If you want to know where an industry is headed, then just peek inside a few checkbooks.
If companies are reining in their spending, then they might be saving pennies for a rainy day. But when an entire sector starts forking over unusually large amounts for expansion projects, it's sending a crystal clear signal: Business is looking strong.
I've found one of those signals in an unlikely place...
- On March 28, energy firm Williams Companies Inc. (NYSE: WMB) announced $320 million in plant upgrades in order to supply Nova Chemicals with 17,000 barrels of ethane and ethylene a day.
- The very same day, Chevron (NYSE: CVX) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) revealed intentions to jointly develop a world-class ethylene production plant on the Gulf Coast.
- Then, just a week later, Westlake Chemical (NYSE: WLK) unveiled an expansion and remodeling plan that will boost output at its ethane "cracker" facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana, by hundreds of millions of pounds annually.
- Just two weeks later, Brazil's firm Braskem (NYSE: BAK) disclosed plans for an ethylene plant in the United States.
- Not to be outdone, Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW) pledged to restart idle ethylene facilities and outlined an entire series of ambitious petrochemical projects on the horizon.
One company upping its spending might be an isolated case. Two or three making big investments could be coincidental. But when five major players act in unison, it's no accident -- they're unmistakably enthusiastic about the future.
As an investor, that message is loud and clear.
A "boring" industry that looks like a great investment
The production of petrochemicals is rather dull. But we come in contact with them every day, most commonly in solvents, detergents, adhesives, lubricants, fibers and plastic.
The most commercially important petrochemical is ethylene, which goes into everything from plastic bags to milk jugs to PVC pipes.