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he chemical industry is already in recovery mode from an unusually deep—but short—recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new analysis by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the US chemical industry’s main trade association.

FORECAST

US chemical output should rebound in 2021.

Drop in US chemical production in 2020


Expected increase in US chemical production in 2021

The crisis certainly left a bruise. The ACC estimates that US chemical output fell 3.6% in 2020 after a 0.1% dip in 2019. The swing for specialty chemicals was much wider; the segment sank 10.8% this year compared to last year’s 2.5% growth. And there were layoffs: the chemical workforce shrank by 14,000 jobs.

Now, as the year winds down, the economic gears are turning again, and the chemical industry is starting to rebound. The ACC estimates that the US economy will grow 3.7% in 2021 and that chemical production will rise a similar 3.9%. Most industries that buy chemicals will ramp up production in 2021, though not all will make up the ground lost in 2020.

Many chemical businesses faced a dire situation in April and May when COVID-19 forced customers to shut their manufacturing lines. Demand for materials used in automaking, like synthetic rubber, fell off a cliff. Composites used in airplanes suffered a similar fate. Even companies selling into usually stable consumer markets like food, personal care, and cleaning products saw their businesses shrink.

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In contrast to other US industries, however, chemicals took a moderate hit, says Kevin Swift, the ACC’s chief economist. And compared to other chemical-producing regions, the US didn’t get too roughed up. “I’d characterize the US as the best-looking horse in the glue factory,” he says. Sales of plastics held up well thanks to demand for personal protective equipment, a rise in new home construction, and consumer spending on appliances and home improvement products. Demand for chemicals used in electronics remained strong.

Those trends will continue in 2021, and growth will spread to other industries including car manufacturing, as vaccines for COVID-19 are rolled out. That will help specialty chemical volumes rise 2.4%. Demand for basic chemicals will jump 5.0%, thanks in large part to the cost advantage US manufacturers enjoy from the country’s low-priced natural gas.

Swift says chemical firms can also look forward to less trade friction under the incoming Biden administration. “There will definitely be a different tone on trade with our major trading partners,” he says.

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