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Superabsorbent Polymer Supply During 2010 and Beyond

Please see the following summary regarding the state of superabsorbent polymers. I did not write it. Rather a colleague in the industry wrote it. I believe it to be very accurate and I agree with the information contained therein.

Since the 4th quarter of 2009 we have seen an almost perfect storm of events that are affecting the SAP supply around the world. These events, mostly unforeseen production problems for the primary raw material, glacial acrylic acid (GAA), have caused the market supply to tighten faster than anyone predicted. Following is a brief summary of market conditions in each region as we are seeing and being told.

1. Asia-Pacific: As far as the petrochemical industry is concerned, Asia is driving the trends in the world today. This includes all aspects of materials production, prices and growth. The Asian GAA supply has been tight, and remains tight with prices increasing weekly in spot markets. Also SAP production capacity in Asia has been at 100% for 6 months now. Most makers are now reporting to be in an oversold position by 5-10% of current capacity. New capacities slated to come on in 2010 will add less than 10% new SAP capacity to the region. Plus, there are production problems on the horizon with nearly all Asian makers shutting down plants and systems for maintenance, as is their custom every summer. (Not to mention the possible production breakdowns that can unexpectedly occur.) All these factors are putting tremendous pressure on already strained systems. SAP makers are pushing through with plans to expand their capacities. Still if ground is broken today it will take ~2 years before significant new SAP capacity can be realized. Any new SAP capacity must also be accompanied by a supporting GAA production.

2. North America: Here is where most of the perfect storm hit and this time it was not a hurricane in the gulf. Domestic SAP supply had started to tighten just before 4th quarter last year. Still GAA was fairly available, but the market was feeling some upward price pressure from increasing propylene feedstock pricing used for acid production. The market was set for a possible SAP shortage coming by mid-2010. Then, the perfect storm of events started to happen before the New Year:

1.   SAP imports from Asia started to pull back from the NA market.

2.   One US SAP maker started to have reactor system problems, reducing their production output.

3.  American Acryl plant in Baytown, TX caught fire and its GAA production was effectively destroyed until mid 2010. This effectively shut off supply of GAA to Nippon Shokubai’s Chattanooga SAP plant.

4.  Dow chemical announced in December that they too had an acrylic acid unit down and had to reduce shipments to customers. This further reduced the SAP production to at least 2 domestic SAP plants.

5.  In a private disclosure to customers, Dow declared force majeure on GAA contracts March 9th, and implemented supply allocation, affecting US SAP production capacity. SAP shipments have been delayed going into April and beyond for several customers.

With these events the SAP supply is falling very short of current demand. The duration is not known, but industry managers feel that once Dow fixes their GAA production, and American Acryl is back in production, the SAP supply situation can return to ~100% of capacity. However, with no real new capacity coming on stream anytime soon, the NA market may well experience SAP shortages for the remainder of the year even with capacity at 100%.

3. European Union: The EU market is tracking in parallel to the NA and AP market. As they entered 2010, some GAA & SAP supplies were available. But as they now enter the 2nd quarter, SAP demand is said to be at 100% and about to be in short supply. Possibly some of this is due to NA and Asia problems. We know that Middle Eastern companies, shorted by Asian supply of SAP, are turning to the EU. Likewise, NA customers and US SAP makers are pulling from the EU plants to regain some lost capacity here. Unless the Euro weakens more against the USD, this situation will remain spotty and short-term. Still the fact is that extra SAP volumes, once available in the EU, will likely not be there come April. How long it will continue and how deep the short supply will be is uncertain for the EU at this point. We continue to monitor the situation.

4. Market Summary: Global demand for SAP continues to increase almost without regard to the current situation. Conservative numbers put demand growing at 6% annually, but in fact the growth being realized is closer to 10%. The major brand diaper producers seem to be moving forward with plans to increase SAP usage in all global markets rather than conserve given the current shortage. This condition is affecting the availability of SAP supply to smaller and more specialized users. Capital investment in petrochemicals, which has been in decline the past few years in NA & the EU, is key to any significant future SAP expansion. In the current economy, the future NA & EU expansions can really only be driven by major purchase commitments. Few if any companies will build a plant on faith that the customers will come… the risk is too great. The capital requirements for the integrated supply chain are prohibitive for new blood to enter the markets, except maybe in China, India and the middle East. Still it will take time to get the production in place. So at least for the near term, customers will be chasing dwindling supplies of SAP in all markets.

From these events and market conditions, we see a very tight and short supply for SAP for the foreseeable future. How long will it last? We are not sure, and cannot speak for producers' plans, but the conditions are right for it to last at least through 2010. There are no real, newly announced, large-scale capacities for SAP coming on the horizon. Even when it comes, the GAA/SAP production stream must be there and compete for a tight propylene supply with the larger demand of polypropylene and other polymers. So SAP expansions could be limited for the next few years depending on several downstream supply factors.

What does all this mean and why am I telling you now? The short answer is… so that you can be aware of the market conditions and incorporate the information into your planning. We will continue to do the best we can to supply customers with available volumes.

However, the larger market today is conniving against all of us and it will take a strong effort to keep plans on course. Communication is key to keeping on top of developments and changes to come. We also urge all customers to seek out more information from other sources to verify this information and not just take our view. Our goal, as always, is to work with and support our customers to the best of our ability.

I echo my colleague’s comments relative to sharing this information with you. 
Please consider this information as you navigate 2010 and beyond.
Do not hesitate to contact WaterGelCrystals with any questions or concerns.


Don Carr

WaterGelCrystals
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