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Chemical outlook post COVID-19 is bleak

Early earnings figures from chemical makers are down

by Alexander H. Tullo
April 16, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 15

Credit: LyondellBasell
LyondellBasell says it will slow work on the propylene oxide plant it is building in Houston.

The first post–COVID-19 pandemic financial results are starting to trickle in from chemical makers, and they aren’t good. Indications are that 2020 will be a year of sharp declines.

LyondellBasell Industries expects its net earnings for the first quarter will land between $110 million and $180 million when it puts out final numbers on May 1. Last quarter, before the pandemic hit, its net was $612 million.

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The company says its major sites are up and running and that packaging and medical markets have been robust. However, it did idle production of plastic compounds used in auto manufacturing.

LyondellBasell has been taking money-saving measures such as reducing inventories and slowing capital spending, including the construction of a massive propylene oxide/tert-butyl alcohol plant in Texas. The company expects that 2020 capital expenditures will be down 20% from its original estimate of $2.4 billion.

Preliminary first-quarter figures from the German polyurethane chemical supplier Covestro show a 4.1% decline in sales volumes. It expects earnings before taxes to fall to $277 million, compared to $303 million in the previous quarter.

Covestro expects earnings before taxes to be between $1.1 billion and $1.6 billion for the year, , compared to more than $1.7 billion in 2019. Like Lyondell, the company is throttling back capital spending by around 20%.

In a new report, Moody’s Investor Service says it expects chemical industry earnings before taxes to decline by 10% on average during 2020. Some sectors will be affected more than others, Moody’s says. For example, coatings might be bolstered because of lower raw material costs, but US petrochemical makers will bear the brunt of lower oil prices.

For the past decade, these companies have counted on US natural gas prices to be lower than global oil prices to sustain a cost advantage versus competitors abroad. But oil prices have declined from about $55 per barrel at the beginning of the year to $20 recently.

To shore up prices, OPEC and other oil-producing countries, such as Russia, agreed on April 12 to cut oil production by nearly 10 million barrels per day, or about 10% of world production.



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