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2004 Year in Review

The upturn is no longer elusive, and although challenges remain, prosperity is finally returning to the chemical industry

December 20, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 51



The long-awaited turnaround in the chemical sector finally arrived in 2004. Its intensity came as a surprise to most observers in the industry, as did its resilience in the face of extremely high raw material and energy costs. In 2004, volumes, prices, profits, and even chemical stock prices all increased. The year saw a frenzy of deals. Private equity firms targeted the industry, while large diversified companies seized the opportunity to carve out smaller divisions through initial public offerings.


Although the industry didn't expect to boost R&D much this year, it was pursuing research in nontraditional ways in hopes that prosperity could come from resources other than its own. Venture-capital investments in start-up firms and farming out problems to Internet-based forums were among the tools companies used to gain insights into areas outside of their expertise.

Legacy issues such as asbestos and price-fixing problems complicated daily operations. Companies continued to develop new products to counter the effects of terrorism, and many in the industry also focused on efforts to secure plant sites from terrorist attacks. And after nine years, Dow Corning emerged from bankruptcy reorganization after resolving its silicone gel breast implant obligations.

CHEMICAL ECONOMY. Having already seen signs of improvement by the end of 2003, chemical industry observers reckoned that 2004 would be the first good year in a long time. They were cautious; the previous three years had been miserable, and despite improving demand, high energy costs were lurking as a probable siphon of profits. But 2004 began with major U.S. chemical companies posting their best results in years. At 24 of the 25 U.S. companies that C&EN regularly surveys, total earnings for the first quarter jumped 79.4% versus the same quarter a year before on a sales increase of 14.7%. Profit margins for the quarter were the highest seen since the second quarter of 2000.

The largest U.S. chemical company, Dow Chemical, posted earnings of $469 million in the first quarter of 2004, an increase of more than 450% versus the year-ago period.

Product volume increases were a big help to the industry. From October 2003 to October 2004, chemical output increased by 6.3%, according to a Federal Reserve Board index. Capacity utilization during the same period increased from 73.5% to 76.9%.

The higher operating rates were one reason why the earnings improvement was sustained throughout the year. For the first nine months of 2004 versus the same period the year before, 26 chemical companies surveyed by C&EN posted aggregate sales improvement of 14.4% and earnings improvement of 65%.

High feedstock prices materialized in 2004 as expected, but they never became the drag on the industry that many observers feared. In February, natural gas prices hit $18 per million Btu, before easing off to $5.00 or $6.00, still about twice the usual rate of the late 1990s. Prices for crude oil climbed above $53 in October, nearly five times as high as some of the lows of the late 1990s.

Prices rose downstream in the chemical industry as well, according to the Department of Labor. The Producer Price Index for all chemicals increased 12.5% from November 2003 to November 2004. For industrial chemicals, the index rose a whopping 26.8%.

Chemical stocks moved up sharply during the first half of the year. C&EN's index of the stock prices of 25 firms moved up 7.9% in the first six months, a stronger performance than logged by the Dow Jones industrial average, NASDAQ, and Standard & Poor's 500. Chemical stocks rose a further 2.1% in the third quarter, while the three major stock indexes all slipped.

The rebound in the chemical industry in 2004 was a global phenomenon. European companies also saw improvement. For the third quarter of 2004, earnings at Akzo Nobel, ICI, Solvay, DSM, Merck KGaA, and Ciba Specialty Chemicals all rose by double-digit rates on sales that climbed for all of those companies except ICI and Akzo.

In Japan, the strength of domestic and regional demand pushed up earnings for almost all major chemical firms for the first half of the fiscal year that will end on March 31, 2005. Earnings at Asahi Kasei Corp., Sumitomo Chemical, and Teijin increased by triple digits versus the year-ago period.

EMPLOYMENT. The turnaround in business conditions in the chemical industry hasn't translated into new jobs.

For chemists, the employment picture has dimmed. Unemployment among chemists, defined as the percentage of the chemical workforce that is unemployed and seeking work, reached 3.6%, according to a 2004 survey of ACS members. This is an all-time high in the 30-year history of the survey. Industrial chemists were hit harder than average. Some 5.3% of chemists in nonmanufacturing industries and 4.4% in manufacturing industries were unemployed.

