Chemical & Engineering News

June 23, 1997


Copyright © 1997 by the American Chemical Society

In this year's edition of Facts & Figures for the Chemical Industry, readers will find such words as "moderate," "lackluster," "retreat," and "mixed" and phrases such as "modest growth," "some improvement," and "down slightly." This is a pretty good indication that 1996 was not a stellar year for the chemical industry around the world. But it could hardly be called a bad year, either.

The chemical industries of most countries seem to have limped into 1996 from 1995 with little fundamentally wrong, but with little going right. Demand was generally on a plateau, and pricing was soft. The world trade picture showed little improvement from the year before. But none of these was a problem that couldn't turn around quickly, and in some countries that turnaround may be happening already.

Readers also will notice this year that, as expected, data are missing for production of many large-volume organic chemicals in the U.S. because the government stopped collecting such data and the efforts of the National Petroleum Refiners Association to pick up this service include far fewer products. Privatization of data collection has also affected statistics from the U.K.

Thus, the compilation of this survey is often an ever-changing, and always a daunting, task. This year, Assistant Managing Editor William J. Storck, Senior Editors Patricia L. Layman (London) and Marc Reisch, Houston Bureau Head Ann M. Thayer, and Associate Editors Elisabeth M. Kirschner, George Peaff, and Jean-François Tremblay (Hong Kong) were responsible for the collection of data that appears on these 40 pages.

AT A GLANCE

Overall output of the U.S. chemical industry improved, but some major segments such as basic inorganic and industrial organic chemicals showed declines. Downstream, plastics, fibers, and synthetic rubber grew.

Higher raw material costs and little increase in end-product prices squeezed earnings for U.S. chemical companies, lowering profitability. Spending on R&D and capital equipment improved.

U.S. chemical employment dropped for the fourth straight year, but for the first time since 1992, there was a decline in production workers. Chemical productivity improved and unit labor costs declined.

As the U.S. economy continued to improve, major end-use markets for chemicals were mixed. Housing starts, acreage harvested, and output of household appliances improved, but production of automobiles and trucks declined, as did textile mill products.

The U.S. chemical industry maintained its trade surplus last year, but it fell from 1995 as growth of imports outpaced that of exports. World chemical trade rose 9% last year.

Growth of Canada's chemical economy slowed, as did growth of chemical industries in European countries. In the Pacific Rim, China's production increased rapidly, Japan's increased moderately, and Taiwan's was stable.