Loeb To Dow: You’re No LyondellBasell

In an investor letter, Daniel Loeb, who heads the hedge fund Third Point, a major Dow Chemical shareholder, gave his constructive critique of Dow’s strategy. Dow, he says, should be earning $2.5 billion more than it currently does. The letter was by no means scathing. He praised Dow’s share buyback program. He acknowledged that Dow has pledged more transparency, but he wants to see more. Specifically, he wants Dow to disclose its transfer pricing methodology between its petrochemical units and its downstream derivatives businesses. Without this, it is impossible to tell whether the Eeedstocks and Energy segment is subsidizing the Performance Plastics segment. In other words, where is the company really adding value? And overall, Loeb says, Dow isn’t adding enough value. And whom does he compare Dow to? LyondellBasell: “Dow has ~30% more North American ethylene capacity, triple the Middle Eastern ethylene capacity, and more North American derivatives capacity than Lyondell, yet the two companies generate the same amount of EBITDA in their respective petrochemical businesses,” Loeb wrote. (Both first have about $6 billion.) Loeb also analyzed Dow’s capacity against industry average margins and probable feedstock slates to get at the $2.5 billion figure. (LyondellBasell was close to being right where it should be.) Loeb isn’t a big fan of Dow’s strategy of integrating its petrochemicals might with downstream derivatives. This means Dow needs more people, administrative expenses, R&D, facilities, etc. “Dow’s headcount is ~2.5 times more than Lyondell’s, which is not a reflection on poor efficiency, but rather that Dow is engaged in numerous downstream derivatives that Lyondell is not,” he wrote. He wasn’t finished. “Given Dow’s decision to exit chlor-alkali, it appears that Dow believes that its Ag Chemicals and Ag Biology businesses do not derive value-add differentiation from chlorine integration. We take this one step further and question whether Dow’s specialty segments need ethylene or propylene integration.” Loeb makes some good arguments. The transfer pricing point to me is most intriguing. I wonder if the company squanders value by dipping into its presumed feedstock subsidies by underselling rivals. The ability to do that would strike me as a temptation that’s hard to resist. I also wonder if a possible solution is for Dow to throw its U.S. crackers into an master limited partnership, like Westlake is doing. Problem solved.    ...

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Trinseo (Styron) Drops Its IPO

Trinseo has withdrawn its prospectus for a $400 million initial public offering of stock. Trinseo is the rarely used name for Styron, the former Dow styrenic polymer and polycarbonate unit. Dow sold the unit to the private equity firm Bain Capital for $1.6 billion in 2010. Bain changed the name to Trinseo for some reason and filed for an IPO two years ago. In its letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission, dated June 15 pulling the registration statement, the company would only say that the withdrawal “would be consistent with the public interest and the protection of investors.” I think that just means that no one gets...

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Why Doesn’t Radio Shack Sell 3D Printers?
Jun11

Why Doesn’t Radio Shack Sell 3D Printers?

About a year ago, I decided the best deployment of unused capital in my Scottrade account was to purchase shares of Radio Shack. My investment thesis was this: 1) I bought a TRS-80 there 30 years ago. 2) I made guitar effects pedals using Radio Shack parts there about 20 years ago. That’s it. The whole idea was predicated on nostalgia. I’m in the red thus far. I have learned a lot about Radio Shack—the business side, not where they keep the capacitors—after the fact. (The capacitors are in a metal case with pull out drawers near the back.) For instance, the profit center of the company is the stuff you normally think of when you think of Radio Shack: The thing that connects one electronic gizmo to another, like when you are installing an entertainment center. The problem is there isn’t much growth in that business. The growth comes from smart phones and the like. The problem here is that the profits here are slimmer and Radio Shack has too much competition. This is where 3-D printers come in and why my griping about Radio Shack is relevant to chemistry. I’ve written about 3-D printing in the past. It is, essentially, a new technique for processing plastics. To make a part, one doesn’t need a costly mold. But the tradeoff is that the user can’t make many of the same part very efficiently. Thus, the technique is ideal for designers to make prototypes. And 3D printing also holds promise for hobbyists and tinkerers of all kinds, especially when firms such as 3D Systems are offering machines for as little as $1,300. It would seem like Radio Shack would be an ideal retailer for 3D printers and, perhaps more importantly, the consumables involved: cartridges of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene and polylactic acid. 3D printers are today very much like ham radios were 40 years ago and computers were 30 years ago: outlets for curiosity and creativity. 3D Printers are also cool. Who wouldn’t be fascinated seeing a 3D printer in a store, perhaps churning out a new object right before your eyes in a demonstration? Why, people might even walk into Radio Shack deliberately to see a 3D printer up close. It would be the first time the store had a draw since it did away with the Battery Club. But there is a first retailer getting into the 3D printing business with 3D Systems printers: Staples. Is that a good fit? I suppose. They sell toner and report covers. It is the store of last resort for Blue Fun Tak in early September. I think Radio Shack would have been better,...