According to the Labor Department, jobs throughout the industry slipped. U.S. chemical industry employment declined 9,200 from October 2003 to October 2004, to 889,900. However, the number of hourly production employees rose during the same period by 1,800 to 524,300.

And as in previous years, the chemical industry is still seeing job reduction as part of cost-cutting measures. For example, DuPont announced in April that it was cutting 3,500 jobs by the end of the year to save $325 million. After shedding 3,600 jobs in 2003, Dow Chemical announced 3,000 layoffs in 2004 that were meant to save $350 million annually. Crompton launched a program to cut its workforce by 10%--more than 540 positions--by the end of the year. Clariant announced a program to cut its workforce by 15% over two years.

Following its purchase of Roche's vitamins and fine chemicals business, DSM announced that it would cut about 700 jobs from former Roche plants in Europe, citing competitive pressures from China, South Korea, and India. It also announced a two-year program to cut 500 jobs at its main complex in Geleen, the Netherlands. DSM is considering another 1,000 job cuts on top of the ones it already made, and late in the year, it said 400 jobs in its antibiotics business would go.

In addition, there were noteworthy changes at the helms of many companies: sometimes a mere changing of the guard, other times because executives were taken to task for company performance.

For example, Lonza's chief executive officer, Markus Gemuend, resigned on the heels of earnings and sales declines. He was replaced by Stefan Borgas, a fine chemicals executive from BASF. In November, Mark P. Bulriss, the Great Lakes Chemical CEO who irked some investors with his foray into cleaning products, left the company. Gregori Lebedev resigned from a controversial two-year gig as the American Chemistry Council's president and CEO. He was temporarily replaced by Thomas E. Reilly Jr., the popular former Reilly Industries chairman.

Dow was the nexus of many key executive changes as Chief Operating Officer Andrew N. Liveris took the CEO reins from William S. Stavropoulos, a transition that was completed last month. Robert L. Wood left as Dow's group vice president of thermosets and automotive to replace Vincent A. Calarco as head of Crompton. Kathleen M. Bader, former group president of Dow's styrenics and engineered products business, was named head of Cargill Dow, the firm's polylactic acid joint venture with Cargill.

COMPANY MOVES. The year saw a frenzy of deal making after a long period of relative quiet on this front.

Private equity firms left their fingerprints on many of the transactions. For example, Apollo Management bought Eastman Chemicals' coatings, adhesives, specialty polymers, and inks division for $215 million. Apollo later purchased Borden Chemical for $1.2 billion from Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., canceling Borden's proposed initial public offering (IPO).

Blackstone Group purchased Celanese for $3.8 billion, taking it off the German stock exchange. Blackstone plans to relaunch the firm on the stock market in the U.S., its home until it was purchased by Hoechst in 1987. In advance of the move, Celanese is exiting the acetate filament business but acquiring acetic acid and vinyl acetate maker Acetex.

Other stock offerings were made or are pending. An IPO by Westlake Chemical garnered some $159 million in August. Nalco, which was purchased from French utility giant Suez by a group led by Blackstone in 2003, raised nearly $700 million in an IPO in November.

Huntsman Corp.--long privately owned but recently struggling with debt--filed in November for an IPO that it says will generate some $1.25 billion. Similarly, PQ Corp., with a long history as a privately held company, is examining options that include a sale or stock offering.

Chemical units are also being spun off from large chemical and oil companies. BP is forming a separate company out of its olefins and derivatives unit. The business, set for a potential IPO next year, represents about half of BP Petrochemicals' $16 billion in annual sales. BP is also forming a European polystyrene joint venture with Nova Chemicals. In addition, the firm is buying out Solvay's interest in their polyethylene joint ventures in the U.S. and Europe.

The French oil company Total formed Arkema in October. The business, which racked up $6 billion in sales in 2003, includes Atofina's thiochemicals, fluorochemicals, oxygenated products, acrylics, and engineering polymers. Total is considering a spin-off or an IPO for Arkema in 2006.

