Cause and Effect: Plastic Resin Supply
- Mike Burns of RTi Global
- Randy McGill of Prinsco
Jamie sits down with Mike Burns of RTi Global and Randy McGill of Prinsco to discuss the current situation with the plastic resin used to make agricultural drainage pipe. This is a unique look at how the global plastic supply works. They cover the effects of the pandemic on the global supply and what the recent winter storms in Texas have done to exacerbate the supply shortage.
Episode 8 | 35:24 min
Mike has over 25 years of experience in the plastics industry. He is considered by many as one of the foremost experts in the polyethylene resin markets. He manages over 4 billion pounds of polyethylene transactions for over 40 RTi clients.
Randy McGill is the VP of Finance at Prinsco and has over 20 years of industry experience.
This is the water table.
A chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues
A place for people to go find information and education
Matt Helmers 0:12
Water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.
How misunderstood what we do is.
I would encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.
Welcome to the water table podcast. Today we’re switching gears here a little bit and going away from water quality and sustainability and we wanted to talk about resins. Earlier this year we had a Dr. Michael Pluimer on to talk about materials and why we use what we use in pipe and virgin vs. recycled. But today we’re just going to talk about what’s happening in the world today with with polyethylene resin that we buy at Prinsco and in our industry. And we have with us today Randy McGill, Randy works at Prinsco, he has for 20 years and has been involved in our procurement and understands what we do at Prinsco. And also on the phone. We have Mr. Mike Burns. And Mike is a consultant in the plastics industry. He’s been around the industry in different roles for over 30 years. And we just want to have a conversation today about why things are happening the way they are why we’re seeing the huge increases in our raw materials and why pipe companies are out increasing their prices almost as fast as they can to keep up with with where things are at. And then also just talk about the stream. Is the stream of resin gonna continue to be steady? Are we going to see disruptions? That kind of thing. So welcome, guys. Randy, anything to add to my introduction?
Randy McGill 1:56
No, I would just say going back, you know, 25 years, you and I have known each other and Mike, you know, part of that I’ve been in the supply chain finance world and operations world all that time. And I spent, you know, probably eight years buying buying resin back in beginning of my career.
Good. Mike, give us a little maybe start out just a little bit of what if you want with your background, but if not just talk about, you know, how did we get to where we are what happened in the last 12 months, leading up to February of 2021?
Mike Burns 2:29
Thanks, Jamie. So briefly, I spent the first 13 years of my career selling raw materials to people like Prinsco and other extruders and molders around the country. In the early 2000s, I left and joined resin technology and I’ve been there for 20 years. At RTi we work with clients to help them make decisions, achieve best pricing and give them resin information and strategy to help them move forward and be better than their competitors. I think this last two years or year and a half have been historic. And I’d like to go back unfortunately, go back to 2020. And review 2020. Real quickly. Everybody was part of this plastics world more than they thought they’d be. And you know what happened, it’s a four quarter year. And the first quarter, we had the shutdowns. And that was something that none of us have ever experienced. We didn’t know what was going to happen. So everybody got sent home. Manufacturing was put to a halt, maybe down to 70% or 30%, in some cases, thinking that no one was going to buy anything. And what happened in the first quarter when oil went down to zero and people stopped producing is the US manufacturers who make plastics in the US out of natural gas. And having a cost advantage around the world took every pellet that was possible to export and sent it to China. So China starts to restart. At the same time in April May where we come out of our houses and realize that essential businesses include Home Depot and Lowe’s and target and Walmart. And the North American consumer goes out and starts buying products off the shelves. And what in turn was the now the demand for plastic raw materials or the plastic products, plastic raw materials, is a huge surge. So March and April, we have no production and all sudden, late April into May. Everybody’s out to stores lining up and buying something and our demand goes through the roof. Well, they go back there’s no resin available because we shipped it all to China, literally to China. So the US manufacturers now have a seller’s market. They start implementing price increases and the processor like yourself is accepting those because they’re very, very busy. And what we what we saw was four consecutive price increases through the summer, totaling 19 cents a pound. Now, as the summer went on, everybody stopped buying like crazy. The grocery business got back to normal. School was going to start up, maybe did didn’t where do you live, things kind of got back to normal, demand got back to normal, production got back to normal, people started working a little more out in manufacturing. And we saw a billion pound inventory gain from August, September, October and November, we thought 2021 was going to get a lot of that 19 cents back. More than half was, was anticipated, in myself. So the first week of December, an event happens in Mexico, where Braskem, the largest supplier of polyethylene in Mexico, gets their feedstocks from the government owned gas company in Mexico. They have an ongoing dispute about their pipeline, and how much they should be paying. The net result is the Mexican government, without notice, cuts off the feedstocks to the Braskem plant. So the billion pounds of inventory that we just accumulated over four months were like was getting back to normal, prices were going to start easing, all the incremental pounds go to Latin America and Mexico, they need to buy as fast as they can as much as they can. There’s no end in sight and the Braskem situation with the Mexican government. So demand still good in the US. And we get into January, and all the residents gone again.
