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World chemical outlook 2017

by Business Department
January 9, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 2


Business people are by nature optimists, and that was true a year ago when companies and economists forecast a buoyant 2016 for the global chemical economy. In the end, however, business didn’t live up to expectations. U.S. chemical production rose a sluggish 1.6%, and European output didn’t grow at all. Overall economic growth slowed in China and India. Perhaps chastened, the Europeans have lowered their outlook for 2017. But in the U.S. and Asia, industry executives are once again calling for a good year ahead. Given the political uncertainty roiling much of the world, those executives would be wise to have a “plan B” at hand.


Petrochemicals: Despite new capacity, 2017 will likely be a strong year


Normally, a year in which a lot of new chemical capacity opens is a period of dampened prices and thin profit margins. But the slew of new ethylene plants destined to come on stream in 2017 doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a bad year for petrochemical makers.

Credit: Fluor
Equipment arrives for installation at Dow Chemical’s Freeport, Texas, complex.
A photo of a chemical reactor being transported at night on a large trailer with lots of wheels.
Credit: Fluor
Equipment arrives for installation at Dow Chemical’s Freeport, Texas, complex.

The biggest names in petrochemicals—Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, and Chevron Phillips—each have world-scale ethylene cracker complexes slated to start up on the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2017. Other firms, such as Mexichem, Indorama, and LyondellBasell Industries, are completing smaller crackers and large ethylene expansions.

Observers say this new capacity is sorely needed. LyondellBasell CEO Bob Patel told analysts in November that he doesn’t expect a repeat of the late 2000s, when a fleet of new crackers in the Middle East flooded the world with new production. From 2007 to 2011, when there was a recession, global capacity addition exceeded growth in demand by about eight crackers worth of output.

But over the past five years, demand has outstripped new supply by about three ethylene crackers worth. “Even with eight cracker equivalents forecast to come online in the U.S. by 2021, the forecast is relatively balanced over the next five years,” Patel said.

“The globe has no spare capacity like it did when the big Middle East wave came,” points out Steve Lewandowski, vice president of olefins at the consulting firm IHS Markit.

Lewandowski says the market for ethylene will only get tighter for most of 2017. He doesn’t expect the big new crackers to start up midyear as scheduled. Given the complexity of turning on massive multi-billion-dollar units, he says, the fourth quarter is a more realistic expectation. And it could be well into 2018 before these plants ramp up and operate full out.

Moreover, Lewandowski points out that most firms, including Chevron Phillips and ExxonMobil, aim to get their polyethylene plants running before they inaugurate new ethylene crackers. To do so, they will need to tap the limited quantities of ethylene available in the merchant market. “We definitely won’t have enough ethylene in the U.S. to fill out all the derivatives,” he says.

The new year is beginning with higher oil prices. In November, OPEC and Russia agreed to a deal that would cut global oil production by about 1%. Prices jumped from about $45 per barrel to more than $52 in the subsequent weeks.

In Lewandowski’s view, that kind of modest movement in oil prices is not enough to undermine petrochemical consumption. “If we jumped to $120 I would say something different, but a move $10 up, I don’t think it’s a killer for global demand,” he says.—Alex Tullo

Agriculture: Changing landscape ahead for crop solutions


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers won’t see much relief from low commodity prices this year, and spending on inputs—seeds, fertilizer, and crop protection chemicals—will continue to be modest. What will increase are investments in technologies that help growers do more with less.

Big agriculture corporations such as soon-to-merge Bayer and Monsanto, as well as start-ups and smaller agriculture firms, are working on multiple ways to help plants thrive with less water, chemicals, and fertilizer while fending off heat, diseases, and other stresses.

Credit: Gamaya
Hyperspectral images, taken from drones, show crop conditions such as moisture levels and emerging diseases.
This image shows fields of corn in a hyperspectral image with colors that map to crop conditions.
Credit: Gamaya
Hyperspectral images, taken from drones, show crop conditions such as moisture levels and emerging diseases.

Some advances—such as precision imaging and data-based decision-support tools—will be tested on farms this year. Others, such as CRISPR/Cas9 and other gene editing techniques, will move forward in the lab and be commercialized in future years.

As big ag firms consolidate, they will merge once-competing product development projects, says Scott Duncan, head of the North American agriculture practice at the consulting firm Bain. “So a meaningful amount of R&D and capital will get redirected into other places such as precision agriculture or big data solutions.” He points out that venture capitalists, private equity investors, and established tech firms are also investing in such technologies, which have come to be known as agtech.

