TPC Group's CEO Discusses Q1 2012 Results - Earnings Call Transcript

Apr.27.12 | About: TPC Group (TPCG)


Q1 2012 Earnings Call

April 27, 2012 10:00 a.m. ET


Rishi Varma – VP and General Counsel

Mike McDonnell – President and CEO

Miguel Desdin – SVP and CFO


Bill Hoffman - RBC Capital Markets

Edward Yang – Oppenheimer

Barry Haimes - Sage Asset Management


Good day, ladies and gentlemen. And welcome to the TPC Group quarterly earnings conference call. At this time, all participants are in listen-only mode. Later, we will conduct a question-and-answer session, and instructions will follow at that time. (Operator Instructions) As a reminder, this call may be recorded.

I would now like to introduce your host for today’s conference, Rishi Varma. Sir, you may begin.

Rishi Varma

Thank you, Soumya. Good morning everyone and welcome to today's conference call to discuss TPC Group’s first quarter 2012 earnings results. With me today are Mike McDonnell, President and Chief Executive Officer; along with Miguel Desdin, Senior VP and CFO.

While management will not be referencing slides today, we have posted a presentation online that includes supplemental financial information about the quarter. These slides along with other quarterly financial results can be found in the Investor Relations section on our website at

Please note there’s a slide in the presentation which refers to the forward-looking statements and says that statements made during this call that refer to management’s expectations and/or future predictions are forward-looking statements intended to be covered by the Safe Harbor provisions of the Securities Act, as there are many factors which could cause the results to defer from our expectations.

We also do not plan to update any forward-looking statements during the quarter. Please note that information recorded on this call speaks only as of today April 27, 2012, and therefore, you are advised that time sensitive information may no longer be accurate at the time of any replay.

In addition, some of our comments may reference non-GAAP financial measures and reconciliations to the most directly comparable GAAP financial measures, and other associated disclosures are contained in our earnings release and on our website.

And with that, I’ll turn the call over to Mike.

Mike McDonnell

Thanks, Rishi. Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining the call. This morning, I’ll continue our efforts that began last year to provide more transparency to investors and how our inherently stable fee-based business model works, why we have an impact from butadiene price changes and what that impact is relative to our underlying earnings.

I’ll also provide a clear explanation of the drivers behind our first quarter results and an update on current market conditions. I am pleased with our overall EBITDA results of $45 million for the quarter and with our underlying results of $28 million when excluding the butadiene price impact of $17 million in the quarter.

Our results compared well versus the very strong prior year quarter when we experienced relatively higher market demand and more plentiful feedstock supply. This quarter’s performance was achieved in spite of the challenges of limited feedstock volume from the abnormally high concentration of ethylene plant outages and somewhat weaker demand for certain products relative to last year.

Our performance was driven by our strategies of service and fee expansion, operational excellence and targeted volume growth. And we also benefitted from higher fuel values in the quarter that impacted our butane-1 and fuel product margins. Our employees did a great job in working with our suppliers and customers to manage through the feedstock constraints during the quarter. Overall the company continued to execute well.

I’d like to discuss each of these drivers in turn. As we anticipated and communicated during the last several investor calls, U.S. ethylene industry is experiencing an unusual number of extended turnarounds during the first half of 202. As a consequence, we were challenged by the reduced amount of available crude C4 feedstock, which negatively impacted our production and sales volumes for all products within our C4 processing segment and for one product line within our performance products segment.

At the same time, end-use demand for our products did improve sequentially from the fourth quarter. But demand in certain product markets such as synthetic rubber remained below the levels of last year. You may recall that the first half of 2011 was characterized by demand improvement and inventory building based on an improved global economic outlook. This quarter feedstock supply was the most significant factor but the relatively soft demand in certain markets limited some of the market impact of those supply constraints we experienced.

Volume in our C4 processing segment was down 13% versus prior year due to these feedstock constraints. Volume in our performance products segment was down 24% due in part to the impact of the successful yield improvement projects that reduced the volume of negligible margin by-product. Volume was also negatively impacted to a lesser degree by the ethylene plant outages.

