Soaring gas prices ripple through heavy industry, supply chains

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Susanna Twidale and Roslan Khasawneh

LONDON (Reuters) – Global record high natural gas prices are pushing some energy-intensive companies to curtail production in a trend that is adding to disruptions to global supply chains in some sectors such as food and could result in higher costs being passed on to their customers.

Some companies, including steel producers, fertilizer manufacturers and glass makers, have had to suspend or reduce production in Europe and Asia as a result of spiking energy prices. That includes two of the world’s largest fertilizer makers, which said they would cut production in Europe. The UK on Tuesday said it agreed to provide state support to one of the companies to restart production of by-product carbon dioxide, which is used in food production, to avert a supply crunch.

Natural gas prices have risen sharply around the globe in recent months. That has been due to a combination of factors: including increased demand particularly from Asia due to a post-pandemic recovery; low gas inventories; and tighter-than-usual gas supplies from Russia.

Gas prices in Europe have risen more than 250% this year, while Asia has seen about a 175% increase since late January. In the United States, prices have surged to multi-year highs and are about double where they were at the start of the year. Electricity prices have also risen sharply as many power plants are gas-fired.

Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a trade group representing chemical, food and materials manufacturers, has in recent days called on the U.S. Department of Energy to stop the country’s liquefied natural gas producers from exporting gas to help keep the energy costs down for industry.

Additional supplies of gas could alleviate pressure. Norway has allowed increased gas exports. More supply could flow from Russia by the end of the year with the country’s new Nord Stream 2 pipeline awaiting approval from Germany’s energy regulator. The pipeline project has drawn criticism from the United States, which says it will increase Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies.

PRODUCTION DISRUPTIONS

The pressures so far have been particularly acute in Europe, where gas stocks are much lower than usual heading into winter. Norway’s Yara International ASA, one of the world’s largest fertilizer makers, on Friday said it would cut about 40% of its European ammonia production due to high gas prices. That came after U.S.-based CF Industries Holdings Inc said gas prices were prompting it to halt operations at two of its British plants. Natural gas is the most important cost input for nitrogen-based chemicals and fertilizers.

Yara’s chief executive, Svein Tore Holsether, told Reuters in an interview Monday that the company was bringing ammonia to Europe from production facilities elsewhere, including the United States and Australia. “Instead of using European gas, we are essentially using gas from other parts of the world to make that product and bring it into Europe,” he said. CF Industries didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Some industries are calling on governments to intervene on their behalf. These pleas come as some countries have acted to protect consumers from soaring energy bills, such as Spain, which last week approved a package of measures including price caps.

Among those asking for help is the food industry following a shortage of carbon dioxide (CO2) caused by the suspension of production in some fertilizer plants. CO2 is used in the vacuum packing of food products to extend their shelf life, to stun animals before slaughter and to put the fizz in soft drinks and beer.

In the UK, meat processors had warned they will run out of CO2 within five days, forcing them to halt production. Soft drink manufacturers, who rely on the gas to make carbonated drinks, said supplies were running low.

On Tuesday, the British government said it struck a three-week deal with CF Industries for the American company to restart the production of carbon dioxide in the UK. Britain’s environment minister, who said the state support could run into tens of millions of pounds, also warned the food industry that carbon dioxide prices would rise sharply.

CF Industries said in a statement it is immediately restarting ammonia production at its Billingham plant following the agreement.

WEATHERING THE STORM

Other energy-intensive sectors such as steel and cement are also feeling the pinch.

Soaring gas prices have in the past couple of weeks “forced some steelmakers to suspend operations during those periods of the night and day when the cost of energy rockets,” said Gareth Stace, director general at industry group UK Steel. He declined to identify which companies.

British Steel, the country’s second-largest steel producer, said it was maintaining normal levels of production but that the “colossal” energy-price increases made “it impossible to profitably make steel at certain times of the day.”

Some manufacturers say they are able to cope, so far.

Germany’s Thyssenkrupp AG, Europe’s second-largest steelmaker, said hedging mechanisms it had in place against energy price increases, especially gas, meant it was not curbing production. But it said it was indirectly affected because the industrial gases it used are linked to electricity prices.

HeidelbergCement AG of Germany, the world’s second-largest cement maker, said higher energy prices were driving up production costs but that operations had not been halted as a result.

In China, several steel, ceramic and glass makers have reduced production to avoid losses, according to Li Ruipeng, a local supplier of liquefied natural gas in the northern province of Hebei. And, China’s southwestern province of Yunnan this month imposed limits on production of some heavy industries, including producers of fertilizers, cement, chemicals, and aluminum smelters due to energy shortages, a move that analysts said could reduce exports.

