184-New Capacity in a Shrinking Market

Big companies are pulling out of the petroleum refining industry. In the last year, Shell, Chevron, Valero and Sunoco have put refineries up for sale or shut them down. There is simply too much capacity in the industry. But there seems to be one guy coming in through the exit doors in the refining industry. Marathon Oil just opened a new $4 billion addition to its Louisiana refinery. Further, the company announced that it made a profit in all six of its other refineries in the U.S. in 2009. 2009 was a terrible year for the U.S. refinery business. 2010 isn’t much better.

Why would anyone add capacity in a hostile market with clear overcapacity? These capacity additions turn out to be commonplace. (See “Audio Tip #103: Capacity Creep Expansion of Industry Capacity” on StrategyStreet.com.) In Marathon’s case, the company started its capacity expansion in 2007, while the refining industry was roaring along. It simply took until 2010 to bring the refinery addition online. So this addition, while large, is really the result of expansion in the good times. The new capacity shows up when times have turned bad.

But, virtually every hostile industry sees small amounts, at least 1% to 2% per annum, increases in industry capacity every year. This capacity addition is the result of companies learning how to run their existing capacity with greater efficiency and effectiveness. It is almost a free addition to industry capacity. We call this annual capacity addition, despite overcapacity, the learning curve capacity addition. We named it after the well-known Boston Consulting Group strategic concept from the early 70s. The rate of this free capacity addition depends, in part, on the rate of growth in the industry itself. The faster the industry grows, the more free capacity will come online each year due to this learning curve effect. This effect can be pernicious. In the newsprint industry, the learning curve effect added more capacity every year than demand in the newsprint industry grew. During most of the 90s, the capacity industry’s addition due to the learning curve effect outstripped the growth of industry demand. Every year, hostility got just a little worse because of it. Real prices remained under pressure the whole time. (See “Audio Tip #133: What Tells Us Prices Will be Under Pressure?” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Posted 4/19/10

The crude oil refining business in the US is one of the examples of an industry where reduction in capacity may finally end overcapacity and hostility. US oil demand runs at about 20 million barrels per day. Current US refining capacity totals about 18 million barrels per day. Refining has not been attractive for several years. Every year the number of refineries and the total refining capacity seems to fall. For example, in 1980 there were 250 refineries in the US.  By 2019 that number had fallen to 132. Refineries continued to close through 2020, 2021 and 2022. Environmental and political antagonism make it unlikely that a substantial US refinery will be built in the next few years. The survivors in the refinery business are probably end for several good years.  See HERE and HERE for more explanation.




If you face a competitive marketplace, read these blogs. We wrote them to help you make better decisions on segments, products, prices and costs based on the experience of companies in over 85 competitive industries. Much of the world suffered a severe recession from 2008 to 2011. During that time, we wrote more than 270 blogs using publicly available information and our Strategystreet system to project what would happen in various companies and industries who were living in those hostile environments. In 2022, we updated each of these blogs to describe what later took place. You can use these updated blogs to see how the Strategystreet system works and how it can lead you to better decisions.