It’s also important to point out that the first quarter of 2011 was a strong volume quarter for this segment and particularly for polyisobutylene products or PIB products that are sold into the fuel and lube additives markets.

In addition to the volume impact in performance products, margins in the segment were compressed temporarily by the timing lags between the rapidly rising propylene feedstock costs and the contractual pass-through of these costs into our selling prices.

Now I would like to address butadiene supply demand and price. Supply and demand came back into a more supply-constrained conditions in the quarter following the sharp reduction in demand in the fourth quarter which, as you recall, was a significant imbalance between supply and demand in that quarter.

During the first quarter, we saw the contract price of butadiene increase 49% from $0.98 a pound in December to $1.46 per pound in March as suppliers were constrained due to the ethylene plant outages while demand improved sequentially. This significant price increase was due more to the supply constraints and the demand improvement.

The sharp revision in the butadiene price generated a favorable impact of $17 million on our P&L and represented the use of cash in the quarter due to the timing differences between purchases of butadiene and crude C4 at market prices and sales of finished butadiene to our customers at relatively higher market prices. We do turn our inventories every 20 days on average. So this effect did short live.

The impact of butadiene price changes is separate from our stable underlying butadiene margins that are based on fixed fees per pound of butadiene in process. Recall that we do not actually product butadiene, butadiene is contained in the crude C4 streams that we purchase from ethylene plants. We purchase butadiene at market price and we sell it to customers at market price which are fixed fees per pound for a range of critical services, including storage, logistics, separation and purification of crude C4 components, aggregation of these components and we’re able to supply to our customers in key markets.

Removing the $17 million impact due to the timing issue, which really doesn’t reflect the quality of our underlying business performance, we generated $28 million of underlying EBITDA which even with the supply constrained volumes was up 2% from the underlying results of a very strong prior year quarter.

Our underlying results, while independent of butadiene prices, are sensitive to fluctuations in gasoline price level. Gasoline price is a marker in many of our commercial contracts. The average price of unleaded gasoline was up 16% versus the prior year quarter which favorably impacted selling prices and margins on our butane-1 and fuel products. This favorable trend also allowed us to generate additional earnings based on spot opportunities for our fuel products.

Our results for the quarter also reflected our strong focus on driving our strategies of service and fee expansion, operational excellence and targeted volume growth. Our operational efficiency initiatives and high return capital projects continued their positive contributions through cost reductions, improved reliability and productivity and enhanced logistics capabilities, all of which provide greater value to our customers.

Now I’d like to give you an update on the current market conditions, including the market for butadiene. As we had anticipated and communicated to you on last quarter’s call, we’ve seen sequential demand improvement during the first quarter compared with the prior quarter in our core product markets, including rubber, nylon, polyethylene and fuel and lube additives.

Generally speaking, this demand still remained below levels of the year ago. Our synthetic rubber and tire customers report that demand remains relatively soft versus last year, and our performance products customers are seeing more positive demand growth but still largely at or below prior year.

Butadiene pricing has exhibited significant volatility and elevated pricing over the past few years due in part to the fact that supply and demand are driven by different factors, and these trends are expected to continue. Over the last four months, butadiene prices have risen sharply from the $0.98 of December to $1.54 per pound in April. This rapid increase in pricing was driven more by supply constraints in the market and demand improvement during this period.

Presently, Asian prices are beginning to soften a bit and we anticipate global pricing would ease as a result. Supply conditions in the U.S. should begin to normalize in a few months and unless there is a noticeable uptick in demand, we may see some further softening of prices in the near term. Recall that we are in stable fixed fees per pound of butadiene that we process through our infrastructure, and these are independent of the absolute price level of butadiene. Our underlying earnings, the real measure of our performance, are not impacted by butadiene price.

