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Q1 earnings at Dow, ExxonMobil, and BASF point to global plastics demand growth

Year-over-year earnings reports show how far the global plastics industry has come since the start of 2009, with plastics titans Dow, ExxonMobil Chemical, and BASF showing double-digit gains in sales and volumes, even in Western economies that had heretofore lagged.

Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew N. Liveris noted "robust" sales growth in the first quarter, calling the improvements in Western economies "notable." "Our double-digit volume improvements in North America and Europe are positive signs that demand growth is returning to developed markets," Liveris said, adding that strengthening consumer spending in electronics, appliances, and automotive, along with strong growth in emerging geographies, were creating "broad-based manufacturing momentum."

Dow's sales were up 33%, rising in all geographic areas, with a 27% improvement in North America, and a 35% increase in EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa).

The company's Performance Systems, which include automotive and elastomer materials, generated $1.7 billion in sales, up 30% from the same quarter last year, with volume rising 27%, and prices 3% higher. Dow said the automotive and elastomers units reported the highest volume growth, propelled by a "pronounced" increase in vehicle demand, particularly in North America and China. Wire and cable, while it expanded, did so at a "tempered" pace, as construction and infrastructure spending continues to lag. Performance Products sales came in at $2.8 billion, up 41% from the same quarter of last year, with volume up 27%, and price climbing 14%. Basic Plastics sales were $3.0 billion, up 49% from the same quarter last year, with a 5% increase in volume, and prices shooting up 44%.

Dow said polyethylene (PE) was the largest contributor to both volume and price increases, with low production costs and a weak U.S. dollar creating export opportunities. Polypropylene (PP) had volume growth as well, primarily due to strengthening demand in North America and EMEA. Polycarbonates and compounds and blends showed substantial volume gains in EMEA and Asia Pacific thanks to consumer electronics.

At BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany), first quarter earnings were up 38% from the year-ago quarter to $6.3 billion. "We have thus almost achieved the level of the very good quarters before the crisis," said Jürgen Hambrecht, chairman of the board of executive directors for BASF. Hambrecht said that demand for chemicals, plastics, performance products, and functional solutions grew "substantially" on renewed consumer demand, particularly in the automotive and electrical/electronic segments.

Sales expanded by 26% over 2009's first quarter, with BASF noting that inventory restocking had accelerated the recovery. On a geographic basis, Hambrecht said BASF saw high demand in Asia and South America, with North America "slowly recovering", while Europe is "bringing up the rear." European sales were up 12% in Euro terms, with North America rising 47% in Euro terms. Asian Pacific sales shot up 77% in the quarter. Sales in South America, Africa, Middle East were up year-on-year by 26% in local currency terms and by 33% in Euro terms.

BASF says its plastics segment has been recovering steadily since the start of 2009, with sales and earnings substantially higher in comparison with the first quarter of 2009. In its Performance Polymers division, BASF said that increased raw materials prices, partially due to limited product availability, were largely passed on to the markets.

ExxonMobil's first quarter earnings were up 38% from first quarter of last year to $6.3 billion. In addition to higher crude oil realizations, the company cited stronger chemical margins, with the chemicals segment including its plastics business. That segment produced earnings of $1.249 billion, which was $899 million higher than the year prior. For the first quarter, prime product sales came in at 6.488 million tonnes, which was 961,000 tonnes above the prior year.

Chemical business earning in the U.S. for the first quarter were $539 million, up from $83 million in the first quarter of 2009. Non-U.S. chemical earnings rose from $267 to $710 million. In terms of capital expenditures, the company spent $614 million on the chemical segment in the first quarter, with $546 million of that going outside the U.S.

Looking forward, Liveris said remaining challenges for Dow and the industry at large include depressed residential and commercial construction in developed economies; inflation in emerging countries; and sovereign debt issues in southern Europe. In spite of these, Liveris sounded an optimistic tone. "Consumer and business spending has balanced out these challenges," Liveris said. "Overall, the global economic environment is on a stronger footing and there are signs that this will continue for the foreseeable future."

BASF's Hambrecht said that overall he views the remainder of 2010 in a positive light, although to him "the recovery remains shaky." He felt that risks to a continued rebound include the financial and debt crisis; cessation of national stimulus programs; volatile raw materials markets; excess capacities; growing geopolitical tensions; and the threat of trade protectionism. [email protected]

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