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Chemicals and Related Products

Chemicals and Related Products

Changes in 2020 from 2019:

  • U.S. total exports of chemicals and related products: Decreased by $13.6 billion (5.6 percent) to $229.2 billion
    • U.S. domestic exports of chemicals and related products: Decreased by $14.4 billion (6.4 percent) to $210.7 billion
    • U.S. re-exports of chemicals and related products: Increased by $767 million (4.3 percent) to $18.5 billion)
  • U.S. general imports of chemicals and related products: Increased by $9.1 billion (2.9 percent) to $329.0 billion

The value of U.S. domestic exports of chemicals and related products[1] dropped by $14.4 billion (6.4 percent) from 2019 to 2020.[2] Most digests in this sector recorded declining exports in 2020, generally due to overall reductions in consumption related to the COVID-19 pandemic (table CH.1). Exports in several digests that cover disinfectants and personal cleaning products increased as people around the globe attempted to contain the spread of COVID-19 through increased cleaning, sanitation, and hand washing. Exports of plastics declined the most in 2020, followed by perfumes/cosmetics and certain organic chemicals.

The value of U.S. general imports increased by $9.1 billion (2.9 percent) from 2019 to 2020, the largest gain among the 10 sectors covered in this report. The increase in this sector was led by a surge in medicinal chemicals ($15.5 billion, 10.2 percent) (table CH.2). This total change in medicinal chemicals imports was more than nine times greater than the change, increase or decrease, in imports of any other digest in this sector. Imports of miscellaneous plastic products and soaps, detergents, and surface-active agents also increased substantially in 2020, by $1.4 billion (3.3 percent) and $1.0 billion (34.5 percent), respectively. As with other products, these changes were driven by the COVID-19 pandemic response.

U.S. Domestic Exports

Most digests in this sector recorded declining exports in 2020, but a few experienced increases. Exports of pesticide products and formulations increased by $445 million (8.2 percent) in 2020. This digest includes surface disinfectants and disinfectant wipes, demand for both of which surged due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[3] Exports of soaps, detergents, and surface-active agents also increased in 2020, by $90 million (1.5 percent). Similar to disinfectant products, the demand for personal cleaning products surged during 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.[4]

The digests reporting the two largest export declines in 2020 cover plastic products—other plastics in primary forms and miscellaneous plastic products. Aggregate exports of products in these two digests dropped $3.7 billion (8.9 percent) in 2020.

Within the other plastics in primary form digest,[5] two product groupings experienced the largest export declines in 2020. The largest was polyamides;[6] followed by amino-resins, phenolic resins, and polyurethanes.[7] U.S. exports of polyamides declined by $569 million (22.2 percent) in 2020.[8] The major applications for these products are in the automotive industry, which experienced significant declines in production throughout 2020 and reduced demand for its inputs.[9] The second-largest decline in this digest occurred with exports of polyurethanes (down by $83 million or 10.7 percent), which are used to produce car seats, mattresses, cushions, and furniture. Exports of this chemical input declined when demand for various end-use products fell, such as the decline in automobile production due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.[10]

Exports under the miscellaneous plastic products digest declined by $1.8 billion (7.1 percent) in 2020. These declines were concentrated in two product groupings; a basket category of articles of plastic, NESOI (not elsewhere specified or included)[11] and tubes, pipes and hoses, and fittings of plastic.[12] The broad range of products covered under this basket category means that changes in trade generally reflect overall economic activity. The products under HS heading 3917 include items used in the automotive and construction industries. The COVID-19 pandemic led to reduced production in those industries, which subsequently reduced demand for products under HS 3917.[13] Exports of another plastics digest, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) resins in primary form, declined an additional $481 million. The decline in PVC resin exports has been attributed in part due to an antidumping duty investigation initiated by China against imports of these products from the United States on September 25, 2020.[14]

Exports of perfumes, cosmetics, and toiletries fell by $1.2 billion (12.8 percent) in 2020. With the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in people limiting their activities throughout much of the year, demand for products primarily used in social settings declined. Cosmetics was the most negatively affected component of this digest.[15]

Exports of certain organic chemicals declined by $1.2 billion (6.6 percent) in 2020 due to the general economic downturn. One product in this digest, methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) was affected by lower transportation activity and gasoline demand.[16] MTBE’s primary use is as a gasoline additive.[17]

Exports of organic commodity chemicals decreased by $1.0 billion (25.7 percent) in 2020. Declines in styrene (down $541 million or 25.1 percent) and para-xylene (down $353 million or 34.9 percent) represented approximately 86 percent of the total decrease in exports of products in this digest.[18]  Mexico was the top destination for exports of products included in this digest—making up 37 and 38 percent of U.S. exports in 2019 and 2020, respectively—which fell by $395 million (26.1 percent). This decline occurred in part from the contraction of the Mexican para-xylene market as the country’s production of downstream products has been decreasing over the last few years.[19]

Canada and Mexico remained the top two export destinations for U.S. chemical products although exports to both declined by value in 2020 (table CH.1). U.S. automobile inputs constitute a significant share of the exports to these two trading partners. The reduction in driving and automobile plant closures in the beginning of the pandemic lowered demand for—and exports of—automobile inputs.[20]

U.S. General Imports

The value of U.S. general imports of chemicals and related products grew by $9.1 billion (2.9 percent) in 2020. In particular, factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic drove increases in imports of medicinal chemicals; soaps, detergents, and surface-active agents; and pesticide products and formulations. Imports of miscellaneous plastic products also increased substantially in 2020.