Looking at the full year, as communicated in our last investor call, we believe the unusually high number of ethylene plant outages will impact our year unfavorably by approximately $10 million due to lower than normal supplies of crude C4s during the first six months of the year. As we look forward, we continue to expect our performance to track to be $150 million EBITDA guidance for 2012 that we provided back in 2010 but adjusted downward by this approximately $10 million impact from lower crude C4 availability.

And with that, I will now turn the call over to Miguel to discuss our financial results for the quarter.

Miguel Desdin

Thank you, Mike. I’ll spend a few minutes discussing financials for the quarter and then touch on each of the reporting segments.

As we reported in our press release, first quarter 2012 revenue was $606 million, which was up 9% compared to the first quarter 2011. The revenue was driven by higher selling prices, which were partially offset by lower sales volumes.

The overall average unit selling price was up 29% from year ago driven by higher commodity prices. Sales volume of $634 million pounds was down 16% year-over-year and down 7% sequentially. First quarter sales volume reflected the abnormally high concentration of planned cracker maintenance outages which we had anticipated and communicated to you last quarter. The curtailed feedstock impacted production and sales volumes across the entire C4 segment and a portion of performance products.

Gross profit was $89 million in the first quarter of 2012, compared to $80 million in the first quarter of 2011. The $9 million increase reflected better margins in both the C4 Processing and Performance Products segments, partially offset by the lower sales volume in both segments.

Gross profit reflected a $9 million positive year-over-year impact from the increase in the price of butadiene. The North American contract price of butadiene increased 49% during the first quarter 2012 compared to 21% in the prior year quarter. The significant price escalation in the current year quarter reflected the limited feedstock supply due to the cracker outages while the prior year increase was more response to the strengthening demand related to a very positive economic outlook for 2011.

EBITDA for Q1 was $45 million, including a $17 million positive impact from the change in the price of butadiene during the quarter. That compares to $35 million of EBITDA in the prior year quarter which included a positive butadiene price impact of $8 million. Adjusting for the positive impact of the price change of butadiene in both periods results in an underlying EBITDA of $28 million in the current year quarter versus $27 million last year.

As a result of the items previously discussed, the company generated net income of $18 million or $1.14 per diluted share versus net income of $11 million or $0.70 per diluted share a year ago.

Turning to the balance sheet, at the end of March, the company had a total debt of $348 million and the cash balance of $109 million, resulting in net debt of $239 million. At March 31st, the company's net debt to capital ratio was approximately 44% and net debt to trailing 12 months EBITDA was approximately 1.7 times.

Cash increased $2 million in the first quarter consisting of cash generated from operating activities of $12 million, partially offset by capital expenditures of $10 million. Net cash from operations included net income of $18 million plus depreciation and other non-cash expenses of $13 million, partially offset by an increased investment in trade working capital of $22 million. Even though the days of inventory dropped to 18 days because of the lower volumes in the system, the increase in trade working capital reflected the higher raw material costs and selling prices during the quarter.

Capital expenditures for the quarter included $5 million for engineering on a strategic project. From a liquidity perspective, in addition to the $109 million of cash, we also had full availability under our $175 million revolving credit facility at the end of March.

Turning to the operating segment, the C4 Processing segment revenue was up 15%, driven by a 33% increase in average unit selling price, partially offset by 13% lower volume. The higher average selling price reflects higher prices for the commodity to which both our selling prices and raw material costs are linked. The lower sales volume reflects the crude C4 supply restrictions resulting from the steam cracker outages previously discussed.

Gross profit and EBITDA for the segment were up $11 million and $13 million respectively, reflecting the positive impact on margins of the increases in the price of both butadiene and fuel values and lower operating expenses. Partially offsetting that variability was the impact of the lower volume.

The Performance Products segment revenues were down 13% versus the prior year quarter as a result of 24% lower sales volume, partially offset by a 14% increase in average unit selling price. The lower sales volume primarily reflected the negative impact of limited crude C4 feedstock and reduced level of very low margin by-product volume, which occurred as a result of operational cost improvement.

