Houston — US caustic soda exports fell 23% in May from April, as prices rose compared with other major producing regions, according to the latest US International Trade Commission data,released July 7.
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The US exported 554,991 mt of caustic soda in April, down 2.6% from March as chlor-alkali rates fell to April's 68% from March's 90% on sharply lower demand for chlorine and downstream products made with it. Those products include construction staple polyvinyl chloride and hydrochloric acid, used in oil and gas production, as construction and oil and gas activity cratered amid widespread global shutdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Caustic soda, a key feedstock in alumina and pulp and paper industries, is a byproduct of chlorine production.
However, as economies began reopening in May, caustic soda exports slid further despite industry data that showed chlor-alkali rates rebounded to 75%.
Market sources said the decline likely stemmed from buyers turning to imports from Asia and Europe, where prices for export material were lower than US pricing.
US caustic soda prices began 2020 at $200/mt FOB USG, having been under pressure throughout 2019 because of sluggish industrial demand. Chlor-alkali rates were strong, ranging from 86% to 90%, in January through March, on solid chlorine demand, maintaining healthy caustic soda output.
When chlor-alkali rates plunged in April, caustic soda supply sank, pushing prices up 77% to $400/mt FOB USG June 16 from $225/mt FOB April 7, S&P Global Platts data showed. US export prices remained at that level through June 30 as export activity thinned.
Prices in Europe and Asia also rose in April as chlor-alkali rates retreated, but began falling as US prices held. The FOB Northeast Asia marker was assessed June 7 at $235/dmt, down nearly 13% from $270/dmt May 12, while the CFR Southeast Asia marker was assessed June 7 at $285/mt, down nearly 11% from $320/dmt May 12.
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Europe's FOB NWE marker was last assessed June 30 at $250/mt, a 28.5% drop from $350/dmt May 12, Platts data showed.
A US market source said traders have sought lower-priced European and Asian cargoes for buyers in Central and South America, which traditionally are solid US export markets given the proximity.
"Nobody has any interest to purchase cargoes" from the US, given lower pricing elsewhere, the source said.
US ITC data showed that, in the first five months of 2020, the US exported 2.35 million mt of caustic soda, down 3.6% from the same span in 2019.