 2017. Also in Freeport, work is 50 percent complete on a unit that will make propylene feedstock via propane dehydrogenation (PDH) technology. That unit is expected to start production in mid-2015.
Those projects are being made possible by newfound supplies of shale-based natural gas throughout North America, which have given regional suppliers a cost advantage vs. other parts of the world. Dow's plastics and feedstock expansions on the U.S. Gulf Coast are expected to create $2.5 billion in annual pretax profit.
On the call, performance plastics executive vice president Jim Fitterling said that Dow “is making good progress” in finding the skilled labor needed for its Gulf Coast projects. “Some specific skills are tight, so we've had to cast a wider net,” he explained.
Fitterling added that Dow's U.S. investments are intended to serve customers in the Americas. “Growth there has been very, very good — enough to support these investments,” he said.
Fitterling also said that Dow expects “no significant impact” from global oil prices dropping from more than $100 per barrel to less than $80. Although natural gas is used to make most North American PE, the price of oil is used to set prices for the material globally.
“I think we'll start to see the price [of oil] bottom out,” Fitterling said. “And we could see the impact of lower oil prices on GDP. I think it's going to have an economic benefit.”
In Bahia Blanca, Argentina, Dow will expand capacity at its four PE production units. That work will begin in 2015. Dow's low density PE plant there will be refurbished to allow production of resins for extrusion coating used in packaging.
Dow officials also confirmed plans to increase its divestiture target from $4.5 billion to $6 billion up to $7 billion to $8.5 billion by mid-2016. The firm already has sold off $1.3 billion in businesses since 2013. Dow currently is seeking buyers for its epoxy resin and chlorine-based businesses.
In Kuwait, Dow will reduce its ownership in the Equate and MEGlobal joint ventures. Equate's products include PE and ethylene; while both Equate and MEGlobal make PET resin feedstock ethylene glycol. Reducing its ownership in the JVs “allows [Dow] to redeploy capital to more strategic purposes,” officials said.
Financially, Dow is adding $5 billion to its share repurchase program, bringing the total size of the program to $9.5 billion. The increase “further illustrates [Dow's] commitment to consistently and increasingly rewarding shareholders,” Liveris said in a news release.
Dow's total sales grew almost 3 percent to $43.8 billion in the first nine months of 2014, but the firm's profit fell more than 20 percent to $3 billion. Sales in Dow's performance plastics unit — including PE and elastomers — grew almost 5 percent to $11.3 billion, while sales in its performance materials unit – including polyurethane and epoxies — grew 3 percent to $10.3 billion.
On Wall Street, Dow's per-share stock price began the year around $44.50 and had climbed near $55 in early September before a broad market sell-off. The price closed near $50 on Nov. 12.