To weather the storm, some energy-intensive industries and utility firms in Asia and the Middle East have temporarily switched from gas to fuel oil, crude, naphtha or coal, analysts and traders said. That trend is expected to continue for the rest of the year and into the beginning of next, according to the International Energy Agency, the Paris-based energy watchdog.

In Europe, demand for coal as an alternative power source has also risen significantly. But options for switching to alternative sources of energy are limited in the region largely due to government policies aimed at encouraging the use of gas over more polluting fuels such as coal.

The glass industry was historically run on fuel oil, but almost all sites in the United Kingdom have now transitioned to natural gas, according to Paul Pearcy, federation coordinator at British Glass, a UK trade association. Only a few sites have fuel oil tanks that enable them to switch energy source if prices skyrocket, he added.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Susanna Twidale in London, Roslan Khasawneh in Singapore; Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Nigel Hunt, Eric Onstad and Ahmad Ghaddar in London, Jessica Jaganathan and Chen Aizhu in Singapore, Yuka Obayashi in Tokyo, Nidhi Verma in Delhi, Scott DiSavino in New York, Heekyong Yang in Seoul, and Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt, Tom Kaeckenhoff in Düsseldorf, Polina Devitt in Moscow, Arathy S Nair in Houston; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low)

Global supply chains buckle as virus variant and disasters strike

By Jonathan Saul, Muyu Xu and Yilei Sun

LONDON/BEIJING (Reuters) – A new worldwide wave of COVID-19. Natural disasters in China and Germany. A cyber attack targeting key South African ports.

Events have conspired to drive global supply chains towards breaking point, threatening the fragile flow of raw materials, parts and consumer goods, according to companies, economists and shipping specialists.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus has devastated parts of Asia and prompted many nations to cut off land access for sailors. That’s left captains unable to rotate weary crews and about 100,000 seafarers stranded at sea beyond their stints in a flashback to 2020 and the height of lockdowns.

“We’re no longer on the cusp of a second crew change crisis, we’re in one,” Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, told Reuters.

“This is a perilous moment for global supply chains.”

Given ships transport around 90% of the world’s trade, the crew crisis is disrupting the supply of everything from oil and iron ore to food and electronics.

German container line Hapag Lloyd described the situation as “extremely challenging”.

“Vessel capacity is very tight, empty containers are scarce and the operational situation at certain ports and terminals is not really improving,” it said. “We expect this to last probably into the fourth quarter – but it is very difficult to predict.”

Meanwhile, deadly floods in economic giants China and Germany have further ruptured global supply lines that had yet to recover from the first wave of the pandemic, compromising trillions of dollars of economic activity that rely on them.

The Chinese flooding is curtailing the transport of coal from mining regions such as Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, the state planner says, just as power plants need fuel to meet peak summer demand.

In Germany, road transportation of goods has slowed significantly. In the week of July 11, as the disaster unfolded, the volume of late shipments rose by 15% from the week before, according to data from supply-chain tracking platform FourKites.

Nick Klein, VP for sales and marketing in the Midwest with Taiwan freight and logistics company OEC Group, said companies were scrambling to free goods stacked up in Asia and in U.S. ports due to a confluence of crises.

“It’s not going to clear up until March,” Klein said.

MORE PAIN FOR AUTOMAKERS

Manufacturing industries are reeling.

Automakers, for example, are again being forced to stop production because of disruptions caused by COVID-19 outbreaks. Toyota Motor Corp said this week it had to halt operations at plants in Thailand and Japan because they couldn’t get parts.

Stellantis temporarily suspended production at a factory in the U.K. because a large number of workers had to isolate to halt the spread of the virus.

The industry has already been hit hard by a global shortage of semiconductors this year, mainly from Asian suppliers. Earlier this year, the auto industry consensus was that the chip supply crunch would ease in the second half of 2021 – but now some senior executives say it will continue into 2022.

An executive at a South Korea auto parts maker, which supplies Ford, Chrysler and Rivian, said raw materials costs for steel which was used in all their products had surged partly due to higher freight costs.

“When factoring in rising steel and shipping prices, it is costing about 10% more for us to make our products,” the executive told Reuters, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“Although we are trying to keep our costs low, it has been very challenging. It’s just not rising raw materials costs, but also container shipping prices have skyrocketed.”

Europe’s biggest home appliances maker, Electrolux, warned this week of worsening component supply problems, which have hampered production. Domino’s Pizza said the supply-chain disruptions were affecting the delivery of equipment needed to build stores.

U.S. AND CHINA STRUGGLE

Buckling supply chains are hitting the United States and China, the world’s economic motors that together account for more 40% of global economic output. This could lead to a slowdown in the global economy, along with rising prices for all manner of goods and raw materials.

U.S. data out Friday dovetailed with a growing view that growth will slow in the last half of the year after a booming second quarter fueled by early success in vaccination efforts.