Imports of medicinal chemicals increased by $15.5 billion (10.2 percent) in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic created a surge in demand for products to both test for and treat the illness. Imports of immunological products such as antivirals and hormones as well as diagnostic reagent materials for nucleic acid, antigen, and antibody tests increased almost $10.5 billion in 2020.[21] The reagents were primarily sourced, by volume, from Canada, China, and Europe, although China was the largest supplier by value.[22] While imports of vaccines for human medicine[23] did increase in 2020, the increase was limited to $162 million.[24] Development and approval of vaccines was late enough in the year that a significant change in trade did not occur in 2020. The largest import sources of vaccines were Belgium, Germany, and Ireland.[25] Europe is primarily a supplier of higher-value products, like novel pharmaceuticals (which are in essence drugs that have not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration).[26]

Imports of miscellaneous plastic products increased by $1.4 billion (3.3 percent) in 2020. This increase was driven by trade in vinyl tile floor coverings, imports of which increased by $516 million (16.4 percent).[27] Despite the general slowdown in commercial construction activity, this digest registered increased trade, likely due to home renovation projects.[28]

In addition to the medicinal products discussed above, imports of soaps, detergents, and surface-active agents increased ($1.0 billion or 34.5 percent) in response to COVID-19 concerns. The increased determination to clean and disinfect surfaces to avoid the spread of COVID-19 led to a surge in demand for these products.[29] These bulky, heavy, and often caustic products are largely sourced from China, Mexico, and Canada.[30]

Pesticide products and formulations imports increased $845 million (22.3 percent) in 2020. Similar to the above discussion on U.S. exports of these products, imports were driven by the surge in demand for disinfectants, especially surface disinfectants and disinfectant wipes.[31]

Miscellaneous inorganic chemicals recorded the largest decline in imports in 2020, falling by $1.6 billion (13.9 percent). This digest contains products that go into various end uses such that overall economic activity, rather than a single influence, drives this trade. Other phosphides,[32] which contributed the most to the decline of imports of this digest, includes gallium arsenide wafers, one of the substrates used to produce semiconductors and electronic products.[33]

The tires and tubes digest recorded a $1.5 billion (10.1 percent) drop in imports in 2020. The decreased activity level of most people during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in fewer vehicles being on the road throughout the year.[34] This led to reduced tire demand for both new and existing cars.[35]

Fertilizer imports fell by $1.3 billion (17.1 percent) in 2020. While disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to market decline, U.S. fertilizer imports generally had been declining because of increased U.S. fertilizer production. This trend is largely due to fracking, which has substantially increased the availability and lowered the price of natural gas in the U.S. market. Since natural gas is the primary input in the production of ammonia, abundant and cheap natural gas has supported the expansion of ammonia and nitrogen fertilizer production in the United States.[36] Additionally, phosphate fertilizer imports have declined since the U.S. industry filed countervailing duty petitions in June 2020 on imports of these products from Morocco and Russia.[37]

Imports of perfumes, cosmetics, and toiletries fell by $982 million (9.8 percent) in 2020. As mentioned above regarding exports, demand for products primarily used in social settings declined during the COVID-19 pandemic-related quarantines of 2020.[38]

Finally, imports of miscellaneous rubber products declined by $883 million (12.5 percent) in 2020. Many of these products go into the automotive and construction industries, which, as discussed earlier, suffered substantial reductions in demand in 2020.

Imports increased the most from European trading partners who were the primary sources of various COVID-19 related products (table CH.2). Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and Switzerland were major suppliers of medicinal chemicals. Imports from those countries increased by $3.9 billion, $2.4 billion, $5.4 billion, and $2.2 billion, respectively. In contrast, imports from Italy declined by $2.4 billion.

 

[1] The Chemicals and Related Products sector consists of 36 product digests. Each USITC sector digest encompasses various 8-digit subheadings in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTS). For a complete list of HTS subheadings classified in a particular sector or digest, see this data table.

[2] Except where otherwise noted, the export data used in this section are for domestic exports. For more information on trade terminology, please refer to USITC, “Special Topic: Trade Metrics,” Shifts in U.S. Merchandise Trade, 2014, June 2015.

[3] Kavilanz, “The Clorox Wipes Shortage,” August 4, 2020; Gao, “Why Disinfectant Wipes,” July 24, 2020.

[4] Kirn, “Manufacturer Adding Middle Tennessee Jobs,” October 7, 2020.

