January 02, 2024 | Chemicals
Dwindling supplies of raw materials and inflationary pressures have hit multiple industries in recent times. The chemical industry has also struggled with mismatches in supply and demand. Disruptions in the supply of sodium hydroxide, better known as caustic soda, have compounded the problems of chemical and food manufacturers.
Caustic soda is a key ingredient in domestic drain cleaner and a bleach component. It is also widely used as an industrial cleaning agent in the meat and poultry sectors. It serves as an acidity regulator and an anti-caking agent for providing certain textures to finished food products. Caustic soda has various other applications, serving as a peeling agent in cured and canned food, as an alkalizer in beverages, and as a component in the production of packaging.
As caustic soda production is energy-intensive, the increase in energy prices due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict has resulted in a reduction in production and constraints on the supply. Soaring energy prices have escalated the costs of plastic production, resulting in a decline in the demand for chlorine and consequently affecting the supply of caustic soda, a key component of the chlorine manufacturing process. Caustic soda supplies have in the past largely been derived from byproducts of plastics and polymers used in car and construction industries. With energy prices rising steadily, the production of plastics has become more expensive. As rising inflation and economic slowdown continue to hurt the demand for new houses and cars, the knock-on effect has further affected the availability of caustic soda.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected many downstream sectors related to the product, except for detergents, water treatment, and bleach industries. Due to a production cut in the US market in 2021, caustic soda continues to experience a shortage to this day. Also, the UK formulators had regulated supply due to the restriction in plant capacity by the country’s largest manufacturer in Cheshire due to maintenance.
In the third quarter of 2021, a surge in freight costs and constraints in feedstock supply within China contributed to a price escalation in the Asia Pacific region with prices rising from 456 USD/MT to 513 USD/MT. Hurricane Ida led to landfall in Louisiana, resulting in the shutdown of multiple plants, which had a detrimental effect on the supply of caustic soda in Q3 in North America.
In 2022, the insufficient availability of adequately qualified drivers for road tankers resulted in the transportation of caustic soda loads through rivers and canals. However, during the hot summer months, lower water levels led to a reduction in load capacities to manage the situation, thus reducing supply.
The primary challenges facing the chlor-alkali sector in 2022 centered on the elevated cost of caustic soda in Europe, driven by increases in natural gas and electricity prices. In the second quarter, a limited number of deals were finalized due to high export prices from Europe. The persistent issues of high freight costs and delays remained significant obstacles to effective export strategies. However, there has been recent improvement as European exporters reduced prices to enhance competitiveness.
In 2023, the decline in economic activity posed challenges to trading within the caustic soda industry in the European Union, resulting in diminished profit margins and an oversupply situation in the market. In November 2023, prices were down by 10%, 2% and 0.4% in China, U.S. and Europe respectively as compared to the previous month.
Earlier, in September 2023, caustic soda prices in China experienced an upward trajectory due to diminishing inventories, reduced production rates and increased demand from the aluminum industry. The US market witnessed a rise in caustic soda export prices primarily due to a reduction in supply as a result of turnarounds and operational rate disruptions rather than an increase in demand. Also, tightening production rates along with rise in electricity costs are putting upward pressure on caustic soda market in the U.S.
Challenges in production rates are anticipated to persist globally affecting supply for 2024, especially due to expected increases in winter electricity costs. Operating rates for caustic soda in Europe will continue to be lowered due to a decline in demand for certain chlorine derivatives. The U.S. is anticipated to experience a similar trend, albeit potentially to a lesser extent, attributed to capacity curtailment and persistent production challenges. Also, with the imminent hurricane season, operating rates may be affected.
Economic growth is expected to slow down to 2.6% in 2024 from 2.9% this year due to high interest rates and increased energy prices. This, in turn, will influence the demand and production dynamics within the caustic soda market. A potential scarcity of caustic soda in Europe could lead to a significant surge in prices and supply chain expenses, with the supply anticipated to shrink by 50% compared to the previous year.
If caustic soda production capacity remains at current levels with no new plants being set up globally, the forecasted consumption will exceed capacity between 2024 and 2025, thus resulting in excess supply shortages.
The caustic soda market experienced a setback of approximately three years in growth due to the pandemic, and the existing capacity is likely to be adequate until around 2025. Without added capacity, the industry will see shortages and price hikes.