"I think this happened a lot in China," she said. "China had a tremendous overinvestment in many of industries."
She cited a report from ICIS that outlined more than 15 materials that were experiencing weak operating rates. Besides rubber, others with deteriorating rates included such materials as polyvinyl chloride, methanol, soda ash, acrylic acid, butyl acrylate and calcium carbide, among others.
"The government realised how fast they have been growing without any controls," Bauza-Petrovic said. "The government has taken some measure to control this overinvestment."
She added that China also has been lacking on development of innovative products. "They really have a lot of commodities, but not a lot of high performance products," she said.
Much SR capacity, particularly for polybutadiene, had been idled, according to Bauza-Petrovic She said about a half-dozen BR factories had been idled since the end of 2013, with some rationalization for EPDM and butyl rubber as well.
"The demand is good there, but it still isn't growing as fast as the new supply," she said. "Asia-Pacific is expected to continue being the fastest growing market for synthetic rubber. A lot of consumption will come from China, India and other Asian regions."
Hyde said the addition of all the new SR capacity in China—particularly in 2013-14—had some domino effect for producers elsewhere in the world. "Just like with styrene, there were guys selling polybutadiene into China that now don't have a market for it," he said. "Now they're looking for somewhere else to go, primarily the North Asian producers. That has caused some interesting dynamics that are good for some and bad for others."
While China is roughly balanced on ESBR supply/demand, it will continue to need to import SSBR, particularly the high-end grades. "Nobody wants to build (an SSBR plant) in China," Hyde said. "The technology leakage concerns keep you from building there."
The IHS market analyst said if there remains any magic in rubber chemistry today, it's in SSBR. "The producers—especially the ones who are upstream integrated into rubber—they guard jealously their solution SBR technology."
He said the butyl rubber market, also in overcapacity, has had a new market dynamic emerge recently. Over the past couple of years, China now has the technology to produce halobutyl grades, which are used for tire inner liners. That puts pressure on the three non-Chinese companies that produce it: ExxonMobil, Arlanxeo and a Russian producer.
Bauza-Petrovic said that it's not just in China where expansion plans have stalled. "We still are expecting growth in capacity, but not as before," she said. "Since 2015, a lot of planned projects were canceled and some postponed."
Many IISRP members that had announced new capacity have postponed the projects beyond 2020, she said, indicating that a number of those may never occur.
"I believe capacity additions have been coming, and demand has not picked up as fast," Bauza-Petrovic said. "This slowdown is necessary to get some balance in the industry."
One bright spot in the SR industry, she said, has been in SBS grades of SR. With operating rates exceeding 80%—the vast majority of production is in Asia-Pacific—there is growing demand in all regions. Bauza-Petrovic said SBS elastomers have more specialty products that bring in higher margins, and producers thus far have been careful not to build capacity that outstrips market growth.
The ESBR sector has seen much activity that has kept it in the headlines.
The US slapped antidumping duties on imports from Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and Poland. Mexico—home to ESBR producer Negromex, which is part of Dynasol Group—started its own ESBR dumping investigation on imports from Europe, South Korea and Thailand. The Indian government then imposed antidumping duties against imports from Europe, South Korea and Thailand.
In the middle of all this, East West Copolymer LLC filed for bankruptcy and closed its Baton Rouge, Louisiana., facility. That factory was then sold first to Lion Elastomers LLC and then to ExxonMobil Chemical. It is not expected to be reopened to produce ESBR.
Hyde said it will be several months before all of this shows up in trade data. But he said with East West being out of the picture, it puts US rubber buyers in an interesting place.
"Now you have one pure merchant player in the US in Lion," he said. "The other pure merchant player in North America is Dynasol, and they have a 20-odd% tariff. So you can buy from them, but you have to deal with the import duty."
Goodyear also produces ESBR, supplying its own factories but also selling some on the open market. Hyde said Goodyear doesn't discuss this much, but its "strategy seems to be to get rubber to its tire plants at the lowest possible average cost, whether that means buy it locally or internally."
The Akron-based tire maker is a net buyer of ESBR on a global basis, so they both buy and sell in the merchant market. "But if you're a tire producer that's not upstream integrated into rubber, you have one domestic supplier that is not a competitor of yours, and then you have importers."
With much of the larger volume importing countries now under duties, that limits the options of ESBR buyers. He said one of the most interesting cases is the Synthos Group, which has operations in both Poland and the Czech Republic. It previously sourced US customers from the Polish facility, but after the duties were enacted, Hyde said Synthos began exporting from the Czech Republic to the US.
"As a rubber buyer, I think you're concerned for a number of reasons," he said. "Primarily, you don't want to be at the mercy of one (domestic) supplier."