The higher average selling price in the current year quarter reflected higher commodity prices. Gross profit and EBITDA for the segment were each down $2 million, compared to the prior year, as better average unit margins due to a more favorable sales mix were more than offset by the impact of the lower sales volume.

I’ll now turn the call back to Mike.

Mike McDonnell

Thanks Miguel. We are also making good progress in developing our strategies to drive step change growth in the future. And this strategy is capitalized on three key industry dynamics that are in our favor over the long-term. Attractive long-term market fundamentals in our core markets driven by the global megatrend of mobility, structural tightness in crude C4s as a result of the shift to lighter cracking, resulting in increasing value of butadiene a mission critical product, as well as other C4s and the anticipated favorable economics of natural gas liquids providing plentiful and cost advantage butadiene feedstock for us for the future.

Our strategies also leverage assets and capabilities that we already have. Our two idled dehydro assets, underutilized infrastructure capacity and our proprietary technology and decades of operating experience. We’re continuing to make good progress in the development of our two previously announced strategic projects. The first of which is the restart of one of our idled dehydro units to produce isobutylene from cost advantaged isobutene, to be used as an additional source of feedstock for our growing performance products and fuel products businesses.

This project will allow us to capture the favorable economics of the isobutene to isobutylene spread. We’ve made good progress in developing this project and we’re on track to finalize the detailed engineering cost and schedule for full approval by mid-year. Our IRR remains in the 18% to 22% range and we will communicate more details on the project once everything is finalized at the mid-year point.

The second project is the restart of our other idled dehydrogenation unit and the use of our proprietary OXO-D technology and decades of prior operating experience to produce butadiene on purpose from cost advantaged natural gas liquids. This project will allow us to enhance our operating model as we would be able to capture a substantial portion of the butane to butadiene margin on the butadiene that we produce from this project.

The project will provide our customers with long-term security of supply, stable formula-based pricing and favorable economics on the mission critical product that is projected to be critically short into the future. The project is expected to produce up to 600 million pounds of butadiene with the capability to expand as needed through additional phases as the market grows.

Our technology is the most efficient technology available for the manufacturer of butadiene on purpose. We’re engaged in detailed discussions and long term offtake agreements with customers. These discussions will ultimately determine actual capacities and economics of the project.

In parallel with these discussions, we are conducting preliminary engineering on a range of options to meet the supply and pricing requirements of our customers at the most efficient capital expenditure level. We’ll narrow the options in parallel with our customer discussions.

Overall our strategic projects will provide the opportunity for significant step-out earnings growth in the future. These projects combined with our current strategies of service and fee expansion, operational excellence and targeted volume growth, all driven to a stable contractual business model provide a strong foundation for sustainable earnings growth, consistent cash flows and increasing returns on invested capital.

And now we are happy to take your questions.

Question-and-Answer Session


(Operator Instructions) Our first question comes from Bill Hoffman of RBC Capital Markets.

Bill Hoffman - RBC Capital Markets

Mike, I was just wondering if you could talk about your visibility on supply of the crude C4s and the turnaround schedules as you run through here in the second quarter?

Mike McDonnell

Sure. As we have been seeing all along and things are happening pretty much to the plan that we laid out earlier. The first half of this year is characterized by really the abnormally high level of ethylene plant turnarounds. These plants typically will take extended turnarounds every five, six, seven years, it just happened this year in the U.S. As has been well publicized, there have been more than usual number of those.

And so we still see that schedule kind of working according to our earlier expectations, and those outages will start to kind of run down and those assets will be coming back up generally speaking by the end of the second quarter.

Bill Hoffman - RBC Capital Markets

You’re into most of them and here like in May, so by June you are back to sort of a more normal levels.

Mike McDonnell

I’d say by the end of June, there are – they are staggered obviously and it’s a good thing they are. But the last of the significant outages should be coming back up on stream in the June timeframe.

Bill Hoffman - RBC Capital Markets

So volumes for you guys Q2 versus Q1 should be similar or –

Mike McDonnell

Yeah, I think relatively similar is a good assumption.

