PETALING JAYA: The petrochemical industry clawed back some of the ground lost in the second half of this year on the back of stronger products’ selling prices – a momentum that is likely to spill over until the first half of 2021.
This in turn, would see Petronas Chemicals Group Bhd (PetChem) and peer Lotte Chemical Titan Holdings Bhd (LCT) delivering better net profits in FY21 against FY20, according to CGS-CIMB Research.
“Since the third quarter of 2020, petrochemical prices have rallied hard and were much stronger than our expectations, ” the research house said.
In the fourth quarter, meanwhile, prices for polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP) and methanol rose above year-ago levels despite being lower year-on-year (y-o-y) in the first three quarters of the year.
This was driven by several factors. One is the supply disruptions in the United States, which were wrought by hurricanes Laura and Delta from August onwards.
In the second half of 2020, there was a surge in global demand for manufactured goods, making up for the deprivations of global lockdowns in the Q2 and lastly, a sudden container box shortage from Q3 which likely curtailed deep-sea polymer shipments to Asia from the United States and the Middle East.
“In addition, demand for plastics for face masks, disinfectants, personal protective equipment, food takeaway and online shopping packages, caused demand for petrochemical in 2020 to be higher than we had expected at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, ” said CGS-CIMB Research.
On the other hand, the capacity coming in was slower than expected because commissioning of factories were delayed because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
These reversed the two-year cyclical downturn the sector had been facing since, which troughed in Q2 when oil prices crashed following the pandemic.
However, CGS-CIMB sees the current upcycle peaking in the first half of 2021 as more capacity is expected to come onstream with China accounting for more than half of the output.
Several unplanned outages in South Korea should be resolved by early-2021, which will also contribute to petchemical supplies. Locally, the Pengerang Refining and Petrochemicals’ plants in Johor is targeted for commissioning from May 2021 onwards after a two-year delay.
This industry additions may weigh on selling prices after the the first quarter of 2021 onwards, potentially squeezing price spreads if naphtha feedstock costs also increase concurrently given the positive sentiment surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine rollouts, said CGS-CIMB.
Considering this, the research firm reiterates its “underweight” call on the sector and “reduce” calls on both PetChem and LCT as it believes that product selling prices are likely at, or close to their peaks.
“Even though we expect petrochemical companies’ 2021 forecast net profits to be stronger than for 2020, this appears to have already been reflected in the robust share price performances of the companies in the sector, in our view, ” it said. “Any downside momentum to petrochemical selling prices and/or price spreads against naphtha, which we expect to materialise from 2Q21 onwards, will likely result in downside to share prices, ” it said.
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