“Short-term capacity issues remain a concern, constraining output in many manufacturing and service sector companies while simultaneously pushing prices higher as demand exceeds supply,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit.

The firm’s “flash” reading of U.S. activity slid to a four-month low this month as businesses battle shortages of raw materials and labor, which are fanning inflation.

It’s an unwelcome conundrum for the U.S. Federal Reserve, which meets next week just six weeks after dropping its reference to the coronavirus as a weight on the economy.

The Delta variant, already forcing other central banks to consider retooling their policies, is fanning a new rise in U.S. cases, and inflation is running well above expectations.

‘WE NEED TO SUPPLY STORES’

Ports across the globe are suffering the kinds of logjams not seen in decades, according to industry players.

The China Port and Harbor Association said on Wednesday that freight capacity continued to be tight.

“Southeast Asia, India and other regions’ manufacturing industry are impacted by a rebound of the epidemic, prompting some orders to flow to China,” it added.

Union Pacific, one of two major railroad operators that carry freight from U.S. West Coast ports inland, imposed a seven-day suspension of cargo shipments last weekend, including consumer goods, to a Chicago hub where trucks pick up the goods.

The effort, which aims to ease “significant congestion” in Chicago, will put pressure on ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and Tacoma, specialists said.

A cyber attack hit South African container ports in Cape Town and Durban this week, adding further disruptions at the terminals.

If all that were not enough, in Britain the official health app has told hundreds of thousands of workers to isolate following contact with someone with COVID-19 – leading to supermarkets warning of a short supply and some petrol stations closing.

Richard Walker, managing director of supermarket group Iceland Foods, turned to Twitter to urge people not to panic buy.

“We need to be able to supply stores, stock shelves and deliver food,” he wrote.

(Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm, Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, Hilary Russ in New York, Joe White in Detroit, Lucia Mutikani and Howard Schneider in Washington and Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Editing by Simon Webb, Dan Burns and Pravin Char)

Coronavirus cases spread outside China, fall inside, winning WHO’s praises

Coronavirus cases spread outside China, fall inside, winning WHO’s praises
By Gabriel Crossley and Hyonhee Shin

BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – Italy, South Korea and Iran reported sharp rises in coronavirus infections on Monday, but China relaxed curbs on movement as the rate of new infections there eased and a visiting World Health Organization team reported steep declines in visits to clinics.

The virus has put Chinese cities into lockdown in recent weeks, disrupted air traffic to the workshop of the world and blocked global supply chains for everything from cars and car parts to smartphones.

But China’s actions, especially in the city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, had probably prevented hundreds of thousands of cases, the head of the WHO delegation in China, Bruce Aylward, said, urging the rest of the world to learn the lesson of acting fast.

“The world is in your debt,” Aylward said in Beijing, addressing the people of Wuhan. “The people of that city have gone through an extraordinary period and they’re still going through it.”

The surge of cases outside mainland China triggered sharp falls in global share markets and Wall Street stock futures as investors fled to safe havens. European share markets suffered their biggest slump since mid-2016, gold soared to a seven-year high, oil tumbled nearly 4% and the Korean won fell to its lowest level since August.

But U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the impact on the global economy or supply chains, saying it was simply too soon to know.

The WHO’s Aylward said multiple data sources backed the trend of declining cases but an official with China’s National Health Commission, Liang Wannian, said more than 3,000 medical staff had become infected, most of them in Hubei, and likely due to the lack of protective gear and fatigue.

Excluding Hubei, mainland China reported 11 new cases, the lowest since the national health authority started publishing nationwide daily figures on Jan. 20.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, most in Hubei.

Overall, China reported 409 new cases on the mainland, down from 648 a day earlier, taking the total number of infections to 77,150 cases as of Feb. 23. The death toll rose by 150 to 2,592.

But there was a measure of relief for the world’s second-largest economy as more than 20 province-level jurisdictions, including Beijing and Shanghai, reported zero new infections, the best showing since the outbreak began.

Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

South Korea reported 231 new cases, taking its total to 833. Many are in its fourth-largest city, Daegu, which became more isolated with Asiana Airlines  and Korean Air  suspending flights there until next month.

Iran, which announced its first two cases last Wednesday, said it now had 61 cases and 12 deaths. Most of the infections were in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Bahrain and Iraq reported their first cases and Kuwait reported three cases involving people who had been in Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed restrictions on travel and immigration from Iran. Afghanistan also reported its first case, officials said.

Europe’s biggest outbreak is in Italy, with some 150 infections – compared with just three before Friday – and a sixth death.

SHOW MUSTN’T GO ON

In northern Italy, authorities sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings across a wide area, halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases.

Austria briefly suspended train services over the Alps from Italy after two travelers coming from Italy showed symptoms of fever.

