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Chemical producers make a strong end to 2020

COVID-19 shadowed most of the year, but the final quarter was encouraging

by Alexander H. Tullo
February 18, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 6


A year like no other is in the books for the chemical industry. And while COVID-19 dragged down sales and earnings for nearly all companies, they finished 2020 strongly as the global economy started to recover.

Full-year chemical results
Chemical companies escaped 2020 with declines but without losses
A table of chemical company financial results.
Source: C&EN tabulations based on company documents.

DuPont completed the year with a sales decline of 5.2% and drop in profits of less than 1%. The company’s ace has been its electronic materials business, which, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, saw five consecutive quarters of year-over-year growth, driven by brisk sales of materials for the latest smartphones.

“Throughout the year, we have focused on positioning ourselves for growth through strategic investments, streamlining our overhead structure, improving working capital, and strengthening our balance sheet,” CEO Ed Breen says in a statement.

Celanese posted a sales decline of 10.2% and an earnings drop of 19.8%. COVID-19, which shut down the auto industry early in 2020, hit the company’s engineered materials business hard, pulling sales down by 12.8%. By the fourth quarter, however, sales in the materials business had bounced back; they rose 8.7% from the third quarter.

Celanese CEO Lori Ryerkerk says she is pleased with how her company weathered the downturn. “As we look at 2021, we are optimistic about how we have entered the year,” she told analysts. “Much of the demand uncertainty we experienced across 2020 appears to have resolved at this stage.”

DSM managed to increase sales by 1.4% in 2020. Sales in its nutrition segment, which performed well all year, more than offset a slump in its materials business, which relies heavily on the auto industry.

Eastman Chemical saw declines across its businesses in 2020 and ended the year with drops of 8.6% and 15.1% in sales and earnings, respectively. But the firm’s recovery toward the end of the year was so vigorous that its fourth-quarter earnings set a record. Some $150 million in cost savings Eastman pieced together in reaction to the pandemic also helped.

“While we prioritized cash, our earnings performance was resilient, which is a testament to the tremendous investments we’ve made in our innovation portfolio and our overall business portfolio over the last decade,” Eastman CEO Mark J. Costa told analysts.

Commodity-oriented LyondellBasell Industries posted bigger 2020 declines than most: 20.1% in sales and 44.9% in earnings. While the company’s polymer businesses rebounded toward the end of the year, its refining businesses continued to be hit by low fuel demand due to the pandemic and posted a loss for the year.

These results follow encouraging early signs from larger chemical makers. Last month, BASF came out with healthy preliminary results. At $71.6 billion, its sales were nearly even with 2019, and its earnings beat analyst estimates.

Bolstered by a solid performance in polyethylene and a sharp recovery in polyurethanes, Dow reported a 4.9% rise in fourth-quarter sales year over year, though full-year sales fell 10.3% compared to 2019.



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