In many cases, agtech innovations look nothing like traditional chemicals and seeds. For example, Bayer has formed a research collaboration with FaunaPhotonics to develop a light detection and ranging—or LIDAR—tool to track the whereabouts and movements of pest insects. LIDAR can even distinguish among insect species by detecting insect body sizes and wing beat frequencies. LIDAR is similar to radar but uses lasers to map objects in space.

And farmers will detect insect damage in real time—along with crop conditions such as nutrient levels and disease—from space satellites or with drones. Start-up Gamaya recently raised $3.1 million to commercialize hyperspectral cameras small and light enough to be carried by drones. Cofounder Igor Ivanov, a veteran of big data business applications, says the firm is deploying drones on huge industrial-scale corn, soybean, and sugarcane operations in Brazil.

“Brazilian agriculture is very export-focused, very dynamic,” Ivanov explains. “Growers are keen to use technology to improve production efficiency.”

Meanwhile, smaller firms that develop specialty crops or regionally specific varieties will get new opportunities to improve traits and seeds through gene editing. “The minimum efficient scale to do really radical gene work is coming down and will continue to come down,” Duncan predicts.—Melody Bomgardner

Pharmaceuticals: Immuno-oncology therapies set to take center stage


At about $90 billion in sales and more than 10% of the 2016 pharmaceutical market, oncology has become the world’s largest drug sector. Expected to grow two to three times faster than the overall market, cancer treatments should retain the top spot for at least another five years, according to the market research firm EvaluatePharma.

Driving this growth are new therapies, such as checkpoint inhibitors, that stimulate the immune system to fight many different cancers. In 2017, sales of checkpoint inhibitors alone should grow 40–50% to approach $6 billion, according to a market analysis by Decision Resources.

Among the current big sellers are Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy, which was launched in 2011 and blocks CTLA4. In 2014, BMS’s Opdivo and Merck & Co.’s Keytruda became the first anti-PD-1 drugs. And in May 2016, Roche got approval for Tecentriq, the first PD-L1 inhibitor. These firms, along with AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Merck KGaA, and a host of small companies, have many more immunotherapies in development.

Credit: AstraZeneca
Antibodies (yellow) that target cellular proteins (green) may come to dominate immuno-oncology therapies.
Image of monoclonal antibody binding to cellular protein.
Credit: AstraZeneca
Antibodies (yellow) that target cellular proteins (green) may come to dominate immuno-oncology therapies.

In fact, 2017 should be a defining year for immuno-oncology therapies, particularly for lung cancer, Deutsche Bank stock analyst Gregg Gilbert told clients in a recent report. Lung cancer is the world’s most common cause of cancer deaths. And sales of drugs for non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC), which make up about 85% of lung cancers, are heading toward $60 billion per year by 2020, he estimates.

This year, clinical trials results are expected not only for single therapies but also for combinations of PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors with chemotherapy and CTLA4 agents. These results, Gilbert points out, could start segmenting the market among therapies and provide clarity on which patients may benefit.

Despite this potential, there’s a lot to be learned about using these new drugs. The outcomes of recent clinical trials of Opdivo and Keytruda suggest that the benefits may depend on patients’ levels of PD-L1 expression. Merck, which targeted patients with high expression levels, won an early approval for Keytruda as a first-line NSCLC treatment, while BMS, which didn’t, got disappointing results with Opdivo.

Although immunotherapies, including as-yet-unapproved chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CART) therapies, could transform cancer care, they do present risks. Recent reports reveal dangerous side effects for the checkpoint inhibitors, such as uncontrolled immune reactions that can lead to organ attack.

And a Phase II trial of Juno Therapeutics’ anti-CD19 CART therapy was halted twice after patients died. Still, encouraging early efficacy data has been reported in hematologic cancers and, as Juno pauses, other firms are advancing. Analysts anticipate that Kite Pharma or Novartis could launch the first anti-CD19 CART therapy in 2017.—Ann Thayer

Renewables: Paris Agreement, consumers to drive demand for biobased chemicals


In 2017, the 114 countries that signed and ratified the Paris climate change agreement will start rolling out strategies for meeting their commitments. Together they account for almost 80% of global emissions of greenhouse gases. This year, those policies will dovetail with consumer preferences—and increasingly stringent product policies at major retailers—to tilt supply chains in favor of bio-derived ingredients.

Although the U.S. ratified the Paris Agreement, it is unclear whether the new Trump Administration will implement the policies needed to reduce emissions. Similarly, Trump’s appointees may be less inclined than the Obama administration to back new renewable technologies through loans and grants.