Both tested negative for the new coronavirus but Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said a task force would meet on Monday to discuss whether to introduce border controls.

President Xi Jinping urged businesses to get back to work, though he said the epidemic was still “severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage”.

Xi said on Sunday the outbreak would have a relatively big, but short-term, impact on the economy and the government would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow.

Mnuchin, speaking to Reuters in the Saudi city of Riyadh, said he did not expect the coronavirus to have a material impact on the Phase 1 U.S.-China trade deal.

“Obviously that could change as the situation develops,” he added.

Japan had 773 cases as of late Sunday, mostly on a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday.

In South Korea, authorities reported a seventh death and dozens more cases on Monday. Of the new cases, 115 were linked to a church in the city of Daegu.

 

(Reporting by Gabreil Crossley and Ryan Woo in Beijing and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Judy Hua, Huizhong Wu, Yawen Chen, Lusha Zhang and David Kirton in Beijing, Engen Tham in Shangai, Joyce Lee and Cynthia Kim in Seoul, Tom Westbrook in Singapore, Kate Kelland in London, Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Andrea Shalal in Riyadh; Writing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Simon Cameron-Moore and Kevin Liffey)

With U.S. tariffs looming, China drums up hope for a partial trade deal

By Yawen Chen and Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese state newspaper said on Friday that a “partial” trade deal would benefit China and the United States, and Washington should take the offer on the table, reflecting Beijing’s aim of cooling the row before more U.S. tariffs kick in.

Both sides have slapped duties on hundreds of billions of dollars of goods during the 15-month trade dispute, which has shaken financial markets and uprooted global supply chains as companies move production elsewhere.

As top U.S. and Chinese negotiators wrapped up a first day of trade talks in more than two months on Thursday, business groups expressed optimism the two sides might be able to ease the conflict and delay a U.S. tariff hike scheduled for next week.

China’s top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, said on Thursday that China is willing to reach agreement with the United States on matters that both sides care about so as to prevent friction from leading to any further escalation.

He stressed that “the Chinese side came with great sincerity”.

Adding to that, the official China Daily newspaper said in an editorial in English: “A partial deal is a more feasible objective”.

“Not only would it be of tangible benefit by breaking the impasse, but it would also create badly needed breathing space for both sides to reflect on the bigger picture,” the paper said.

Hours ahead of an expected meeting between China’s Liu and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, China’s securities regulator unveiled a firm timetable for scrapping foreign ownership limits in futures, securities and mutual fund companies for the first time.

China previously said it would further open up its financial sector on its own terms and at its own pace, but the timing of Friday’s announcement suggests Beijing is keen to show progress in its plan to increase foreigners’ access to the sector, which is among a host of demands from Washington in the trade talks.

Chinese officials are offering to increase annual purchases of U.S. agricultural products as the two countries seek to resolve their trade dispute, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing unidentified sources.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Thursday confirmed net sales of 142,172 tonnes of U.S. pork to China in the week ended Oct. 3, the largest weekly sale to the world’s top pork market on record.

A U.S.-China currency agreement is also being floated as a symbol of progress in talks between the world’s two largest economies, although that would largely repeat past pledges by China, currency experts say, and will not change the dollar-yuan relationship that has been a thorn in the side of Trump.

PESSIMISM ‘STILL JUSTIFIED’

Analysts have noted China sent a larger-than-normal delegation of senior Chinese officials to Washington, with commerce minister Zhong Shan and deputy ministers on agriculture and technology also present.

The sudden optimism about a potential de-escalation is in stark contrast to much more gloomy predictions in business circles just days ago on the heels of a series of threatened crackdowns on China by the Trump administration.

On Tuesday, the U.S. government widened its trade blacklist to include Chinese public security bureaus and some of China’s top artificial intelligence startups, punishing Beijing for its treatment of Muslim minorities.

Surprised by the move, Chinese government officials told Reuters on the eve of talks that they had lowered expectations for significant progress.

Friday’s China Daily editorial also warned that “pessimism is still justified”, noting that the talks would finish just three days before Washington is due to raise tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports.

The negotiations were the “only window” to end deteriorating relations, it added.

Trump, said on Thursday that the talks had so far gone very well. But he has previously insisted he would not be satisfied with a partial deal to resolve his two-year effort to change China’s trade, intellectual property and industrial policy practices, which he argues cost millions of U.S. jobs.

There have also been reports that the Trump administration is readying additional measures aimed at China, with unknown consequences for trade negotiations.

Such wildly shifting expectations have been a persistent feature of the trade war, and observers remained cautious over what might emerge from this week’s talks.

“China wants peace, but I don’t think China will give more,” one Chinese trade expert said on condition of anonymity.

(Reporting by Yawen Chen and Michael Martina; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore & Kim Coghill)