The Russian invasion of Ukraine has added further pressure to the upward trend of energy prices, with extreme consequences for crude oil, natural gas, energy and petrochemical feedstock prices.
Compared to the beginning of February, the price of Brent Crude surged by over £225 per tonne in early March, before falling back slightly mid-month.
Whilst Ukraine is a relatively small player in terms of polymer production and consumption, Russia has become a very significant supplier of polyolefins to the Western European market over the past few years and the removal of this source through either sanctions or countersanctions would create a significant vacuum, which would require substitution from other sources of supply. Whilst US origin PE may be well positioned to substitute missing HDPE and LLDPE volumes, any PP shortfalls will be more difficult to address as the US does not have excess capacity for export.
It is widely rumoured that some Western European polymer producers are facing a 10-fold increase in energy costs. This, combined with higher feedstock costs, is causing some producers of engineering polymers to suspend operations, instead relying upon supply from the Far East for polymer feedstock to make compounds. This move is likely to result in lower cost materials being consumed rapidly, with the subsequent opportunity to push through the price increases necessary to make local production economically viable.
Despite the severity of the current situation, it is notable that the price levels of both Polyolefins and Styrenic polymers are below the record highs of Q2 2021 – a time when prices were being driven by the supply demand balance for those polymers, rather than the cost of energy and crude oil.
The current geopolitical crisis is both volatile and evolving. Whilst the initial market reaction has been to increase commodity prices, the graph below demonstrates that markets are also reacting to a range of factors which have the potential to either drive prices up or down, depending upon anticipated supply and demand, and what applies to crude oil pricing may also apply to polymer prices.
Managing Director – Plastribution Group
SM (Styrene Monomer)
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Oil price increases have accelerated since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
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Whilst the GBP has been quite stable against the Euro throughout 2021, the USD has strengthened since mid-2021 and this has brought with it inflationary pressures for goods priced in $.
The potential delay in the Bank of England implementing further base interest rate increases has turned sentiment negative on the value of the GBP.
UK Economic Data
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This price report comes at a very difficult time and whilst the information is provided in good faith, this is a very dynamic situation and pricing is changing quite rapidly. In February, we saw prices start to soften on most grades of PE and PP as availability continued to improve and buyers were able to pressure sellers into discounts. The crisis in Ukraine has caused a dramatic shift.
With the invasion of Ukraine starting at the end of February, there was an immediate impact on the petrochemical markets. March started with a €95 / MT increase on both Ethylene C2 and Propylene C3 monomers. After some initial discussions, most producers settled on monomer increases. Some put through €125-130 / MT but appeared to accept that a monomer increase seemed more likely. However, as the oil price soared to new highs, many positions changed, and additional increases and “Energy Surcharges” were applied.
Prices on some materials are now €250-350 / MT higher than February with producers adopting a “Take it or Leave it” approach and implementing Order Stops. As many converters had run down stocks in anticipation of price decreases, many had no choice but to pay the new prices.
Outlook for April is impossible to say as the situation is changing all the time. Oil price will be a factor but so will gas and the overall cost of energy. However, we’re seeing signs of reductions in global demand for PE and PP and whilst global logistics continue to be a problem there is more than enough in the world to keep everyone supplied. On balance, with material for immediate delivery hard to come by, prices will probably stay high in April and possibly increase, depending on the end point in March.
The longer term outlook should still be for reductions overall as supply from USA and Middle East eventually arrives.
Product Manager – Polyolefins
£/Metric Tonne by month
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LDPE pricing rose sharply in March. Actual pricing for new orders placed later in the month was hard to confirm but appears to now be more than £1,600 / MT and heading higher. Availability appears to be relatively OK, however, Dow are only just out of Force Majeure and SABIC have reportedly had problems with LDPE.
Producers seem confident in getting price increases through as there are no significant imports to buy as an alternative. Some reports suggest that USA material may not ship until May due to issues at many East Coast ports and we will not see it here until July / August.