As always, companies will sell into markets that offer incentives. In biofuels, low-carbon fuel standards in California, Oregon, and Washington will attract shipments of cellulosic ethanol from the Midwest. Northern European nations are investing in facilities that make fuel from wood. China and other Asian countries are raising biofuel targets, but so far rely on first-generation biofuels.

Firms working to commercialize biobased chemicals will continue to find the rest of the world more welcoming than the U.S.—especially while oil prices are low. Many of the largest producers of biobased materials are located in Brazil, Canada, France, Italy, and Indonesia.

Credit: Green Biologics
Green Biologics is shipping biobased chemicals from its plant in Minnesota.
This photo shows the inside of Green Biologic’s fermentation production plant for biobased n-butanol and acetone.
Credit: Green Biologics
Green Biologics is shipping biobased chemicals from its plant in Minnesota.

In April, biobased specialty chemical firm Elevance Renewable Sciences, which has its main plant in Indonesia, sold a site in Natchez, Miss., where it had planned to start chemical production. BioAmber, now in Canada, plans to start bio-succinic acid production in China. And Amyris is working with the government of Queensland, Australia, to make biobased farnesene and other products for the Asian market.

But all is not lost for biobased companies in the U.S. Synthetic biology firms such as Zymergen and Ginkgo Bioworks that develop microbes for biobased chemical makers attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from venture capitalists last year. “Growth of these platforms should lead to even bigger numbers for the segment in 2017,” Lux Research predicts.

Meanwhile, Green Biologics, which makes biobased n-butanol and acetone using modified microbes, has begun shipping from its plant in Little Falls, Minn. There are commodity markets for those chemicals, but the firm is focusing on applications—such as cosmetics and specialty coatings—where biobased inputs are highly sought or offer better performance.

“Necessity and the market drove us here,” explains Tim Staub, head of business development for Green Biologics. “We work through one application at a time, differentiate where we can, and avoid those where we can’t.”—Melody Bomgardner

Electronic materials: Stars will align in semiconductors and displays


Usually, suppliers of electronic materials can’t catch a break. When business is booming in flat panel displays, the semiconductor industry is in the doldrums. Or vice-versa. This year, though, demand should be strong from both major markets.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” says Mitsunobu Koshiba, president of the electronic chemicals producer JSR. The company produces materials used by both display and chip makers.

The price of displays didn’t drop as much as expected in 2016, with the consequence that materials makers weren’t under heavy pressure to drop their prices. Materials suppliers had feared a disaster with the ramp up of new display plants in China that would flood the market, Koshiba recalls. In anticipation, Samsung closed production lines in South Korea that together accounted for 3% of world display supply, Koshiba says. “The market is well balanced now,” he says.

The robustness of the semiconductor market is also a surprise, Koshiba notes. At the beginning of 2016, semiconductor makers expected demand to weaken in the second half of the year, once manufacturers had shipped their Christmas season orders. Instead, “by June, the industry noticed that chip inventories were too low,” he says.

Demand has been strong for the workhorse chips, cut from 200 mm silicon wafers, that are often used in vehicle electronics, according to Mark Thirsk, a partner at the electronic materials research firm Linx Consulting. It has also been strong for cutting-edge chips featuring ultrathin circuit lines that are typically produced from 300 mm wafers. In between, demand for more standard chips made from 300 mm wafers is softer.

Credit: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.
Both chip fabrication and display manufacturing should do well in 2017.
A photo depicting semiconductor fabrication.
Credit: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.
Both chip fabrication and display manufacturing should do well in 2017.

Multiple patterning, a manufacturing method that involves repeated lithographic exposure of silicon wafers, is also driving demand, Thirsk notes. Each exposure results in 10 to 15 additional manufacturing steps requiring deposition chemicals, etchants, cleaners, and other materials.

In 2017, the electronics industry eagerly anticipates the first commercial use of extreme ultraviolet lithography after several years of delay. But it’s not clear how profitable extreme ultraviolet lithography will be for materials suppliers, Thirsk says. JSR and other companies have invested so much in the necessary materials that it could be difficult for them to harvest much of a profit, even with premium pricing.


The electronic materials industry is full of surprises and rapid boom-bust cycles. Not all materials will do well in 2017. Color filters for displays, for instance, are badly oversupplied, Koshiba notes. But on the whole, suppliers should enjoy a rare period when most of their business shines.—Jean-François Tremblay

Outsourcing: Pharmaceutical chemicals expected to glide through political, pipeline waves


The pharmaceutical chemicals sector has been in a rut for several years—a very nice rut in which most companies report double-digit growth serving an industry with an ever-growing appetite for contract manufacturing and related services. The year ahead promises more of the same, but with a few significant disturbances in the landscape.