Now what happens is we have Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart, they don’t want empty shelves in the Spring, like last year, they want those shelves packed because people are coming out of their house. It’s gonna be a stay at home summer, vaccines roll out, we’re gonna have everyone’s gonna go and do the things they didn’t do last year or see what their neighbor did last year. And they’re gonna go out and buy it. And they want them shelves filled. So the orders are coming in big in January in February. And businesses good and demand is very good. Net result, five cent increase in the month of December, and another five cent increase in the month of January. All based on low inventories and very, very strong US demand, not feedstocks, but US demand. So this is good, there’s no resin available, demand’s great, everybody’s running, price increase start to flow to the consumer. And then the Texas weather event happens. And the Texas weather event is a game changer big time.
So Mike, before you move on to the Texas event. Let’s just back up a minute and talk about what happened in 2020. With that pricing. I want to link that back from those prices were from the majors and the the resin companies to the manufacturers to people like Prinsco. And we were able to, because we were able to buy ahead, build inventory ahead. Where we were able to not implement price increases until the fall of 2020. So when you’re talking about, you know, five cent here, four cent there, throughout the summer of 2020. We were seeing that but we were able to blend it with other other scenarios of resin and not have to move that price on to our customer until later 2020 is when we started doing that. And then in 2021 not expecting what was going to happen in Texas. So I’m glad I could kind of take a break there to build the suspense because this is a big deal. So keep on with your story about the Texas event please.
Mike Burns 8:42
Yeah, so real quick, what drives price in North America, since we’re natural gas based, we’re the cheapest in the world. Everything comes out starts at the get at the well but supply what’s driving supply is key to pricing in North America. And historically what drove supply was the ability for us to export to anywhere in the world. 65% or more of the world makes their resin from oil or natural gas much, much cheaper. So we can always control our inventories by exports. And last year what happened was exports the day before demand and demand is continuing to be strong. So we have very strong demand here continuing and what happens to Texas now you’ve got you know that to dumb this down for everyone but you know a natural gas comes out of a well it goes into a system that gets into a pipe goes to another pipe where it’s where that natural gas is cracked and separated into different feedstocks. Ethane is the one for polyethylene or ethylene. And now it’s at that unit a cracker and it gets into a pipe and goes to another unit where they make ethylene. Ethylene is then produced at a unit and shipped and stored at another facility not you don’t store it at your own, your own facility, it’s everybody puts Ethylene into a common area and you make deposits and you withdraw. And you withdraw it out of there and you bring it to your polyethylene reactor. You make polyethylene. Every one of these touch points, has pipes with moisture in them has valves with moisture in them. So you’ve got many touch points here. And unlike a hurricane where you shut down your plant, and you come back a few days later, you see what happens if it hit your area or not, which is important. Hurricane Harvey really put 50 inches of water into one area. But everybody else turned on the lights on the following Monday and they were fine. This didn’t happen here. You had freezes and disruptions all along the supply chain from the natural gas well all the way to the pellet been made. You’ve seen a plastic pellet plant. Have you seen a refinery there’s nothing exciting about it, because it’s all pipes. And that’s the problem. It’s all pipes. So everybody has been shut down the first week, you’ve had this week where we’ve had people come back into the plants to take a look to see what’s going on. And it’s some there’s some places that have some a lot of damage. We’re not getting as much information today, as we would hope to have the second week of the event. It’s trickling down of what’s available suppliers haven’t been out there with allocations. We’ve heard a lot of rumors, a lot of scuttlebutt, but nothing formal from the supplier base. And that’s probably coming next week. Irregardless, we went into this with super strong demand. And very low resin inventories. And now we’ve had two weeks of production out. We get rumors that people may not start till April, you have rumors that people are ready to go next week. I’m not buying next week. So one of the big barometers we watch what happens in the secondary in the ninth grade markets. Those are people who buy spot, their traders. They’re not contract with suppliers for resin they have to buy every day aggressively. And typically there that’s an advantage for them and has been historically over the last 40 years. Their prices have surged this week to historical highs. The resin that Prinsco would be buying, sold this week at a higher price than anything in the history of high density polyethylene. For a commodity grade resin that the pipe market is buying. And we’re going to see additional increases beyond January, we have seven cents for this month, February, there’s seven cents for March. I anticipate additional either increases or some type of surcharge to cover the necessary