Bayer carved out its rubber and chemicals business as Lanxess--which has annual sales of about $8 billion--in July and is planning a spin-off of the company early next year. BASF and Shell Chemicals are divesting their 50-50 Basell polyolefins joint venture through a sale or spin-off.

Some companies sold off businesses to shape up. Rhodia, roiled by huge debt and operational losses, announced a program to return to profitability by 2006. The company sold its food ingredients business to Danisco for $380 million and its specialty phosphates business to Bain Capital for $550 million.

Similarly, Akzo Nobel sold its petroleum refining catalyst business to Albemarle for $750 million and plans to sell its coatings resins business to Nuplex Industries.

UCB Group bought biotechnology company Celltech Group for $2.7 billion and proceeded to sell off its own chemical assets. In July, UCB agreed to sell its films business to a private consortium for $400 million. Then in October, the Belgian firm announced that it was selling its surface specialties business--largely the resins, adhesives, and additives business it bought from Solutia in 2003--to Cytec Industries for $1.8 billion.

Capping several years of size-boosting acquisitions, Lyondell Chemical bought Millennium Chemicals in a stock deal worth $2.3 billion.

Cargill and IMC merged their fertilizer assets in October to create Mosaic. The new company--owned 66.5% by Cargill and 33.5% by IMC shareholders--expects to have revenues of more than $4.5 billion in its first fiscal year.

Ciba Specialty Chemicals purchased paper chemical maker Raisio Chemicals for $515 million, a move that added about $500 million in paper chemical sales. Lubrizol purchased Noveon for $1.8 billion, creating a $3.2 billion fuel additives and specialty chemical company. MG Technologies sold four Dynamit Nobel businesses--in ceramics, surface-treatment, titanium dioxide, and custom synthesis--to Rockwood Specialties for $2.7 billion. Air Liquide bought Messer Griesheim's industrial gas operations in Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. for $3.3 billion.

Asian companies also took part in transactions. India's Reliance Industries bought European polyester producer Trevira for $100 million, making Reliance the largest polyester fiber and yarn maker in the world. Mitsui and Idemitsu are merging their polyolefins businesses to create a $2 billion joint venture--65% owned by Mitsui--and the largest polyolefins producer in Japan.

PRODUCTION CHANGES. Chemical firms showed signs of investing again after a five-year slide. A group of 18 firms surveyed by C&EN indicated that they intended to increase capital spending by 15.3% in 2004, to $5.5 billion. Such an increase would raise capital spending as a percentage of sales to about 5.1% in 2004, versus a decade low of 4.8% in 2003.

Equistar plants are owned by one company after merger of Lyondell and Millennium.
Equistar plants are owned by one company after merger of Lyondell and Millennium.

Even in the U.S., there were some good signs for investment. Bayer announced that it would expand methylene diphenyl diisocyanate capacity in Baytown, Texas, by 30%. Shin-Etsu is investing in a large, integrated chlorine, vinyl chloride, and polyvinyl chloride complex--and perhaps eventually an ethylene cracker--on the Gulf Coast. Dow, on the other hand, delayed indefinitely a plan to build a big ethylene cracker in Seadrift, Texas.


In Latin America, projects planned long ago are beginning to see the light of day. After about five years of study, Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.) and ExxonMobil resurrected plans for an ethylene complex in Venezuela. Mexico's state oil company, Pemex, announced that it is partnering with Nova Chemicals and Mexican firms to build a new ethylene cracker in Mexico.

The real action in petrochemical investment is in Asia and the Middle East, however. According to a study released earlier this year by Dia Research Martech, Chinese demand for ethylene will grow from 11 million metric tons in 2000 to 17.5 million metric tons in 2005 and then to 20 million metric tons in 2008.

Steady progress is being made on ethylene cracker projects in China. For example, BP and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec) are completing construction on their Secco ethylene and derivative complex in Shanghai. Work proceeds on joint ventures involving BASF and Shell.

