Houston — A 90-day pause on the Trump administration's plan to hike tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods in January may delay higher consumer costs for everything from tires to galoshes, but the US petrochemical industry remains among the top targets of tariffs already in place and there is no obvious end in sight.
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"We know that things are not going to change for 90 days -- that's all we know," a US market source said in December.
Petrochemical-heavy 25% tariffs the US imposed on Chinese goods in August are not part of the temporary trade detente reached by US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in early December at the G-20 Summit in Argentina.
The two leaders agreed the US would hold off on raising 10% tariffs to 25% on Chinese goods -- many of which involve finished plastics products -- to allow the two largest global economies to negotiate a trade deal.
Trump told reporters it was an "incredible deal," and that China would buy a "tremendous amount of agriculture and other products" from the US.
State Councillor Wang Yi, China's top diplomat, told reporters the agreement prevented "the expansion of economic frictions" between the US and China. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 288 points on news of the agreement.
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Then, on December 4, Trump tweeted "I am a Tariff Man," saying tariffs would "always be the best way to max out our economic power." The Dow fell nearly 800 points.
Two days later, Canadian law enforcement officials, at the request of the US, arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications behemoth Huawei Technologies, on charges that could stem from violating US sanctions on Iran, sparking outrage in Beijing.
By December 7, the Dow had fallen 1,150 points, or 4.5%. For all of 2018, the Dow fell 5.6% in the worst year for stocks since 2008, the year of the global financial crisis.
Stock prices are likely to rise and fall again as more tweets and negotiation nuggets emerge, but uncertainty will remain for the US petrochemical industry, stuck in the center of the $250 billion in tariffs the US has imposed on Chinese goods and the $110 billion in levies China slapped on US goods in response.
"My crystal ball has gotten a big old crack," another petrochemical market source said, noting the only constant in the tumult for market players and chemical companies is uncertainty about how long the trade tensions will last.
On January 2, Apple CEO Tim Cook told investors the company had cut its revenue guidance for the fourth quarter of 2018 amid China's slowing economy, which he said had been impacted by ongoing trade tensions.
The market source said China was "kind of a catalyst" for global growth.
"When the Chinese show optimism, and come out and buy at a decent price, then Southeast Asia and India jump in. If they're actively buying, the rest of the world will follow," the source said.
But without those big Asian economies, "there's not much juice left," the source added. "And China is not going to buy when they feel that their economy will be impacted by the US, which is one of the biggest consumers of their goods."
The first round of tariffs the countries imposed on each other in July involved largely agricultural products and vehicles. Round Two in August involved hundreds of petrochemicals, from feedstocks China sources from the US to make plastics and rubber to machinery, pipes, tubes and other products China routinely exports to US buyers.
China's August tariffs target two grades of polyethylene that make up more than 90% of largely export-bound new production that is online, under construction or planned along the US Gulf Coast, in Pennsylvania and potentially Ohio. That new infrastructure makes up the bulk of more than $200 billion in projects fueled by cheap ethane amid the US natural gas boom, and has prompted the American Chemistry Council to argue vehemently for petrochemicals to be left out of the trade war.
"The success of the US chemicals industry hinges on our ability to engage with global markets," Ed Brzytwa, director of international trade for the American Chemistry Council, said in December testimony before the US Office of the Trade Representative (USTR) regarding a potential trade deal with Japan.
US International Trade Commission data show US October exports of polyethylene rose for a third consecutive month to reach an all-time record high of 441,232.1 mt, up 13.2% month on month and 70.9% year on year, reflecting a 19.7% rise in US PE capacity since early 2017.
However, US PE exports to China fell for a fourth straight month in October to 22,564.3 mt, while Latin America saw its share of imports from the US rise in tandem with the overall increases, reaching 192,073.4 mt for all grades combined -- the highest total since July 2016, when the US sent 199,289.8 mt.
So trade flows are showing shifts in light of the August tariffs as China buys less, "and producers don't want to lower prices so they can pay the tariff price," the first market source noted.
Global producers can circumvent the trade war by supplying China from other operations. DowDupont, for example, can ship products to Asia from its operations in Saudi Arabia, Canada, Argentina and Europe, CFO Howard Ungerleider told a conference in late November. The company's new US PE operations, however, can supply other markets, such as Latin America.
"We're going to have to be agile," he said.
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