Trickle down economics in Ecuador

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Change draws nearer this week in the Ecuadorian cement industry with the announcement of further details on a new integrated cement plant. Union Cementera Nacional (UCEM) plans to build its third cement plant. The part-government owned group will build its new 2200t/day facility in the country's central Chimborazo province. The move will expand the group's domestic production from 1600t/day to 3800t/day, adding to its existing 650t/day of plant in Chimborazo and its 950t/day plant in Azogues. The expansion was supported by a US$230m investment agreement agreed in September 2015 between UCEM and Casaracra.

The timing is interesting here given that cement sales have reportedly fallen year-on-year by 7% for the first seven months of 2015, according to Ecuadorian Institute of Cement and Concrete (INECYC) data. Holcim, in its financial report for the first half of 2015, attributed its lower cement volumes to effects on the local economy by lower oil prices and poor weather. This also followed a declining year for volumes in 2014 after Holcim reported a record year in 2013.

Holcim also reported continuing to export clinker to its Ecuador unit in 2014 despite the drop in volumes. To that end it completed the second phase of its own expansion project at its Guayaquil cement plant back in March 2015. It increased its clinker production capacity to 4500t/day at the site at a cost US$400m.

Also of note, but on a smaller scale, was the announcement by the North American subsidiary of Gebr. Pfeiffer in September 2015 that it was supplying a new MPS swing mill for an existing grinding station at a clinker plant run by Hormicreto. Published details are sketchy on this plant but A TEC Greco refers to supplying a burner to the company for a cement kiln in 2013. The mountainous location and ownership by a concrete producer suggest that this may be a mini-cement plant.

Following the departure of Lafarge from the market at the end of 2014, Ecuador now has three main cement producers: LafargeHolcim (inheriting the Holcim assets), UCEM and Union Andina de Cementos (UNACEM). UCEM's expansion plans will increase its share of the industry by production capacity making it the second largest producer in the country. MCPEC - INECYC estimates projected that cement demand would reach 9Mt/yr in 2018. Meanwhile Manuel Román Moreno, general manager of the Empresa Pública Cementera del Ecuador (EPCE), estimated that the country imported around 1Mt/yr of clinker in 2014.

The question then for UCEM is whether the country will want 9Mt/yr of cement in 2018 with a depressed price of crude oil. As an Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Ecuador's economy is, no doubt, feeling the pinch from the low price of crude oil after a period of growth. In its expansion announcement UCEM reported the reliance of the new plant on bunker oil. This will be trucked in from the Amazonas (Shushufindi) refinery in Sucumbios province and purchased at a subsidised price. Cheap oil can be used to run the plants but it may be needed more to run the country's infrastructure demand for building materials such as a cement.



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