“Call it the year of extreme volatility,” says Guy Villax, CEO of Hovione, a Portuguese contract manufacturer. He and others point to countervailing forces of political uncertainty in the U.S. and Europe on the one hand, and a validated strategy of serving the drug industry’s growing outsourcing needs on the other.

James Bruno, president of the consulting firm Chemical & Pharmaceutical Solutions, also senses uncertainty. “With this presidential election, I think everybody is adopting a wait-and-see attitude,” he says. President-elect Trump is promising a big corporate tax cut, Bruno points out, but interest rates have already risen and are likely to go up again.

And there are other signs of concern. Bruno points to a drop in U.S. drug approvals to 22 in 2016 from 45 in 2015. “People are wondering if this is a fluke because we set a record the year before, or are we back to there not being a really good pipeline?”

Consultant Roger LaForce sees the year ahead as one of consolidation in the wake of recent deals. Closing out 2016 was the purchase of a big Zach System plant in Italy by Fabbrica Italiana Sintetici, a move that will create one of the largest contract manufacturers globally, LaForce says. And everyone points to Lonza’s recent agreement to buy Capsugel as solidifying the contract development and manufacturing organization model of offering everything from drug active manufacturing to final dosage formulation. As drug companies drop in-house manufacturing, they are contracting on a strategic basis, Villax says, and require a broad range of services.

“People will be going more and more toward the one-stop shop,” agrees Ampac Fine Chemicals CEO Aslam Malik. In general, Malik sees acquisitions picking up. “People will start buying in 2017. And if you are the sell side, you will get a good price,” he adds, noting that Lonza is paying $5.5 billion for Capsugel.

Credit: Axyntis
Contractors, such as France’s Axyntis, should see the negative countervailed by the positive for another good year.
Photo of a man in proper protective garb at work between two mixing vessels at a small chemical factory.
Credit: Axyntis
Contractors, such as France’s Axyntis, should see the negative countervailed by the positive for another good year.

For some, the positive and negative forces will likely balance out, making for continued clear sailing this year. “In the end, I’m not sure anything really changes,” says Shawn Cavanagh, chief operating officer of Cambrex. “The market overall has been and will continue to be good for contract manufacturers who have invested in capacity and capabilities.”—Rick Mullin

Instrumentation: Pharma and diagnostics offer continued growth


As sellers of a range of products across several industries, lab and analytical instrument suppliers can find their businesses rocked by all sorts of market dynamics. Sometimes the net result is positive; other times not. “While 2016 offered a strong combination of improving end markets, the 2017 outlook is less compelling,” Goldman Sachs stock analyst Isaac Ro told clients in a recent report.

Several factors are in play this year. U.S. academic funding has benefited from legislation, such as the 21st Century Cures Act, but any annual increases are not guaranteed under the new administration, Ro pointed out. Meanwhile, growth is modest in Japan, somewhat stronger in China, and slowing in Europe.

On the industrial side, lab spending should be helped by policy changes—such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and China’s latest five-year plan—and a slightly higher forecast for the global economy, Ro added. Biopharmaceutical production remains strong, but drug R&D spending is decelerating and could be disrupted by a pickup in mergers and acquisitions.

Instrumentation sales reached about $47 billion in 2016 and are anticipated to grow about 4% in 2017, according to Agilent Technologies. “Predicting end-market growth in today’s uncertain political and economic environment is challenging,” Agilent CEO Mike McMullen said when reporting fiscal year sales in November.

The slowest growing end markets are chemicals and energy, which makes up about 10% of instrument sales, and academia and government, which together are just under 20%. Both are expected to increase by 1–3% in 2017. Sales to the pharmaceutical sector, which is 25% of the market, should grow up to 6%.

Rounding out the market and seeing the fastest growth at up to 8% is clinical diagnostics. To tap into it, suppliers have been actively building their businesses. In early 2016, Thermo Fisher Scientific paid $1.3 billion to buy the genetic analysis firm Affymetrix. More recently, Danaher spent $4.8 billion on molecular diagnostics provider Cepheid.

At the same time, equipment makers are joining with pharmaceutical and other partners to combine diagnostics with drugs. In October, Thermo Fisher joined the Cancer Moonshot initiative. Then in December, the company launched an immunotherapy program with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Credit: BioMarker Strategies
BioMarker Strategies has a grant to develop immunotherapy-related tests on its SnapPath cancer diagnostics system.
Photo of a cancer diagnostic instrument from BioMarker Strategies.
Credit: BioMarker Strategies
BioMarker Strategies has a grant to develop immunotherapy-related tests on its SnapPath cancer diagnostics system.

