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Mid-Year Outlook: Declining U.S. Chemical Industry Output, With Potential Rebound in 2021

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Jennifer Scott
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WASHINGTON (June 25, 2020) – Key U.S. chemical industry metrics will be lower this year, according to the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) Mid-Year 2020 Chemical Industry Situation and Outlook. Production volumes, shipments and capital spending will fall due to economic and business disruption caused by COVID-19. A rebound in 2021 is projected, although significant uncertainty remains.

ACC’s Outlook begins with a review of the global economy. Data suggest that the global recession may have bottomed out, yet the 2020 outlook is one of the poorest in decades. Global GDP will contract 4.6 percent in 2020 before expanding 5.3 percent in 2021. Global industrial production will contract 3.8 percent in 2020 before increasing by 5.3 percent in 2021.

In the United States, GDP will shrink by 6.0 percent in 2020 before expanding by 4.1 percent in 2021, according to ACC projections. Consumer spending will fall 6.4 percent in 2020, then rise 4.6 percent in 2021. Business investment will fall 9.9 percent in 2020 and expand by 2.7 percent in 2021. Unemployment will fall steadily, easing below five percent by 2023. Trends in the U.S. economy can be viewed in ACC’s Chemical Activity Barometer.

“U.S. industrial activity started the year on a weak note even before COVID-19-related supply disruptions emerged in February,” said Kevin Swift, chief economist at ACC. “After suffering the sharpest pullback on record in April, many industrial sectors are showing signs of recovery. Industrial production is set to fall 10.5 percent in 2020 before increasing by 3.1 percent in 2021.”

Vehicle sales will decline from 16.9 million last year to 13.1 million in 2020, then improve to 14.9 million in 2021, according to ACC. Housing starts will tumble to 1.19 million in 2020, then increase to a 1.24 million pace in 2021. Partially offsetting weakness in these markets is strengthening demand for chemistry used in products used to fight COVID-19. For example, the chemistry industry provides synthetic materials for PPE, ingredients for cleaners and disinfectants, and plastics used in ventilators and IV bags.

“As key end-use and export markets struggle, U.S. chemical volumes will contract as well,” said Martha Moore, senior director of policy analysis and economics at ACC. “Chemical volumes will fall 9.3 percent this year, while shipments will decline by 13.5 percent. In 2021, volumes will rebound 12.3 percent and shipments will increase by 14.5 percent. Capital spending will fall 17.6 percent to $29.0 billion in 2020, then increase by 15.7 percent to $33.5 billion in 2021.”

After seven consecutive years of gains, U.S. chemical industry employment is set to fall by nearly 20,000, or 3.6 percent, in 2020. As demand for chemistry strengthens in 2021 and 2022, employment will start to recover, but won’t reach pre-COVID level until 2024. The chemical industry remains a major employer, paying its workers on average more than $87,000 in 2019. These jobs and the wages they pay support local communities around the country.

Total U.S. chemicals trade will fall by 16.4 percent in 2020, to $199 billion. U.S. chemical exports will decline sharply, falling by 14.5 percent in 2020 before rising 10.9 percent in 2021. Full recovery to pre-COVID levels is not expected until 2022. U.S. chemical imports will fall 19.1 percent in 2020, then grow by 11.9 percent in 2021. Full recovery is expected in late 2022 or 2023. The industry will maintain its net exporter position: By 2025, net exports of chemicals will reach $37 billion.

American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry. ACC members apply the science of chemistry to make innovative products and services that make people's lives better, healthier and safer. ACC is committed to improved environmental, health and safety performance through Responsible Care®; common sense advocacy designed to address major public policy issues; and health and environmental research and product testing. The business of chemistry is a $486 billion enterprise and a key element of the nation's economy. It is among the largest exporters in the nation, accounting for ten percent of all U.S. goods exports. Chemistry companies are among the largest investors in research and development. Safety and security have always been primary concerns of ACC members, and they have intensified their efforts, working closely with government agencies to improve security and to defend against any threat to the nation’s critical infrastructure.

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