Polymer prices in general were lifted by higher monthly feedstock contract prices and producers seeking to improve their profit margins to more acceptable levels. While buyers were prepared to accept some price increases, the actual gains achieved by sellers failed to match their price targets.
L/LDPE prices registered the largest gains with notations up by €70-€80/tonne, in line with the rise in the February ethylene contract price. HDPE prices gained only €30-€35/tonne. There were modest increases for PP and PS, while PVC prices remained largely unchanged. Bottle grade PET prices increased more or less in line with feedstock costs.
Polymer demand has recovered somewhat in the first part of this year, at least compared with the very subdued levels in Q4. However, demand remains well below what would normally be expected. Supply is generally better balanced following production cutbacks.
Poor producer margins push L/LDPE prices higher
Driven by very poor margins and higher feedstock costs, European L/LDPE producers announced plans to raise prices by €90-100/tonne from 1 February and buyers have been prepared to accept some of the rise.
Buyer acceptance of some increase was in part due to prices having fallen to such low levels, but the producers’ gains were insufficient to satisfy their desire for better margins.
The February C2 contract price increased by €70/tonne to €590/tonne compared with January. By mid-month LDPE prices were up by €80/tonne, with LLDPE prices rising by €70/tonne.
The production cutbacks implemented by suppliers appear to have brought about a better balance of supply to the current reduced demand. LLDPE availability was somewhat more comfortable than for LDPE, where there are signs of a movement towards supply tightness.
L/LDPE demand has improved during the first two months of the year, compared with Q4, but is still below what would normally be expected. Food packaging is the only end use sector in which sales are close to normal levels.
HDPE price hikes are being resisted by buyers
In February, HDPE producers met with limited success in raising notations in line with the €70/tonne increase in the February C2 contract price. The strong buyer resistance meant that price increases for HDPE grades were restricted to €30/tonne last month
The production cutbacks made by producers in recent months has lead to emerging shortages for some blown film grades, where stocks are down considerably since the turn of the year. However, availability of blow moulding and injection moulding grades is somewhat better.
Order intake remains much lower than expected for the time of year but has improved compared with Q4 levels. Food packaging film and pipe for infrastructure projects are the best performing sectors. Industrial packaging sales were very sluggish, with blow moulding sales down sharply last month.
PP edges up but weak demand restricts increases
At the start of February, PP suppliers were seeking price increases of €50/tonne to cover the €25/tonne rise in the February C3 contract price. By mid-month, however, PP prices were edging higher by around €10-15/tonne.
Demand was slightly higher than in January, when restocking was taking place, but sales were estimated at 20% less than the same month in 2008.
Supply was in good balance, with the lower levels of demand following production cutbacks. There were also some reports that operating rates had increased as producers took advantage of an attractive arbitrage window for exports to Asia.
This month, an expected increase in the March propylene contract price will underpin a further price push by PP producers.
PS sellers disappointed as price rises slip
PS sellers were disappointed to register price gains of just €30-€35/tonne in February, having asked converters for increases of €75/tonne.
Producers were hoping to cover the increase of €63/tonne in the styrene monomer contract price for February and to capture a small contribution to profit margin. However, converters had undertaken significant restocking during January and were in a good position to resist the planned price hikes.
While demand has picked up from the very subdued levels seen during Q4 of 2008, underlying sales remain weak. Food packaging is one of the few end use sectors where demand is holding up.
Supply is good to balanced for most grades, with producers having reduced stock levels in recent months. However, Ineos Nova's PS line in Wingles, France, will be offline in March for scheduled maintenance.
PVC numbers indicate market is close to bottom
PVC producers had called in February for price increases of €25-€30/tonne to at least cover the rise in the February ethylene contract price. And, on the whole, producers managed to hold prices for bulk business at the lower end of the scale, although there were a few reports of small discounts being offered.
Customers paying high prices in January claimed sizable reductions of up to €50/tonne last month. As a result, the price spread narrowed to more normal levels in February.
PVC producers' price targets are being hampered by low levels of demand and good material availability. Demand was fragile last month, following the restocking by converters in January. PVC sales were estimated to be around 20-30% lower than normal over the first two months of the year.
While producers have made cutbacks and reduced stock levels, these have not been sufficient to ease the oversupply situation. They will be seeking higher prices in March to bolster their flagging profit margins.
Signs of an upturn for bottle-grade PET
PET players are cautiously optimistic that the European PET market may have bottomed out, as bottle resin prices began to firm up in February.
Suppliers faced a sharp rise in the cost of paraxylene last month (up €110 to €610/tonne) and also an increase in MEG costs. At the start of the month, suppliers were seeking price increases of €60-€70/, but they had to settle for a rise of around €30-€40/tonne.
Producers' price initiatives were supported by a much needed upswing in demand, as last month represented the beginning of the main PET bottle resin buying season. For 2009 as a whole, suppliers are expecting another year of falling sales volumes. This follows an estimated 5% drop in sales last year.
Lower CSD and bottled water sales, growing use of recyclate and bottle lightweighting initiatives are all negatively impacting the PET market.
PET supply is, however, now better balanced with producers having reduced operating rates and temporarily shuttered some production units. Artenius plans to keep its San Roque plant shuttered until the summer, while Equipolymers announced plans to divest its PET production at Ottana. Invista plans to close its PET packaging resins plant at Offenbach, Germany, at the end of March.