Meanwhile, Roche Diagnostics’ Ventana and Agilent’s Dako units are working with AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck & Co., Roche, regulators, and research organizations on the Blueprint Project. The goal is to characterize and compare companion diagnostics used in prescribing new immuno-oncology therapies.

Results from the work’s first phase were recently published. The next phase will compare test results to patient outcomes to identify those patients who might benefit from treatment.—Ann Thayer

Specialty chemicals: Sector is expected to regain momentum this year


Globally, specialty chemicals output is expected to regain momentum in 2017 after a slower-than-expected increase in 2016, according to the American Chemistry Council. The trade association anticipates a production rise of 3.3% in 2017 after a 2.6% increase last year.

ACC had expected a 3.9% production jump in 2016, but the downturn in oil and gas drilling, a global slowdown in manufacturing, and weakness in China held production back. Observers are now looking for a stronger year for specialties because of higher energy prices, renewed infrastructure spending, and a potential manufacturing uptick, particularly in the U.S. and Asia.

Paint, now a $135 billion-per-year global market, could see 3% output growth in 2017, says Phil Phillips, president of Chemark Consulting. Adhesives and sealants, a $45 billion market, will grow in tandem with paint, he adds.

In the U.S., the incoming Trump Administration is likely to trigger a rise in demand for highway markings and sealants as well as paint used on rail cars, Phillips says.

Pipeline construction projects under the new administration should spur demand for powder coatings used on pipe interiors to increase the flow of oil and gas to their destination, Phillips adds. Similarly, pipeline construction in China to speed fuels to market for a growing middle class will increase coatings demand, he says.

In addition, U.S. infrastructure spending will spur production of additives that aid concrete’s workability and improve its durability, says Ray Will, a director at the consulting firm IHS Markit. U.S. demand for the additives generally grows at about 3% a year, but he predicts a 5% increase this year.

If the Trump Administration renegotiates trade agreements, as it has threatened to do, U.S. exports of specialty chemicals could be compromised, Will warns. On the other hand, if the administration succeeds in expanding the U.S. manufacturing base, then specialty chemical makers will benefit from stronger local demand, he says.

Higher energy prices may be on the horizon if Saudi Arabia is able to get oil-producing nations to limit output. If that transpires, U.S. oil producers will increase their own output, Will predicts, pushing up demand for oilfield chemicals.

Credit: Shutterstock
As more pipelines are built to move fuels to market, coatings that enhance flow will be needed.
A welder works on joining two sections of pipe.
Credit: Shutterstock
As more pipelines are built to move fuels to market, coatings that enhance flow will be needed.

Specialty chemical production targeted at consumers will also rise. Kunal Mahajan, who tracks the $9 billion-per-year specialty cosmetic ingredients segment at the consulting firm Kline, says growth for the category is fastest in Asia where consumer buying power is on the rise. Demand for ingredients such as sunscreens, rheology modifiers, and preservatives will grow at about 7% in China and India this year, compared with 2% in the U.S. and other developed countries.—Marc Reisch

United States: A new year begins, marked by optimism



After six years of sluggish growth, output from the U.S. chemical industry will expand by 3.6% in 2017, according to a projection by the American Chemistry Council, the country’s largest chemical trade group.

The figure implies that much will change from 2016, when ACC estimates output grew by a mere 1.6%. An earlier prediction by the group called for more robust growth of 3.1% in 2016.

Overall U.S. economic growth will remain modest, ACC says, but the chemical industry will be a source of strength because cheap shale gas provides a strong competitive advantage, and the industry serves fast-growing global markets. Economist predictions for global growth this year range from 3.1 to 3.4%, compared with about 2.8% in 2016.

The shale gas boom continues to attract investment and chemical jobs to the U.S. Gulf Coast, says ACC chief economist T. Kevin Swift. In addition, “chemical companies in the U.S. continue to innovate, focusing on improving efficiencies as well as on new, leading-edge product development,” he says.

ACC’s figures assume that factors dragging down the chemical economy will moderate or improve in 2017. A glut in supply chain inventories has evened out, for one. Swift also predicts that automotive builds and single-family home construction will be robust. And he says business investment will increase, reversing a strong postrecession trend.

What’s more, Swift alludes to a new, business-friendly climate under the incoming Trump Administration, saying “tax and regulatory reform will go far to rejuvenate U.S. economic dynamism and performance.” Although Trump has promised to erect trade barriers, Swift says total trade will pick up slightly in 2017.

