Compared with 2011—a huge growth year for chemical trade—2012 brought only a modest overall gain in imports and exports around the globe. The exception was in emerging economies, particularly in the Middle East and Latin America, where chemical trade continued to rise smartly.
In the U.S., low-cost natural gas, used as both fuel and feedstock, kept the chemical industry competitive in the export market last year. The industry held its historical position as the second-largest exporter of goods, after the machinery sector, and chemical exports from the U.S. stayed at a record level of $207 billion.
Developing regions, specifically the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, saw the biggest increase in chemical exports from the U.S. Together these regions made up more than one-third of U.S. exports last year. Europe is still the largest trading partner of the U.S. for both exports and imports; 50% of chemical imports into the U.S. come from Europe.
Overall, U.S. chemical imports shrank 1.3% in 2012, helping to boost the country’s chemical trade balance to $11.7 billion, the second-highest surplus of the past decade. Imports of organic chemicals, inorganic chemicals, and fertilizers dropped the most.
In Europe, chemical exports expanded faster than imports in 2012, aided by a euro that was weakened by the European sovereign debt crisis. Exports to Saudi Arabia and Brazil grew briskly at 17.2% and 16.5%, respectively.
Canada saw foreign demand for its fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals rise by 6.3%; imports rose even faster at 12.4%. In contrast, exports of basic chemicals, which had been on the rise for the previous two years, reversed course and shrank by 12.5%. Canada’s overall trade deficit in chemicals increased to $14.8 billion.
Chemical trade in Asian countries shrank a bit in 2012, with some notable exceptions. Exports of inorganic chemicals from China jumped 19.2%. Interestingly, exports of pharmaceuticals from China grew by 8.7%, while imports jumped by a whopping 25.9%. In Japan, however, foreign trade in chemicals mostly decreased, except for medical material imports, which increased by 15.4%.