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Chemical Sector Recovers Slowly

Outlook: A sluggish U.S. economy outweighs the bright spots

by Alexander H. Tullo
December 13, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 50

The U.S. chemical industry is bouncing back in 2010 from two straight years of sharp declines, but the turnaround hasn’t been as strong as in the rest of the world, economists from the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said at a recent briefing.

The chemical industry is being hampered by the slow pace of the U.S. economic recovery, which has yet to overcome a sluggish housing market, meek consumer spending, and stubbornly high unemployment rates.

“Globally, the recovery in chemicals has now changed into an expansion,” T. Kevin Swift, ACC’s chief economist and managing director, told reporters at a Dec. 2 press conference. “The U.S. is lagging still. We are still in a recovery mode.”

ACC projects that overall U.S. chemical production volumes will increase by 3.1% in 2010 versus declines of 4.7% and 4.5% in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Excluding pharmaceuticals, ACC expects volumes will increase by 5.2% versus declines of 10.0% and 8.0% during the previous two years. Globally, chemical output is expected to increase by 8.8% this year.

The trade association’s 2011 forecast calls for chemical output to increase by 3.0%, or 2.7% excluding pharmaceuticals. The group expects global chemical output to rise by 5.4%.

One bright spot for the U.S. chemical industry has been exports. Because of a 16.8% increase in exports this year, the country’s $100 million trade deficit in chemicals last year will swing to a $3.7 billion trade surplus. ACC anticipates that the surplus will nearly double to $7.2 billion in 2011.

For the trade surplus, Swift credits strong emerging markets such as China, a weak dollar, and the development over the past five years of low-cost natural gas from shale. “We are very competitive now with the rest of the world,” he says. “Ten years ago, there were a lot of stories about the industry moving offshore. The Gulf Coast was being written off. I think that’s changing now.”

Still, the U.S. chemical industry continues to lose jobs. Overall industry employment will end up averaging about 779,500 workers in 2010, down 2.9% from 2009. ACC says employment will continue to decline as productivity gains outpace production growth.



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