Bill Hoffman - RBC Capital Markets

And the second question is just, in looking at the performance products business, I just wondered if you could get in and talk a little bit about some of the end markets there and what you are seeing whether there is any improvement in trends expected here through the year or what some of the dynamics are?

Mike McDonnell

One of the big end-use markets in our performance products segment is the fuel and lube additives market and that continues to be very buoyant. It’s driven by promotion of greater engine life and reduce engine wear and so forth. It’s backed by OEMs who want to see greater standards in this area. There are evolving standards that do apply and drive the technology in this area.

And we have patented highly reactive polyisobutylene technology that we sell into this market. So this is a – it’s an attractive area for us. Our customers are real positive about the full year. They are relatively even in terms of their volumes relative to last year but last year was a very strong year because they are all just stocking. I think their outlook is pretty positive for the fuel and lube additives.

Bill Hoffman - RBC Capital Markets

And when you are sort supply constrained in the polyisobutylene, how do you manage that between your end-market customers? You tend to lean more on the fuel and lube additives which are maybe higher margin products.

Mike McDonnell

The performance products, that’s in the raw materials of the feedstocks that go into fuel and lube additives in particular are a different issue than the crude C4 supply. And so not related in that sense. We’re not feedstock constrained in that part of the business.

Bill Hoffman - RBC Capital Markets

And then just a question for Miguel, just on working capital consumed cash in the first quarter, assuming that you don’t really in the second quarter have a much change there because your volumes are going to remain relatively similar. What do you expect in the second half of the year?

Miguel Desdin

Well Bill, I think a lot was dependent on the price of not only gasoline but butadiene as well. The build that we saw in the first quarter was really not volume driven at all, it was driven by the increased price of butadiene and to some extent the price of gasoline as well.

So we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in the second quarter but you are right. The assumption is the volumes will be relatively stable, it’s just a question of what the ultimate prices will be.


Thank you. Our next question comes from Edward Yang of Oppenheimer.

Edward Yang – Oppenheimer

On the performance products side, you still saw that pricing lags versus the propylene raw material costs. And I believe a few quarters ago you mentioned that you are relooking on how those contracts are structured to try to narrow or better align the timing on that. I mean, have you made any progress on that?

Bill Hoffman - RBC Capital Markets

Yes, we have, Ed. We’ve made some progress. And we’re continuing to work it. We like to get those lags as short as possible.

Miguel Desdin

Yeah we actually started off on three months lag, Ed and we’ve been able to work that down significantly. And now we are on one month. So we have made significant progress on those.

Edward Yang – Oppenheimer

Okay. And propylene costs have now kind of flattened out, so you will see the margins start to pick up there.

Miguel Desdin

That’s right. As long as they stay flat, that’s correct.

Edward Yang – Oppenheimer

And on the feedstock constraints again, that hampered your volume but it sounds like that’s all going to be alleviated by the end of June.

Miguel Desdin

That’s our expectation, that’s correct.

Edward Yang – Oppenheimer

And you mentioned that BD prices are going to trend down for a bit and they are due for pause or up 60% year to date. And I saw that Exxon nominated (ph) down $0.03, so maybe you’ll settle out even a few pennies below. But thinking about the BD pricing fluctuation, I mean at this point, isn’t this a preferred scenario in that bring the BD price down to a clearing level where you are seeing at your volumes, maybe you’ve taken inventory head but we should get, you maximize your contract revenues. But the BD price doesn’t come down so much but you lose leverage on service fee increases. Is that the best way to kind of think about it?

Mike McDonnell

That really is. I mean we like a butadiene market that balance the tide for the reasons you just said. And price of the primary clearing mechanism for supply versus demand, and the prices have got to be right to keep the material moving through. Remember we don’t keep much stock that moves through our system very quickly and we don’t like to get it back up either within our system or anywhere between countries around the world. So that price is key and we will just get it where we want it. And fortunately our underlying margins are not impacted by that price. So we are just incentivized to get it where it needs to be every month to clear that market.

