A note on the key factors affecting polymer prices


Polymers play a pivotal role in this modern world with its varied range of products improving the quality of life with its sophisticated functions. The unique and valuable properties of polymers have their origins in the molecular composition of their long chains and in the processing that is performed in producing products. Polymers are primarily derived from crude oil with its low cost correlated with the abundance of the feedstock, ingenuity of the chemical engineers who devised the processes of manufacture and in the economies of scale that have come with increased usage.

Less than 5 percent of the petroleum barrel is used to produce polymers and therefore is one of the key raw material for the production and indefinite future. Polymers constitute a high-value-added part of the petroleum customer base and have led to increasing international competition in the manufacture of commodity materials as well as engineering thermoplastics and specialty polymers.

Historically, crude oil and natural gas have been cited as the main drivers of cost changes in polymers. While they do have a large influence on the market since almost all polymer feedstocks are derived from them, the effects they have on the market are indirect regarding overall polymer price.  Also, in Asian economies, the price of crude oil is linked to the natural gas prices which further has a bearing on polymer prices.

Further, when demand is high for crude oil and natural gas and supply is short, there is more competition for the resource and polymer prices rise.  While when supply is high and demand is stable or low, there is less competition and polymer prices fall.

There are many factors that impact polymers prices with reference to feedstock. In addition to the physical materials needed to create polymer, there are human capital, energy, operational costs, engineering, packaging, transportation and more. But the largest) component of the cash cost is likely feedstock.

However, not all the plastics start with crude oil as their primary building block. Each feedstock has a different correlation factor to oil that is influenced by supply and demand of the feedstock, manufacturing process and region of the world, where the product is actually produced.

Prices of polymers are mostly driven by demand and supply. There are occasions when the oil prices are going up but the polymer prices are down because the demand is not really great. 

Polymer and feedstock manufacturing plants are typically built on a very large scale, mainly because they are very expensive and capital intensive to build. Thus, the addition of large amounts of new polymer and feedstock capacity create an abundant supply which holds the potential to change the supply and demand dynamic.

Other factors such as capacity constraints and operational interruption such as plant shutdown causes shortages of polymers and feedstocks thereby escalating prices independent of crude oil and natural gas pricing. These shortages tend to be temporary, but can be long term depending on the overall industry capacity utilization.

In the opposite case, if crude oil or natural gas supply increases, this enhances the capacity of polymers and feedstock industry manufacturing which further accentuates the competition amongst the market participants to sell enough product to keep their plants running profitably. This ultimately affects the supply chain due to excess supply and has a dampening impact on prices.

Among the major players, China plays a significant role in shaping the direction of global polymer markets. According to ICIS, 37% of global PP consumption will originate from China in 2018-2020, thereby making it the biggest source of global growth followed by Europe at 17%.

For Gulf Cooperation Council, share of UAE and Saudi Arabian exports of PP to China are forecasted to account for large percentage shares in 2018. This evidences that GCC is heavily reliant on China to absorb its large scale production. While UAE through the Borouge capacity in Abu Dhabi, is anticipated to have exported around 395,000 tons of PP to China last year, estimating 8% of China’s total imports. While Saudi Arabia’s imports of 620,000 tons of exports are expected to represent13% of total China imports.

In a nutshell, there are many influences driving the cost of polymer feedstock up or down. Managing them is challenging, but staying aware of the market dynamics is important to assess the changing landscape to avoid any negative impacts on the business. Since, polymers is intensively traded across the globe and highly demanded by the manufacturing countries for the production of goods, it becomes crucial to understand the role of factors which affects the polymer prices.

Areesha Fatma

Areesha Fatma

A Post Graduate student in Economics at NMIMS Mumbai, Areesha Fatma has worked with PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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