Longer term, Sinopec, ExxonMobil, and Saudi Aramco are developing a project in southeast China that will triple capacity of an existing refinery and include an ethylene cracker, as well as polyethylene, polypropylene, and p-xylene units, when it is completed in 2008.

The favorite place to invest in petrochemicals has been the Middle East. At a petrochemical conference in March, Mohamad H. Al-Mady, CEO of Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC), said cumulative investment in the Persian Gulf has been about $37 billion to date. He expects another $40 billion by 2010.

SABIC continued its prodigious growth in Saudi Arabia. It announced a new ethylene cracker with downstream polyethylene, ethylene glycol, and polypropylene units for Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, by 2007. It also launched an expansion at Eastern Petrochemical Co. that will add large amounts of ethylene, polyethylene, and ethylene glycol by 2008.

Sumitomo Chemical and Saudi Aramco teamed up to build a $4.3 billion oil refinery and petrochemical complex in Saudi Arabia by 2008. ExxonMobil Chemical and Qatar Petroleum started a feasibility study for a cracker in Qatar. Dow signed an agreement with Oman's government and national oil company to build an ethylene and polyethylene plant.

SPECIALTIES. Manufacturers of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) started out the year hurting badly because pharmaceutical companies were not winning enough new drug approvals to absorb excess fine chemicals capacity. With the new drug pipeline dry, custom manufacturers began eyeing opportunities in generics, over-the-counter medicines, and biopharmaceuticals.

In response to sluggish demand for APIs, Akzo Nobel's Diosynth unit closed a chemical synthesis facility in Mexico City and scaled back plants in the Netherlands and Scotland. Solutia put its pharmaceutical services division on the block last year after the unit posted a $78 million charge to the company's earnings.

GenCorp intends to sell its Aerojet Fine Chemicals unit, which generated $58 million in revenues in 2003, to focus on defense and real estate.

However, there were some hopeful signs in fine chemicals. BASF inaugurated a citral plant in Ludwigshafen, Germany, as part of a $370 million investment program in fine chemicals at its headquarters site. Several fine chemicals makers made investments in niche products such as high-potency APIs and oligonucleotides.

Dynamic Synthesis, the former custom synthesis unit of Dynamit Nobel, and France's Novasep announced plans to merge. The new company, which will have an estimated $375 million in sales, combines Novasep's expertise in the chromatographic separation of chiral enantiomers with Dynamic Synthesis' skills in hazardous reactions, chiral technology, and transition-metal catalysis.

Electronic chemicals saw a strong recovery in 2004 after three years of struggling. However, some companies were looking to get rid of their electronic chemicals businesses.

In October, Clariant completed the sale of its AZ Electronic Materials unit to Carlyle Group for $415 million. Arch Chemicals agreed in October to sell its microelectronic materials business to Fuji Photo Film for about $160 million. Merck KGaA put its high-purity electronic chemicals business, which employs about 550 people, on the block.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. R&D spending by the chemical industry showed symptoms of anemia in 2004. In a survey conducted by C&EN at the beginning of the year, 17 chemical companies said they would raise R&D spending by a mere 0.4% over 2003, to $3.4 billion.

Secco, BP and Sinopec's joint petrochemical complex, is under construction in Shanghai.
Secco, BP and Sinopec's joint petrochemical complex, is under construction in Shanghai.

Aggregate numbers aside, some firms expressed interest in expanding R&D. In January, Degussa Chairman Utz-Hellmuth Felcht pledged to increase his company's spending on R&D in 2004. "Despite the more difficult economic environment and limited financial resources, cutting back on R&D and training remains taboo at Degussa," he said.

Chemical firms didn't just put money into R&D on in-house projects; they also invested in start-up businesses. Like Dow, many firms say they make such investments as a way to acquire skills, capabilities, and technologies not otherwise easily available. They also hope to make money through investments in new businesses.

Among those making investments in start-ups this year was Air Products & Chemicals, which invested in psiloQuest, a maker of polishing pads for semiconductor chemical mechanical planarization.