Edward Yang – Oppenheimer

I mean any guess in terms of what the clearing price could be near term? I know there is a lot of moving pieces.

Mike McDonnell

There really are a lot of moving pieces and as there always are. But I think there are few more right now just with continued abnormally supply constrained environment and a little bit of uncertainty in the near term demand over the next few months.

Edward Yang – Oppenheimer

I mean in my opinion I think that what the prospects of those stocks are really related to what you do on those contracts and the fees because that’s again the recurring earnings power of the company. So I was glad to see that you had mentioned in the press release that how focused you are on the service fee expansion. Could you give us an update there? I know there are still probably some days until you’ve finalized a deal but are you looking in a multi-year deal or an annual deal or – and the magnitude of the potential increases, is by my math literally every penny counts. I mean I think a $0.01 service fee increase is almost $0.40 to your EPS. But to the customer, would it not be – it would be a less than 1% pricing increase. So is that kind of how you are thinking about it or maybe provide some color there?

Mike McDonnell

I’ll be happy to. First of all, Ed, it is multiple contracts with multiple customers and suppliers, not just one. And as we have been stating all along, a significant number of those are up for renewal at the end of this year. So we are gearing up for that and have already started the collaborative discussions with our customers for that.

One of the things I would like to emphasize is that those fees are really representative of valuable sources from a very unique set of infrastructure that we have in the company here. And so we have a very strong link between those fees that we charge to customers and the use of our infrastructure. And that ensures that, first of all, there is value behind those fees which is very, very important, secondly that they become as they are today and continue to be a permanent feature of our business model and of the way we do business with our customers. So we are in early days of beginning the discussions for those at the end of the year but we are optimistic how well we can do there. We have a plan and we are sticking to it.

Edward Yang – Oppenheimer

And the last contracts, I mean, they were basically signed during the recession. I would think that given the amount of just improvement in the business and tightening of the market but also just inflation in general in the materials space, customers are cognizant of that and open to that.

Mike McDonnell

I think they are. I think they do understand the value that we bring clearly and the value of the mission critical product, butadiene. So I think we are going to have good discussions.


(Operator Instructions) Our next question comes from Barry Haimes of Sage Asset Management.

Barry Haimes - Sage Asset Management

I had a question on the BD project. I wondered if you could give some sort of rough timeframe on how long the process will take of the customer negotiations maybe winding up some contracts, and narrowing the options so that you then reach a point where you just start working toward a final design? Thanks.

Mike McDonnell

Sure. Just a little bit of color on that. We are currently working with our strategic customers in discussion of long term supply requirements, economic options and so forth because we have a number of options here, in terms of how we can figure the project in this first phase. And so we expect those discussions along with in parallel scoping and design work to take the majority of this year yet. I think at the end of the year, we should have a real good sense of what we are going to have to build, then we will get – we will do more detailed design and at the same time apply for a permit.

A permit is really a great uncertain here, it could take up to two years, maybe as short as the year but we are thinking more like two years to get the permit and then we do the construction. So it’s going to be a fairly lengthy process but we’re going to do it right to make sure that we come to the market with the most cost effective on purpose butadiene in the world. That’s our commitment to our customers.

Barry Haimes - Sage Asset Management

One just quick final up, to the extent you do get agreement with customers on a long term contracts for offtake, is that something that you would announce?

Mike McDonnell

Not in the early days, we probably want to think about doing that, maybe at a much later stage in the project.


Thank you. At this time, I am not showing any further questions, and I’d like to turn the call back to management for any further remarks.

Mike McDonnell

We remain very focused on disciplined execution of our plans. We are committed to the long term growth and development of TPC Group. We are excited about our many near term and longer term opportunities ahead. In closing, I would like to recognize and thank our dedicated employees for their ingenuity and hard work in delivering better than expected results in the quarter. And thank you all for joining the call this morning.


Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for participating in today’s conference. This concludes today’s program. You may all disconnect. Everyone have a great day.

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