maintenance that’s going to be needed here. The last thing a part of this puzzle, which is new to me and a lot of people, is nitrogen is used in the polyethylene process. But it is also very important in cleaning out the lines and all along from the natural gas all the way to the polyethylene line. It’s sort of like your sprinkler blowout. Instead, it’s not high pressure air, it’s nitrogen. And everybody came to the nitrogen store at the same day last week, there’s no nitrogen available. So not only do you have unknown maintenance problems. Just a quick color on this, I saw a picture of one of these valves that looked like you know the world war two submarine with the big valve and the giant bolts putting it together that you see in a movie. Well, this thing was split in half from the ice. And this is not something that the custodian can put together. This is some serious engineering that you have to have done, and done correctly. So those are the types of things that we’re we’re we’re challenged with. And what it’s going to ultimately do is limit the amount of material available and further increase prices. It’s definitely in the short term, and maybe maybe long term. So what we’ve had last year, we had 24 cents of price increases, most that’s ever happened in one year ever, more than any hurricane year. This year, we’ve had five, seven and another seven to 19 cents, totaling 43 cents of price increases in a year, which is within 13 months, 14 months, just out just on variable. So we are starting to hear you know the consumer is going to get this. The invoices are coming in. The consumer is going to get this. We’re going to see this in the grocery bill, we’re going to see this at Home Depot. This cannot be avoided you know 90% to 100% increase in your price over a year cannot be avoided. So it’s going to be a challenge going forward. But right now, a lot of people are saying it’s not a matter of when I’m going to or if I’m going to run out of resin when I’m going to run out of resin. That’s the concern in the polyethylene business right now. Is how fast this thing recovers and it’s going to take at least a quarter or more to get going.
Unknown Speaker 15:00
Yeah, let’s talk a little bit about that. I’ve got a few questions on that I can go into different directions, but just about the stream and running out and you know what does the crystal ball look like? If we’re, you know, at Prinsco, right now we’re buying as much as we can get from wherever we can get it and negotiating a whole lot on price. We’re just, well there is no negotiation to do. So. We’re getting what we can. And right now, you know, where we’re pretty satisfied for the most part with that we’re getting enough. But does that is that going to change that we are going to be limited on what we want, what we get will be two different things. And if that does happen, in your crystal ball, when will that happen? And how long will that last?
Mike Burns 15:55
You know, unfortunately, I can’t I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s the question everybody asks all week, is when is this thing. We don’t have any information from suppliers yet. That’s the challenge is whoever your major supplier is has not come out and identified whether or not they had a problem, how big the problem is, and when they can when they anticipate the problem being resolved. Shell owns a ethylene plant in Deer Park, Texas outside of Houston. And they said mid April or sometime in April is when they plan on restarting, that’s the first and only information we’ve got from a supplier with a date on it. The other problem is is your plant may be fine. But you may not be able to get feedstocks, or as many or as much feedstocks as you want. Again, you’ve got from the natural gas, you got many many touch points before you get a pellet. So it’s unfortunately I can’t answer the questions because I don’t know the answer. And the information is has not been provided yet. And I think people are hesitant to give anyone anything too rosy at this point. And and you know, as the week’s go on, we’ll we’ll figure out who’s got resin. The ultimate thing will be when the phone starts ringing that Prinsco, and that when car starts rail cars of materials start being offered and shows up. Right now people say go buy whatever you want, go buy for me, and then I’ll pay you the price you tell me. That’s never happened before when the buyer for even I’m not sure if the buyers are Prinsco taking that approach or not. But I’ve heard that there’s auctions, it’s a seller’s panic market right now. And it may be the lowest price you paid this half of the year, maybe the highest price, but we’ll you’ll see that as your phone starts ringing. And that’s what we’re that’s what we’re going to monitor the next weeks going forward.
