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London — European ethylene prices began to soften in July and stood at Eur627.50/mt FD NWE on July 29, down Eur22.5/mt since July 2 when the contract price for the month was settled, S&P Global Platts data showed.

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Market sources said July turned into a relatively slow month for ethylene, partially linked to summer holidays across Europe and the key derivative polyethylene turning softer. Also, cracking of lighter feedstocks that maximized ethylene yields to take advantage of more competitive LPG over naphtha generated steady supply, sources said.

The coastal market, where most of the feedstock-flexible plants are located, was heard gathering supply length going into August, despite the ongoing outage of the Borealis Stenungsund cracker in Sweden, with August-delivery spot prices heard at a 25%-30% discount to the August CP.

"What is affecting the market balance [in August] is a question of derivatives and how much volume Borealis buys," one source said. "I think the PE quotation is a bit overestimated. The market is not as high as they say; also, holidays are having an impact."

In the downstream PE market, polyethylene trade thinned ahead of the start of the holiday season in Southern Europe. Spot prices for some grades remained tight but with demand also weaker, the market was still balanced. For some grades, producers are now expected to see margin erosion in July and potentially in August, depending on where the August monomer settles.

Although July contracts for LDPE grades broadly settled at a margin pass-though, or at least a Eur84 increase, contracts for LLDPE and HDPE grades have seen margin erosion for the first time this year, with contracts settling at no more than a Eur70/mt increase, according to both converters and producers.

"Since suppliers managed well their production and storage they were hoping to get more than the monomer, but they didn't succeed as there was enough competition," a converter said.

Market participants are now awaiting settlement of the August monomer for direction but are comfortable with the lower stock levels and current downstream demand.

In the ethylene market, going into August support is expected from the upstream market, where the July monthly average was $42/mt (Eur36/mt) higher than June at around $384/mt in CIF NWE prices, Platts data showed.

Considering upstream sector dynamics moving into August, and particularly feedstock market fundamentals, including naphtha but also LPG, propane and butane, European petrochemicals producers that retained the capacity to maximize LPG utilization rates against naphtha would continue to do so. This was mainly due to more competitive propane against naphtha, while some cracking demand for butane was also present.

However, even with naphtha becoming more expensive, petrochemicals producers showed strong support for naphtha feedstock grades, while any upside in demand moving into August would be covered by naphtha as well, as the LPG cracking capacity had already been maximized.

"Many European crackers do not have the capacity to switch away from naphtha and everyone that could have switched, has already done so," a source said.