Recent surveys show ACC is not alone in its optimism. According to the Conference Board, consumer confidence in November returned to prerecession levels, due in part to positive views of the labor market. And a survey of home-builder confidence by the National Association of Home Builders resulted in its highest reading since 2005.

But government figures show single-family home starts sank 4.1% in November. Also that month, new vehicle sales—which have been a big area of spending—shrank 2.0%, as measured by J.D. Power and LMC Automotive. Fiscal moves by the new administration will influence buying, the survey partners say. “The economy and industry could be facing a boom or bust depending on which policies are focused on and implemented.”—Melody Bomgardner

Is this the year?

U.S. chemical output will grow 3.8% in 2017, ACC predicts.

Note: Figures are for chemicals not including pharmaceuticals. a Projected.
Source: American Chemistry Council
This graph shows that the rate of growth of U.S. chemical output is projected to grow to 3.6% in 2017 from 1.6% in 2016.
U.S. chemical output will grow 3.8% in 2017, ACC predicts.

Note: Figures are for chemicals not including pharmaceuticals. a Projected.
Source: American Chemistry Council

Europe: Sustainability to offer growth opportunities in anemic market


Economists are at sixes and sevens as to whether the European Union will experience higher economic growth and a consequent hike in chemical demand in 2017. Some say the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU could destabilize the region, dampening economic growth. Sustainability, though, is set to drive chemical demand.

CEFIC, Europe’s leading chemical industry trade group, expects a 0.5% uptick in chemical production across the EU in 2017 after no growth in 2016. Petrochemical makers will continue to profit from low oil prices, while demand for polymers from the auto industry is expected to soften. Specialty and consumer chemicals will be supported by moderate demand growth from business and consumers, CEFIC says.

The German chemical industry association VCI predicts German production will not grow in 2017. “The chemical business in 2017 is expected to remain without significant momentum, especially with the political uncertainty and economic risks in foreign markets around the globe,” says Kurt Bock, president of VCI and CEO of BASF.

One of the uncertainties is the U.K.’s pending exit from the European Union. Offsetting the so-called Brexit to a degree, VCI expects digitalization—such as using digital mapping systems to apply agrochemicals—and sustainability to help drive growth in Germany.

Another plus, according to Jefferies stock analyst Laurence Alexander, is that favorable European Central Bank policies in the year ahead will keep borrowing costs low and maintain a weak euro currency. The corporate “poster child” for 2017 could be the Dutch firm DSM, Alexander says, thanks to relatively noncyclical end markets such as nutrition and a favorable foreign exchange footprint.

Paul Hodges, chair of the U.K. consulting firm International eChem, agrees with VCI that sustainability is becoming more important for the EU’s chemical industry. He notes that the circular economy—in which products are designed from the outset to be reused and recycled—is becoming a major initiative in Europe.

“Sustainability is replacing globalization as a key driver for the economy,” Hodges recently told attendees of an ACS webinar. This new normal could drive demand for reusable or biodegradable materials in applications including clean water and sanitation, digital health care, and intelligent food packaging, he said.

But the effect of economic stimulus policies—predominantly the printing of more money—in EU countries in recent years could also be coming home to roost, according to Hodges. The likelihood now is a drawn-out downtrend in prosperity in Europe, he said.—Alex Scott


European chemicals will see pockets of growth this year.

Overall: 0.5% increase in production

Agricultural chemicals: stable

Consumer chemicals: moderate demand growth

Petrochemicals: will continue to profit from lower oil prices

Polymers: robust demand growth from packaging and construction sectors; limited growth from auto sector

Specialty chemicals: moderate demand growth

Source: CEFIC

Asia: China is slowing down, but regional growth is solid


Key sectors of the Chinese economy are going strong, India is booming, and chronically weak Japan is not in a recession. It’s unclear how Brexit or the new U.S. administration will impact Asia, but the outlook for 2017 is positive for chemical companies operating in the region.

Managers are talking about expansion. “Our key focus for 2017 will be to increase local manufacturing in Asia,” says Mike Horton, the China-based president of Asia-Pacific operations for the paint, coatings, and specialty materials producer PPG Industries.

PPG’s desire to expand its manufacturing footprint in Asia stems from an optimistic view of sales growth in the region. Although the Indian economy is growing faster in percentage terms, China will be where most economic expansion takes place in absolute terms, Horton says. It is China where PPG will look first to build new plants or acquire existing ones to accommodate demand growth, particularly from the automotive sector and, surprisingly, construction.