Randy McGill 17:47
Yeah, Mike, do you, you know, talking about the restarts in these refineries and plants down in the Gulf states. Can you go into what that looks like, I mean, we all saw that the power is out in the south for for a period of time, maybe a number of days in different areas, and then, you know, this talk about you don’t just flip the light switch and everything comes back on, can you kind of explain to everyone how that that restart works, and then what a typical restart would look like after say, a hurricane event where they had no damage.
Mike Burns 18:16
You know, it’s probably a little bit past my paygrade on starting a plant. I, you know, it’s it is a matter of getting a lot of, you know, you need feedstocks to get this plant running. But there’s a chain of feedstocks that go into this like we talked about a little while ago. You know, it’s not turning a switch on it’s, it’s making pellets to making a product that meets a specification that the pipe market wants or the bottle market wants or you know, the garbage can market or bag film markets want so you it’s it’s now you are starting you know that put the recipe together to make sure you’re getting a product that can be used and sold. That does what it’s supposed to do, whether it’s you know, medical field or, or garbage can, it’s still has specifications. So that’s the end result is the tough thing is dialing in making resin that meets the needs that you’re selling. Everything before that is sort of guys to fall into place as well as far as feedstocks and equipment working. But I don’t, I’ve never run a plant, and I wouldn’t want to get that far into it.
Randy McGill 19:31
So the short answer is it takes quite a bit of time to get that started up. So they’re they’re pushing material through and then they’re testing all along that process so it could be days or weeks.
Mike Burns 19:41
So a good example would be after Hurricane Harvey there was one plant that was severely five feet underwater was the story The other plants were back running almost 100% within 10 days. So when you can come in and, like you want to say, turn the lights on and see what’s running, it’s a 10 day turnaround in you are in good shape. That’s what we saw at hurricane Harvey. And that’s the most recent shutdown event that I can recall. And so so yeah, you come back and you know, your feedstocks are showing up, your electricity is on, your people are working, your foundations not cracked, then you could probably get 10 days to get those things going. If you have maintenance problems, you don’t have as many people working these days, everybody in the area is calling the same plumber. And that’s literally what’s happening. So you don’t you know, you got to get in line for a lot of things. So it might be a little more of a challenge when everybody’s calling on the same day.
How about, you mentioned early on the company, I think you said their name was Braskem in Mexico. And does the Mexican government change their tune here on this and and open them back up because of the supply shortages? Or is there anything to report there?
Mike Burns 21:05
No, they haven’t they haven’t. They the Braskem facility was getting deliveries from a feedstocks ethane, which is the natural gas byproduct delivered to them via cargo ships. It’s a big ship filled with gas. It’s a that’s what they’ve been running about 50% on. The question that a lot of us had this week is are they going to get anything? And and this may, this may put the Mexican government more, you know, more leverage, in that case. It’s a Brazil company versus a Mexican country. So the love is not, there’s no love lost there.
Sure. Yeah, lots of moving parts and, and things to figure out which is, which is always the case. And in a dynamic situation like this.
Randy McGill 22:01
What are you seeing Mike on the logistics side of things as far as maybe rail or even trucking on that’s been affected by last week’s storms? Or just the demand that really ramped up the second half of 2020? And going into 21?
Mike Burns 22:15
That’s, um, I think that’s an that’s gonna, that’s a great question. And that’s going to be a big unknown for Texas. Because, I live in Minnesota, like you guys do when every summer every winter your driveway cracks or something like that. There’s a lot of rail move down there, there’s a lot of roads, you know, there’s a lot of inspection that has to come clean. The railroad will not move product unless everything’s lined up. So that’s a good question, can you you can make it now., but can you get it anywhere? We’ve seen shipping problems, and you guys may have experienced this too, all over the country this year lack of lack of availability and increased freight rates. Freight rates of guns, historically have a play there. They’re really and that’s another part of the problem too. And you guys are probably seeing that too, shipping a lot of air.