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Tough Times For Propylene Buyers

There is little doubt that the advent of shale is opening the spigots for massive amounts of new ethylene production in North America. However, a consequence of all the additional production of ethylene is much less production of propylene. Chuck Carr, a propylene analyst at IHS Chemical, gave a great overview of the situation at IHS’s petrochemical conference down in Houston late last month. As ethylene makers seek to take advantage of the abundance of ethane by cracking less naphtha, they are producing far less propylene. A naphtha cracker, Carr pointed out, will make about a half ton of propylene for each ton of ethylene produced. An ethane cracker will only put out about 20 kilograms of propylene for each metric ton of ethylene made. The amount of propylene coming from steam crackers has declined by 30% in only a few years. Overall, after reaching a peak of about 16 million metric tons in 2007, North American polypropylene production has declined to about 14 million metric tons. Some 54% of propylene is made in oil refineries, only about 40% is now made in ethylene crackers. Propylene prices are rising, putting polypropylene makers in a tough position. As I heard over and over again at the IHS conference and then at NPE, a plastics trade show put on in Orlando last week, high polypropylene costs are tempting plastics converters to switch to high density polyethylene when they can. Soft drink bottle caps are a key battleground application. If they have seemed a little different lately, now you know why. One company that jumps out at me as being in a tougher bind than most is Braskem, which recently purchased the polypropylene businesses of Sunoco and Dow Chemical. According to Carr’s presentation, the company has the largest deficit of propylene in North America. In fact, Braskem has no production of propylene in the region. The company’s Marcus Hook, Pa., plant is downstream from Sunoco’s Marcus Hook refinery. Or at least it was. Sunoco idled the refinery in December and looks to permanently shutter the unit over the summer. It is ending a supply agreement with Braskem in June. The supply agreement covers about 60% of the facility’s 350,000 metric tons of annual polypropylene capacity. A contract with another supplier in the region covers 19% of the capacity. In its 20-F regulatory filing put out this week, Braskem says it being supplied by Sunoco out of Sunoco’s Philadelphia refinery and from other sources. The polypropylene unit is still operating at normal levels. The company is also in discussions for long-term supplies of propylene from other refineries in the Northeast. “At this time,...

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As You Sow Flies The Flag Of Victory Over McDonald’s

McDonald’s is testing double-walled paper coffee cups at 2,000 of its restaurants, primarily on the West Coast, to replace the expandable polystyrene cups it currently uses. McDonald’s says it testing market acceptance, performance, and operational impact of the new cups. The advocacy group As You Sow, which organizes shareholder resolutions at companies to improve environmental performance, is claiming victory, noting that this comes “in response” to a shareholder resolution it put in McDonald’s 2011 proxy. The resolution asks the board to issue a report on more “environmentally beneficial beverage containers” and the like. When I asked McDonald’s if the action was because of As You Sow’s efforts, a spokeswoman responded, “This test is a result of our efforts as a company to continually seek more environmentally sustainable solutions.” According to As You Sow’s press release, the measure received the “support of nearly 30% of total company shares voted.” That is technically true, but a somewhat flattering way of putting it. The measure received 23% “FOR” votes, 55.44% “AGAINST” votes, 21.57% abstentions. As You Sow’s 30% throws out the abstentions. As You Sow says the 30% result is great for an environmental resolution. Perhaps. Its website also has advice on how shareholder proposals ought to be interpreted: In most cases, an investor with 3% ownership in a company would be one of the top shareholders and thus even single digit votes may gain considerable attention from a company. Social proposal votes more than 10% are difficult to ignore and often result in some action by the company to address the shareholders area of concern. Votes that receive 20-30% or more have garnered strong support from mainstream institutional investors and send a clear cut single to management. Only the least responsive of companies is willing to ignore one out of every three or four of its shareholders. I can go both ways on this. More than two thirds of the votes cast for the cup proposal didn’t even want McDonald’s to study paper cups. Would ignoring them somehow make McDonald’s super responsive to the wishes of its shareholders? On the other hand, it could be that some institutional shareholders reflexively vote these down because they see the shareholder proposal as a subversive tactic. These same shareholders might not object, or even notice, if McDonald’s management did a trial run of paper cups without proxy prompting. If I were a McDonald’s shareholder, I might have voted for the measure as stated (why object to a study?), but I wouldn’t think that a major rollout of paper coffee cups would have much chance of success. We must remember that McDonald’s coffee is hotter...

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Monaca, Pa!

Shell Chemical has selected the Pittsburgh area town of Monaca, Pa., as the site of its new ethylene cracker complex. Actually it will be in Potter and Center Townships, which are near Monaca, Pa. (Pop. 6,286, according to Wikipedia). But that narrows it down a lot more than what Shell was previously saying: “I don’t know, Appalachia somewhere or something.” Monaca is a bit of a chemical town. It is host to a Nova complex that makes Arcel polystyrene resins for foams and expandable polystyrene. Nova calls this the Beaver Valley site. (If that name conjures an image of a valley teaming with beavers felling trees willy nilly, I know the feeling.) This doesn’t mean that the plant is a done deal. As its press release explains: “The next steps for this project include additional environmental analysis of the preferred Pennsylvania site, further engineering design studies, assessment of the local ethane supply, and continued evaluation of the economic viability of the project.” The company isn’t saying much more about the project. It will feature an ethylene cracker and downstream polyethylene and ethylene glycol plants. We already knew about that. There’s nothing new about the size or the timing. I do have a couple of thoughts about the project: 1) Isolated ethylene and derivatives complexes never work out. If the ethylene cracker goes down, how do you run the derivatives plants and where does the ethane feedstock go? If one of your derivatives complexes goes down, do you run the cracker at reduced rates? It would be nice to see another cracker complex built in the neighborhood that would be connected to the Shell site. I suspect that we’ll probably hear from another company with cracker plans in the region before long. 2) I doubt Shell will build its own polyethylene plant. It hasn’t had any skin in the polyolefins game since it sold its stake in Basell to Access Industries in 2005. I am expecting a partner of some kind on the polyethylene unit. If it does go it alone, I would think that the plant would spew out commodity grades of polyethylene. One example of such a product would be high-density polyethylene for extrusion blow molding—used to make milk jugs. Shell would need something that is relatively easy to sell. Also, the company wouldn’t want to do a lot of switching of grades at the plant because of potential problems with excess ethylene, as I mentioned above. All this aside, it is great to see such a big chemical plant being contemplated for the...

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