Despite the Chinese media attention that tens of thousands of surplus apartments have attracted, they are more the exception than the rule in the country, Horton claims. Demand absorbs new supply in many cities, he says. And outside the housing sector, he adds, the government is investing in the construction of new airports and train stations.

Finally, consumer demand for new cars remains strong, with the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers reporting 14% growth during the first 10 months of 2016. Demand should remain robust in 2017, Horton says, although the possible phase-out of a government subsidy for the purchase of small cars might affect sales temporarily.

At BASF, Sanjeev Gandhi, the board member responsible for Asia and the Pacific, is also upbeat about 2017. Notably, he expects an improvement in profit margins for materials used in the manufacturing of polyurethanes. BASF produces these raw materials at massive plants in Shanghai and Chongqing, China.

The slowdown in China is not a significant concern, Gandhi argues. One of the reasons it happened, he says, is that the economy has been through a restructuring to lessen dependence on export-oriented manufacturers. This rebalancing, he says, was one of the most positive and significant changes to happen in Asia in 2016.

Meanwhile, Japan, Asia’s second-largest economy, will not be dragging down the region. In its latest outlook report, the Manila-based Asian Development Bank notes that Japan should manage to grow by almost 1% in 2017. Overall, the bank expects the economies of Asia to be stable in 2017. Excluding Japan, it says, Asia will grow by 5.7%.—Jean-François Tremblay

Canada: New spending may knock country out of a rut

Picking up

India’s growth will outpace China’s, but from a smaller base.

a Projected. GDP = gross domestic product.
Sources: Asian Development Bank, World Bank
A graph showing recent and current GDP growth rates in China, Japan, Korea, and India, as well as nominal GDP in 2015 in those four countries.
India’s growth will outpace China’s, but from a smaller base.

a Projected. GDP = gross domestic product.
Sources: Asian Development Bank, World Bank


Once again, the Canadian chemical industry was true to its slow and steady form in 2016. However, 2017 should prove to be an exciting year for Canadian chemical makers. Plans for multi-billion-dollar expansions may receive final go-aheads, while mergers and acquisitions are set to create bigger Canadian companies.

Sales for the sector declined by 2% in 2016 to $17.3 billion, according to the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC), the country’s industry trade group, largely due to lower selling prices. Volumes increased by nearly 4%. This year, CIAC sees sales increasing 1% as prices strengthen, but volumes are expected to decline by 2%.

Capital spending in Canada fell nearly 8% in 2016, to $815 million, according to David Podruzny, CIAC’s vice president of business and economics, as companies wrapped up expansion projects.

Now, another wave of expansions may soon be coming to Canada. Last month, the Alberta government approved hefty incentives for two proposed petrochemical projects. “If they go ahead as projected, we should see capital spending ramping up,” Podruzny says.

About $225 million in government royalty credits are earmarked for a joint venture between Petrochemical Industry Co. of Kuwait and Pembina Pipeline Corp. It plans to build a $3 billion complex to convert propane into propylene and then polypropylene.


Another $150 million in royalty credits is set aside for Inter Pipeline, which also wants to build a propane dehydrogenation plant in Alberta.

That project was first unveiled about a year ago by another firm, Williams Cos. North American Polypropylene (NAPP), an affiliate of the U.S. private equity firm Goradia Capital, signed on to build a related polypropylene plant.

NAPP is now suing Williams and Inter Pipeline in a Texas court. NAPP alleges that Williams cut it out of the project when Williams sold its Canadian operations to Inter Pipeline.

The Canadian industry is also seeing sizable consolidation. Last month, Chemtrade Logistics agreed to purchase Canexus for $680 million. Chemtrade makes inorganic chemicals, including sulfuric acid and sodium nitrate. Canexus makes chlorine and sodium chlorate.

Additionally, two of the nation’s largest fertilizer makers, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan and Agrium, are merging to form a company with $21 billion in annual revenues.—Alex Tullo

Bounce back

After a two-year slump, Canadian chemical sales should climb again in 2017.

Note: Sales converted at the 2016 average exchange rate of $1.00 U.S.=$1.325 Canadian. a Estimate. Source: Chemistry Industry Association of Canada
A graph of Canadian chemical shipments.
After a two-year slump, Canadian chemical sales should climb again in 2017.

Note: Sales converted at the 2016 average exchange rate of $1.00 U.S.=$1.325 Canadian. a Estimate. Source: Chemistry Industry Association of Canada

Latin America: A Struggling region looks for recovery


Stretching roughly 10,000 km from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, Latin America cannot be generalized. Economic performance in the region ranges from disaster (Venezuela) to stability (Mexico).