And as another way to boost in-house knowledge, more companies took advantage of "virtual R&D." Firms such as Dow, BASF, Degussa, and Rhodia increasingly used InnoCentive, the Internet-based forum where companies can anonymously post scientific problems to be solved by outsiders.

In some cases, firms developed intellectual property for businesses they no longer own or have lost interest in. They then decide to donate the technology to a university in exchange for a tax deduction.

For instance, Air Products donated a portfolio of patents to the University of California, Davis, to produce vinyl acetate at significantly lower cost than conventional processes. In another case, Rohm and Haas donated an entire company, RheoGene, a developer of technology for regulating therapeutic gene expression, to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Technology transfer between corporations and academia is not a one-way street. Many universities look for ways to spin off or license useful technology to bring revenue in to support their students and continuing programs.

One institute of higher learning, the University of York, in England, formed a technology-transfer company--Amaethon--with venture capitalists IP2IPO. Late last year and early this year, Amaethon signed several contracts to commercialize the plant genetic patents generated by the University's Center of Novel Agricultural Products.

Underscoring the value of intellectual property, Japan's top pharmaceutical company, Takeda Pharmaceutical, removed the ceiling on payments to researchers who discover valuable new products. The move was seen as a reaction to the Tokyo district court award in January of $180 million to Shuji Nakamura, a former employee of Nichia Corp., who had initially received just $180 for inventing the lucrative blue-light-emitting diode.

In another court case, Swiss agrochemical maker Syngenta successfully pursued a lawsuit against a Chinese business group that it accused of copying one of its insecticides, thiamethoxam. Chinese courts have often favored domestic firms over their foreign counterparts.

Intellectual property was also the subject of an industrial espionage case. A former manager for Dow Chemical in Taiwan was arrested in Taipei following a complaint by the U.S. company that he had stolen technical data and transferred it to companies he formed in China earlier this year.

SECURITY. Concern over terrorism since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, has continued, and so has research to forestall the effects of terrorist attacks. In July, President George W. Bush signed Project Bioshield into law. The bill makes $5.6 billion available over 10 years for the government to purchase and stockpile vaccines and drugs for use against biological weapons.

However, researchers from the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and from technology research firm Sarnoff Corp. say Project Bioshield "will not be enough to entice the pharmaceutical industry leaders into this field." They put out a report calling for a single organization that would monitor biodefense strategy and coordinate collaboration among academic, pharmaceutical, biotech, and government entities.

Chemical plant security was a continuing concern in 2004. A terrorist attack on May 1 at the Yanpet ethylene joint venture between ExxonMobil and SABIC left six ABB Lummus employees dead. The chemical engineering firm pulled 90 foreign workers from its Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, offices after the attack.

U.S. citizens who think their country's chemical infrastructure is safe from attack should be concerned, according to a survey of workers at 125 U.S. chemical plants that make or use large quantities of hazardous chemicals. The Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union survey found that many security measures taken by companies are inadequate to protect the company, its workers, and the community.

Transportation of hazardous chemicals was a concern, too. The District of Columbia closely examined the shipment of such chemicals--some of which pass within four blocks of the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall--and considered security legislation to ban them.

ENVIRONMENT. No one, of course, wants a repeat of the Bhopal, India, incident, whether by sabotage or by accident. Twenty years ago on Dec. 3, a toxic gas cloud was released from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, killing thousands of people and injuring many more. Protestors marked the occasion this year with vigils and calls for Dow, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, to compensate surviving victims. Industry executives said they have learned from the incident and are better prepared to prevent another such accident.

BASF is building environmentally friendly gas and turbine steam power plants.
BASF is building environmentally friendly gas and turbine steam power plants.

Anxiety over the effect on people of exposure to chemicals continued. The Semiconductor Industry Association launched a study on whether or not workers in the U.S. computer chip industry are experiencing higher rates of cancer than other industrial workers.


The study followed the resolution of two cases involving IBM. In one case, IBM was cleared of charges that chemicals used to manufacture hard drives led to cancer among workers in San Jose, Calif. IBM settled out of court in a second case in New York state brought by a woman claiming her birth defects resulted from her mother's exposure to chemicals at a semiconductor plant.

