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Early signs of automotive, construction rebound emerging

Ethylene, polyethylene operating rates now near year-ago levels

Houston — Dow Chemical is seeing early signs of recovering demand in automotive, construction, furniture and bedding markets as economies worldwide emerge from widespread coronavirus pandemic-related shutdowns during the second quarter of 2020, company executives said July 23.

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The company has restarted two polyethylene plants in Texas and a third in Argentina that were shut in April to keep inventories in check amid low demand. Operating rates for the company's ethylene and PE facilities have rebounded to year-ago levels, CEO Jim Fitterling said during the company's second-quarter 2020 earnings call.

"If you go back to the beginning of the year, January, February, we were off to a rocking start," he said. "Then it was the economic shutdowns that really locked everything in during the months of March and April and May; April and May being the two worst. I would say operating rates, for us, on ethylene, polyethylene, right now, are pretty much like they were last year and the volumes are continuing to build."

However, Dow will deepen its cost reductions and slash 6% of its global workforce amid expectations of a gradual recovery. Dow reported a $225 million net loss for Q2, compared with a $75 million profit in the year-ago period.

Single-use plastic demand overshadowed by weak demand for durables in Q2

Fitterling said the company continued to see strong demand in packaging and other single-use plastics, but such gains were overshadowed by weak demand for durable plastics in big-ticket items like vehicles and homes, as well as lower margins during Q2. Total volumes for packaging and specialty plastics were flat as gains in some regions could not offset excess supply and weak demand in the US and Canada, he said.

Chief Financial Officer Howard Ungerleider said the company expects continued robust demand from consumers for resins that make plastics used for food packaging, hygiene and health care items as well as the beginnings of a recovery in demand for more durable plastics.

A combination of industry planned and unplanned outages plus PE inventories hovering near five-year lows should tighten the market and support a 5 cents/lb price increase for domestic US material in July and August, Ungerleider said.

Fitterling also noted that recent economic indicators show that in June, US industrial production rose 5.4% and retail sales increased 7.5% from May. US housing starts also rose 17.3%,and were 4% under the June 2019 rate.

He said China's Q2 GDP was up 3.2% year over year, and Dow's China volumes rose 13% compared with the year-ago quarter.

"European and North American economies have been slower to recover, but began improving in June," he said. "Latin America remains challenged, but we expect them to follow a similar recovery pattern in the second half of the year."