But it is fair to say that the the region’s economies have been slumping recently. The world’s economy grew by 11% since 2013, but collectively Latin America hasn’t seen any growth, according to the International Monetary Fund. And although the situation might not get worse, 2017 isn’t likely to be much of a year for recovery either.

The region’s largest economy, Brazil, is experiencing its “deepest recession in decades,” IMF says, noting that the problem is compounded by a corruption scandal and political crisis that led to the ouster of President Dilma Vana Rousseff in August of last year. IMF says the “recession may be nearing its end” and expects a smidgen of economic growth in 2017.

IMF expects that growth in Argentina will rebound as a new government, sworn into office in late 2015, improves management of the economy. There is no such hope in Venezuela, where the economy contracted a staggering 10% in 2016, leading to food scarcity and a breakdown in social order. Mexico, IMF says, will likely remain on its steady course.

Rina Quijada, senior director at IHS Markit’s Chemical Insight business in Latin America, says Brazil’s largest chemical maker, Braskem, is succeeding despite the slack home economy. Exports helped keep production at high levels even though plastic resin demand in Brazil declined by an estimated 5% in 2016.

In Mexico, the main event has been the start-up of a new ethylene and polyethylene joint venture between Braskem and the Mexican firm Idesa. However, the state oil company Pemex, in order to supply the partnership with feedstock ethane, has had to throttle back its own production of ethylene and its derivatives.

“A common denominator in most of the countries is that the state-owned oil companies are financially distressed,” Quijada says.

An exception, she says, is Argentina’s YPF, which is starting to produce significant quantities of natural gas from shale. Dow Chemical, which has partnered with YPF in natural gas exploration, is interested in using the new gas source as a feedstock for its Argentinian operations and possibly for an expansion. Quijada thinks this could lead to a new chemical project early in the next decade.—Alex Tullo

Middle East: Buoyant outlook seen, as downstream diversification continues


Chemical sales in the Middle East will remain buoyant in 2017 despite challenging global economic conditions, according to the region’s largest industry organization, the Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association.

Turning around

The region’s economy could improve in 2017.

a Projection. GDP = gross domestic product.
Source: International Monetary Fund
A series of bar graphs meant to portray the growth rates of major Latin American economies.
The region’s economy could improve in 2017.

a Projection. GDP = gross domestic product.
Source: International Monetary Fund

Overall, the outlook is positive, according to Ahmad Al-Ohali, CEO of Sipchem, a Saudi Arabian petrochemicals firm. Al-Ohali is a director on the board of GPCA. “From 2007–2016, 139 petrochemical projects were introduced in the Gulf Cooperation Council valued at $215 billion. This is tremendous growth, and there are similar opportunities in the future,” he says.

But Middle East chemical makers are concerned about the rising competitiveness of the U.S. petrochemical industry with its low-cost natural gas from shale. “The future holds no certainties,” Ohali says.

Abdulaziz Judaimi, head of chemicals for Saudi Aramco, argues that the only way to ensure competitiveness and growth is to “continue developing more differentiated, higher-value products; continue creating strong brand identities; and continue upgrading to stay ahead of the curve.”

The Middle East is already adding high-value specialty chemical products. The industry’s diversification strategy took a major step forward in November when Sadara, a $20 billion chemical complex operated jointly by Dow Chemical and Saudi Aramco, officially opened in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.

The Sadara complex will produce a swathe of polymers and specialty chemicals in plants set to start up every week for the next few months. It will mostly use naphtha as feedstock.

Sadara’s opening marks “a major change point” for the Middle East, says Paul Bjacek, head of chemicals research at the advisory firm Accenture. Sadara has economies of scale combined with highly efficient processes that will make it cost-competitive globally, he says.

In line with the region’s diversification strategy, Sadara is adjacent to an industrial park for downstream manufacturing activities, including plastic part production.

Another development that promises to shape the Middle East petrochemical landscape is the lifting in 2016 of international sanctions on Iran. The country has the potential to become a major petrochemical producer in the next few years. However, headwinds loom, Bjacek cautions. “It is more than five years away because there are plenty of investment opportunities first in North America,” he says.—Alex Scott

Middle East chemicals by the numbers

$80 billion: Chemical sales in 2015

2%: Region’s share of global chemical sales

71%: Share of region’s output represented by 10 fertilizers, plastics, and basic chemicals

$729 million: Region’s chemical R&D spending in 2015

2%: Region’s share of global chemical R&D spending

Source: Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association


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