Rohm and Haas investigated an apparent link between unusually high instances of brain tumors and employee exposures to chemicals on the job at its Spring House, Pa., R&D facility. The company's controlled epidemiological study showed no link between exposure and the tumors.

The Environmental Protection Agency charged DuPont with violating federal law by failing to tell the agency that perfluorooctanoic acid was found in human blood recently and in the umbilical cord of a female worker's baby 20 years ago. PFOA is used as a surfactant in the manufacture of fluoropolymers, including DuPont's Teflon. PFOA also wound up in drinking water in the West Virginia community where DuPont manufactures Teflon.

Companies are also wrestling with the Kyoto protocol, an international agreement that calls for mandatory cuts from signatory developed nations in output of global warming gases from a 1990 baseline. Although the U.S. is a signatory to the treaty, it has never ratified it and is not bound by it. While U.S. companies differ on endorsement or opposition to the protocols, their operations outside the U.S. are likely to be affected by the treaty. Russia ratified the protocol, thus allowing it to go into effect next year.

European Union legislators continued to refine a new environmental program, REACH (Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals). At a combined meeting of the Society of Chemical Industry and the European Chemical Industry Council this fall, Peter Elverding, chairman of DSM, reported that "there is more acceptance of the idea that REACH should not be a burdensome system."

In the U.S., the American Chemistry Council contributed $2 million to a $9 million study by EPA to discover how pesticides and certain other common household chemicals get into children's blood. However, EPA suspended the study until 2005 to allow a group of independent experts to review the study plan for ethical and conflict-of-interest concerns.

Asbestos continued as an industry concern even as hope persisted that Congress would finally weigh in and help resolve the endless lawsuits. For example, Dow, through its Union Carbide subsidiary, became the target of California wallboard maker Hamilton Materials, which sued for $100 million. Hamilton used asbestos from a Carbide mine between 1970 and 1978 and said it needed the money to settle claims from people asserting lung injuries from use of Hamilton products.

And drugmaker Pfizer agreed to pay $430 million to settle asbestos personal injury claims against a subsidiary, Quigley Co., which made powdered insulation containing chrysotile fiber.

W.R. Grace, forced into bankruptcy reorganization because of asbestos liabilities, filed its own reorganization plan with the bankruptcy court. The plan caps asbestos liabilities at $1.6 billion, pays all other claims in full, and allows current shareholders to retain a stake in the firm.

Dow Corning, after nine years in bankruptcy reorganization because of health claims against it from silicone gel breast implant recipients, finally emerged from court supervision. Implant claimants received $3.2 billion.

TRADE ISSUES. After a World Trade Organization decision that a corporate tax break for U.S. exporters is an illegal subsidy, the EU imposed millions of dollars in tariffs on some U.S. goods. The tax break was worth $500 million per year for basic chemical manufacturers.

With passage of a new corporate tax bill in the fall, Congress eliminated the disputed tax break and replaced it with new provisions worth $77 billion to manufacturers, including chemical makers. The EU planned to lift sanctions on U.S. imports after President Bush signed the legislation.

International price-fixing scandals continued to dog the chemical industry. Crompton pleaded guilty to participating in a price-fixing scheme involving rubber chemicals between 1995 and 2001. The firm agreed to pay a $50 million fine to U.S. authorities and $7 million to Canadian authorities.

Other companies settled price-fixing charges, too. Bayer pleaded guilty and paid a $66 million fine to the Department of Justice for fixing rubber chemical prices. Bayer also paid $33 million to settle charges that it fixed prices of adipic acid-based polyester polyols.

Customers affected by price-fixing sued for compensation. DuPont Dow Elastomers agreed to pay $36 million to settle claims from customers who say they were overcharged for polychloroprene rubber. And Goodyear Tire & Rubber filed suit against ethylene propylene rubber makers.

European officials will be weighing in on price-fixing matters, and more civil suits to recover overcharges will no doubt come to light. But at least the chemical economy is looking up. And if the better profits in 2004 continue into 2005, companies will likely be less tempted to enter into cartel arrangements.


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