Look for tough market conditions in polycarbonate at least through the rest of this year. Longer term, however, the transparent engineering plastic could become a much better economic bargain. Short-term: PC prices are getting slammed by high costs for feedstocks such as phenol. Prices for products such as phenol used to have a very close correlation to prices of hydrocarbons such as natural gas. More recently, the lack of capacity to make the feedstock has created a new market dynamic—one that’s working against users. Bayer for example raised prices about 7 percent very recently.
Longer term, however, new capacity and slower growth rates could create a buyers’ market. Major capacity expansions in China are already being slowed by market worries. Also on the horizon is the SABIC acquisition of GE Plastics,. Bayer and GE Plastics are the market leaders in PC. SABIC’s interest in building PC capacity in the Al Jubail area of Saudi Arabia is well known. I visited the area 17 years ago when major new plastics plants were first coming on stream, and benefiting from deeply discounted hydrocarbon prices. Gas from the region previously had been flared.
The original Saudi plan for the newest project was to bring on line annual production capacity exceeding 4 million metric tons of petrochemical and chemical products by 2009 under the banner of a public company called Saudi Kayan, which is 35 percent owned by SABIC. Spain’s Tecnicas Reunidas was selected to build a 240,000 metric ton bisphenol-A facility and Daelim Industrial of Korea received a contract to build a 260,000 tons-per-year polycarbonate plant based on Asahi Kasei technology. It seems very unlikely that plan will proceed, even though contracts were awarded in February. Reason: GE Plastics has its own proprietary technology to make polycarbonate.
What impact will a new Saudi Arabian plant have on polycarbonate markets? Well, when I visited Al-Jubail Industrial City the Saudis promised they would not disrupt markets. And they did not. But there will be a major new player, bringing on significant capacity that is vertically integrated into the well. That will certainly have a major impact on the landscape.