LLDPE pricing has risen significantly as all grades of LLDPE are tight and further imports appear to be delayed. C4 LLDPE is now well over £1,400 / MT with £1,450 to £1,500 in many discussions.
Early deals for £1,390 / MT are all gone. C6 continues to be tight and is close to £1,700 / MT again. Metallocene grades are facing shortages as SABIC’s plant experienced interruptions.
HDPE probably saw the biggest falls in February so looks to be rebounding the strongest. Prices are £1,400-1,450 / MT depending on the application.
Imports are delayed and material for immediate delivery commands a premium. Outlook for coming months is for prices to stay high as most material will be supplied from existing local stocks for a few months.
PP pricing rose and PP Copolymer saw levels well over £1,700 / MT again as some producers pushed through £250 / MT increases on the back of limited supply. Some claim to already be sold out for April leading them to take a strong stance on pricing.
Homopolymer also rose sharply with requests for additional volume refused. With imports short, as global shipping remains expensive and impacted by a port congestion, European producers are bullish in their approach to the market.
We can expect to see prices staying high in April unless demand drops off significantly.
EVA continues to be very restricted, and prices have risen in line with other PE grades. However, the picture is a little unclear as the pricing was so high, the increases may be more moderated.
Speciality PP should probably move in line with monomers as the market is smaller and less affected by significant swings in supply and demand. However, they are likely to see additional energy surcharges implemented in the region of €50 / MT.
Product Supervisor – Styrenics
£/Metric Tonne by month
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SM fell by €51/T in February and PS followed downwards. Supply side issues corrected, as EU and US SM production levels and PS availability married with demand. However, this brief period of normality was to be the calm before the storm.
SM prices rose steadily through February and the March SM contract price is €93/T higher than the previous month, now at the highest price since April 2021.
These increases are driven by rising energy costs and the war in Ukraine pushing raw material costs upwards. PS will follow these increases, but supply and demand should remain normal.
February ABS showed signs of a price reduction with SM dropping -€51, ACN -€110 and BD +€50. Demand remained Normal, but the now expected supply side issues remained, as imports from Asia were low and EU production struggled to pick up the slack.
The signs of prices falling were short lived, as the War in Ukraine has unsettled the markets. Styrene has increased by €93/t in March, Butadiene by €100/t and ACN by €93.50/t.
There are rumours of new record prices on the horizon. Supply/Demand will remain unbalanced, an EU plant has a planned shutdown and Chinese demand is slated to increase, reducing volume available for import.
As usual, PC/ABS price is following the trend of ABS.
SAN and specialities such as ASA and SMMA continue to follow the price trend of ABS.
Product Supervisor – Engineering Polymers
Engineering Polymer Feedstocks
£/Metric Tonne by month
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Further price increases announced for March in the region of 150-300 euros per metric tonne, as we continue to see rising energy and logistic costs.
With low activity in the automotive industry, it is expected that supply and demand will be balanced, however the volatile situation in Ukraine could well alter this position very quickly.
Prices continue to increase due to restricted supply and significant increases in glass fibres and other additives. The conflict in Ukraine could well impact supply and pricing due to the volatility in the price of natural gas used in the manufacture of intermediates for these materials.
No change on the horizon with increasing prices, restricted supply, and allocation systems still in place.
Benzene contracts decreased in February, however for March we see a persistence in rising prices on the back of higher energy and logistics costs.
Production has increased in Europe and availability has significantly improved for standard grades but the situation for speciality PC supply remains limited.
This situation remains the same, rising prices restricted supply of MMA.
The situation remains critical due to shortages of Purified Terephthalic Acid (PTA) and Butanediol (BDO) which in turn means poor availability and rising prices.
Other Engineering Polymers
The situation for other engineering polymers remains complex, difficult to predict and depends very much on the exact material, but shortages and cost increases are now the norm for every polymer type.