Randy McGill 23:06
Yeah, our supply chain likes to refer to trucking as a Bermuda triangle here that since COVID, kind of hit us, you know, you’ll have you’ll have a truck scheduled to pick up something and it may not show up because they got a higher price for a different route on it. So you see dropped loads and things like that this last year since the pandemic really shot up demand for shipping.
Mike Burns 23:28
There was even times that I heard that, because of one region was spiking more than the other truckers at one time wouldn’t drive to Wisconsin, because the numbers are high. So they returned in down loads so you can get a load out of Wisconsin. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I wouldn’t doubt it.
So when you when you explain the situation, Mike, kind of you talked about going into 2021, we had a surplus that we built up of about a billion pounds over four months. And now we’re we’re back to zero due to the challenges that happened in Mexico and then Texas here as most recently. But what do you see, is there an opportunity with it? I know this is just total speculation, but is there an opportunity that we could start to build a surplus in the second quarter or third quarter? Or should we just expect continued rising prices for now and then stability at a really high price for the rest of 2021? What you kind of on the personal side? What are your thoughts on that?
Mike Burns 24:38
I think that the first half of the year is done. If there is some price relief, it won’t be coming till the second half of the year. I think, remember this too, is that you know the the we have stimulus checks pending. We have very strong demand at the consumer level into Lowe’s and Home Depot’s and those consumers aren’t in tune with what you and I are talking about right now. Business is good, the orders are in and I have customers that make caulking tubes and Adirondack chairs and coolers and five gallon buckets, and they’re all busy. It’s really remarkable. So and we see that continuing, we don’t see that going away. As long as you know, I think it’s gonna it’ll be a better summer than last year, but I think it’s a stay at home summer, and it’s a project summer. And people will be you know, trying out doing what the Jones’ did last year, and we think that’s what where we’re at, we’re going to keep the demand good with low inventories. That’s gonna be the challenge for the processor.
Yeah, I don’t know if our, if our listeners can hear the train go by. But we’re hoping that from our studio here, we’re hoping that there’s several rail cars of resin on that train that are heading to our plants. So if they can, that’s what that’s what the plan is.
Mike Burns 26:07
There is some demand destruction in polyethylene that this is long term. But this is how it worked for the last 20 years. To make a product, a bag that goes into your garbage can at home, or at the end of the aisle at the shopping center, or the big box store. It costs about 25 cents over resin. To make one from China that shipped to Chicago, it costs about 25 cents or resin to make one Chicago and ship in Chicago. So this pricing level that we’re going to be at will enable and it will happen, the big box, the retailer, the distributors, the garbage can manufacturers, they’re going to call China. And China will be sitting there waiting to deliver. That will happen is our prices will get out of whack. And that will that will take a lot of the polyethylene film, that’s commodity that goes in, like I said, the garbage can at the end of the aisle bag, grocery sack that they’ll call China, it’ll be there. The tariffs prevented some of that, in 2018 2019. But this spread right now is too big over, we’re 20 to 25 cents over the price in China. That is not sustainable for commodity products. So we could see some of that that will relieve pressure on on pricing. Then that’s that’s the second half of this year. That’s not happening this month. It’s long term that’s out there, that’s always been there.
That always takes time to work through the system and things like that. But you know, I think I think overall just maybe leave our listeners with this is where do you see from a long term perspective, and kind of just talked about that, but production wise and without events, weather events, catastrophic events, should we be seeing a pretty stable polyethylene market into the future? Or is there always dynamics you can’t predict?
Mike Burns 28:10
Well, you know, it’s in the historically, prices may have gone up five cents, or six cents a year, or down five cents, or six cents, we’re up 42 cents in the last 13 months. The suppliers will do a good job at bringing that price or keeping that price up there by exporting incremental pounds. So our prices will come down to a level when things get back in the second half of this year, there’s going to be some price relief. But it’ll come down in small increments, it’s not going to be that 40 cents back in a month, it’s going to be it’s going to be handed out probably not to the third quarter, probably not till late third quarter, into the fourth quarter where you where you start seeing 2022 negotiations where suppliers do not want to lose market share going into 2022. You know, when you have 42 cents of fat in the market, you don’t want to lose anything. So that’s when the that’s when the shifts should start to happen. We’ll see that in October, November December of this year. I’ve never talked about a year in advance in the second month of the year ever. And that’s that’s what I’m talking about right now that’s kind of far out there.
