Philly Deals: Chemical makers can't paint over their differences

Dupont Co.
Dupont Co.
Posted: July 12, 2012

Checking the skittish world economy, it's tough to read the signs when major producers can't agree:

DuPont Co. scrambled Tuesday to dispute an Australia-based rival's claim that factories have stopped buying titanium dioxide, a basic industrial chemical that whitens paints, plastics, and papers.

Demand for pigments made from titanium ore "has in essence gone from full steam ahead to full stop in a little over eight weeks," warned David Robb, managing director at Iluka Resources Ltd., on Monday. With plants in Australia and Virginia, Iluka says it's the second-largest titanium-dioxide producer after DuPont, which mines titanium sand in Florida and processes it into Ti-Pure-brand crystal at plants on the Delaware River and in Tennessee, Mississippi, Mexico, and Taiwan.

Instead of manufacturers who use the pigments "running plants for maximum yield and looking to build inventory," as they did until recently, "we now see them running for minimum practical yields, using the cheapest possible feedstock blends to do that, and trying to run down inventory," Robb told investors. He said chloride- and sulphur-based pigment demand is also off.

DuPont has raised titanium-dioxide prices repeatedly since the 2008 financial crisis, and as recently as March, contending a rapid increase in global demand, compared to supply. But after Robb's remarks Monday, shares of Iluka fell 25 percent, and shares of Connecticut-based titanium-products supplier Tronox Ltd. fell 18 percent. Shares of DuPont, a diversified producers of agricultural and chemical products, slipped 3 percent.

But Tuesday, B.C. Chong, president of Wilmington-based DuPont's Titanium Technologies unit, sought to calm investors with a statement: "Recent comments regarding market demand for titanium dioxide in the second half of 2012 are not consistent with DuPont's view and overstate the softness in the pigment industry."

He added, "We remain confident in our titanium-dioxide outlook for the rest of the year and longer term." Spokesman Gregg M. Schmidt declined to elaborate.

Tronox issued its own statement, noting that pigment-makers were buying more of the company's titanium "slag" than of higher-quality ores, without directly addressing the question of overall demand. All three companies' shares traded modestly higher Tuesday.

Dry and high?

The hot summer is drying green crops and pushing U.S. grain prices sharply higher — but that might not translate into supermarket inflation.

"U.S. drought continued to drive higher grain prices," analyst Jonathan Feeney told clients in a report from Janney Capital Markets. With more than half of the Midwest suffering hot, dry conditions, prices of "corn, soybean, and wheat are now 40 percent, 30 percent, and 25 percent above late-May levels, respectively," with corn up 11 percent just last week.

Yet the slow U.S. economy, falling foreign demand for U.S. foods — due partly to weak European and slowing Chinese markets, plus a stronger dollar, and good crops in South America — along with lower fuel prices, leave U.S. "retailers likely expecting little, if any," room to boost U.S. consumer prices.

Indeed, despite rising feed costs, hog prices slipped last week, as did wholesale beef and powdered milk. Until people around the world can afford more food again, growers, processors, and retailers — instead of U.S. consumers — may be eating higher costs.

Rich and richer

Pennsylvania taxpayers will give high-end department-store operator Neiman Marcus Group close to $900,000 in grants and tax breaks for the company's planned $12?million, 200,000-square-foot warehouse in Jenkins Township, near Pittston, Luzerne County. In a statement, Gov. Corbett said the chain would hire "at least 151."

Corbett credited the subsidy and the state's "pro-business climate" for Neiman Marcus' promise to build in the depressed, onetime coal region.

Landlords have been luring warehouses from New Jersey to townships along Pennsylvania's free interstate highways north and west of Allentown. In Corbett's statement, Neiman Marcus chief financial officer Jim Skinner noted that his chain already has 15 stores in Pennsylvania and that Pittston was a "strategic location" near New York and other metro areas.

The state package includes a $375,000 grant from the Pennsylvania First program, $67,950 in job-training assistance, and $453,000 in Job Creation Tax Credits. So far this year, Neiman Marcus has collected $150?million in net profit.

Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @PhillyJoeD.

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