Well, we kind of have to, when it’s this historic and this different than normal. You kind of have to think that far ahead right now and obviously, we’ll probably be wrong but you got to be planning as much as you can.
The challenge is, you know, is there a point where the consumer doesn’t buy that garbage can at the store, doesn’t buy their new outdoor furniture, and you know the next section half of this year, we’ve had a lot of changes in our new administration. We’ve got the stimuluses, we’ve got the COVID vaccine rollout. You know, there’s a lot of different things going on. That could go either way. One of the one challenge is, I’ll leave this with you too, is OPEC has always met quarterly or less than quarterly, they’re meeting monthly now to keep in touch and keep the oil production in line with COVID. demand. So their goal is to make money and they will control production, to get that price up as high as they can this year, as more people begin to fly, travel, you know, and products are being made using oil around the globe. So there’s just quite a bit of going on in the second half of this year, which could be a positive or a negative, hopefully positive right?
Yeah, for sure. So on a typical episode of the water table, we end by kind of giving you, both you and Randy, in this case, your last thoughts. Which is kind of what do you want to leave consumers with. Mike, you’ve been sharing a lot of things you want to leave consumers with. And it’s been helpful and educational, but anything that you’d like to share, before we we move on?
Mike Burns 31:18
It’s important that the prices are high. When you have an event that’s on the front page of the paper, you need to sell that to your customers. It’s got there’s you have to be willing to accept these prices, it’s not going away anytime soon. I think that’s you know, that’s the real push there is, don’t ignore this, it’s not going away. There’s a lot of price increases that happen that people don’t understand, because it’s just supplier driven. This is an event driven that’s on the front page of the paper, it was a big event that’s causing a lot of problems. The whole feedstock chain, I think if if you’re ignoring it, you think it’s going to go away quick, you maybe get sent to the back of the line. And then you come to the front line, you pay more. So right now in this time, I think it’s it’s got to be bullish on the price going up. It’s not ending soon.
Yeah. Good answer. Randy, any thoughts you want to leave us with?
Randy McGill 32:19
Mike, you mentioned historic a number of times throughout throughout our discussion here and that’s certainly the case now. You know, through all my years in this, so typically your your supply disruptions are not during, you know, February. It’s typically after a hurricane event or maybe a plant fire at a producer. So this is certainly thrown, you know, a lot of disruption into the industry. And it just continues from what we’ve experienced throughout the pandemic. Just a lot of different scenarios thrown at you that you’re trying to navigate through, you know, just the supply chain, all in general, just this being the feedstock of us. But transportation logistics issues that we’ve navigated through for the last 12 months now, things of that nature, so it’s just a lot to work around. And I wish we all had a crystal ball to see what was going to happen. Unfortunately, they don’t sell those at Home Depot alongside or pipe.
Mike Burns 33:19
They do and they don’t work. You know, you mentioned a bad word there and I didn’t even bring it up. But you know that and I really hadn’t considered this until you said it, but second half of this year, August through October, is the hurricane season. So you know, we get out of this and life looks better. There’s another challenge that’s there every year.
Yeah. And those types of you know, the situation in Mexico combined with a situation in Texas is was a double whammy. And you know, you if we have another one right as we’re coming out it could be it could create a lot of issues. So our job here on the water table is just to bring experts to the table. I think we did that today. And educate our listeners on what’s happening typically that’s around water quality but we use our products for water quality projects. And we wanted our customers and our listeners to know the dynamics that we’re facing here the last couple of weeks and a lot of our job that in 2021 will look back and 2020 was a pandemic year and 2021 is a cost increase year from the standpoint of our raw material. So really appreciate both of you guys. Joining me and joining the water table. It’s an honor to know guys that have experienced and in the topics that we discuss and you to certainly do so thank you for being part of the water table and maybe we can catch up on another episode in the future.
Mike Burns 35:01
Great, thank you very much.
Randy McGill 35:02
Yeah. Thanks, Jamie for having us on.
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