[5] Products in the other plastics in primary form digest are included in various HTS subheadings from 3902 through 3914.

[6] Polyamides are exported under HTS heading 3908. USITC DataWeb/Census, accessed July 1, 2021.

[7] Polyurethanes are exported under HTS heading 3909.

[8] USITC DataWeb/Census, accessed July 1, 2021.

[9] IndustryWeek, “Global Auto Production Dropped,” March 26, 2021; Szymkowski, “COVID-19 and Plant Closures,” May 13, 2020.

[10] IndustryWeek, “Global Auto Production Dropped,” March 26, 2021; Szymkowski, “COVID-19 and Plant Closures,” May 13, 2020. For more information regarding the automotive industry in 2020, see the Transportation Equipment section of this report.

[11] Products exported under HTS heading 3926, except for HTS subheading 3926.20.

[12] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS headings 3915 through 3926, accessed May 24, 2021. Fittings of plastic are exported under HTS heading 3917.

[13] IndustryWeek, “Global Auto Production Dropped,” March 26, 2021; Szymkowski, “COVID-19 and Plant Closures,” May 13, 2020.

[14] Hays, “China Launches Antidumping Investigation on US PVC,” September 25, 2020.

[15] Premium Beauty News, “U.S. Prestige Beauty Sales Declined,” February 16, 2021.

[16] MTBE is exported under HTS subheading 2909.19.14.

[17] MTBE has been phased out of use in the domestic gasoline supply because of environmental concerns, but U.S. gasoline producers still blend MTBE with gasoline for export to other markets.

[18] Styrene is exported under HTS subheading 2902.50. Para-xylene is exported under HTS subheading 2902.43.

[19] Singh, “Para-Xylene-CEH,” November 30, 2020 (subscription required), 45–46.

[20] For more information on automotive plant closures, see the Transportation Equipment section of this report.

[21] Immunological products are imported under HTS subheadings 3002.13, 3002.14, and 3002.15. Materials for nucleic acid tests are imported under HTS statistical reporting number 3822.00.5050, antigen tests under HTS statistical reporting number 3822.00.1090, and antibody tests under HTS statistical reporting number 3002.15.0010. Goodman, “COVID-19 Testing Supplies One Year into the Pandemic,” May 2021, 19–20.

[22] USITC, “COVID-19 Related Goods,” December 2020, 19.

[23] Vaccines for human medicine are imported under HTS subheading 3002.20.

[24] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 3002.20, accessed July 1, 2021.

[25] USITC, “COVID-19 Related Goods,” December 2020, 20.

[26] USITC, “COVID-19 Related Goods,” December 2020, 144–45.

[27] USITC DataWeb/Census, HTS subheading 3918.10.10, accessed August 2, 2021.

[28] Olick, “Pandemic Home Remodeling Is Booming,” August 7, 2020.

[29] Leggate, “Where to Find Hand Sanitizers,” March 6, 2020.

[30] USITC, “COVID-19 Related Goods,” December 2020, 16–17.

[31] Gao, “Why Disinfectant Wipes,” July 24, 2020; Kavilanz, “The Clorox Wipes Shortage,” August 4, 2020.

[32] Phosphides are imported under HTS subheading 2853.90.90.

[33] For more information on semiconductor imports, see the Electronic Products section of this report.

[34] Gross, “Pandemic Pause: Americans Cut Driving,” July 15, 2021.

[35] IndustryWeek, “Global Auto Production Dropped,” March 26, 2021; USDOC, BEA, “Domestic Auto Production (DAUPSA),” accessed June 14, 2021.

[36] Ammonia is often used either as an input to make nitrogen-based fertilizers or as a fertilizer itself. Vroomen, “Fertilizer Market Factors and Price Influencers,” April 20, 2021, 83–87.

[37] Vroomen, “Fertilizer Market Factors and Price Influencers,” April 20, 2021, 91; 85 Fed. Reg. 40319 (July 6, 2020).  See also USITC, Phosphate Fertilizers from Morocco and Russia, March 2021

[38] Premium Beauty News, “U.S. Prestige Beauty Sales Declined,” February 16, 2021.

 

Bibliography — Chemicals and Related Products

Federal Register. “Phosphate Fertilizers from Morocco and Russia; Institution of Countervailing Duty Investigations and Scheduling of Preliminary Phase Investigations.” Federal Register, July 6, 2020. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/07/06/2020-14294/phosphate-fertilizers-from-morocco-and-russia-institution-of-countervailing-duty-investigations-and.

Gao, Michelle. “Why Disinfectant Wipes Aren’t Returning as Fast as Toilet Paper.” CNBC, July 25, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/24/why-disinfectant-wipes-arent-returning-as-fast-as-toiletpaper.html.

Goodman, Samuel M. “COVID-19 Testing Supplies One Year into the Pandemic.” U.S. International Trade Commission, Working Paper ID-076, May 2021. https://www.usitc.gov/publications/332/working_papers/wp_id_21_076_covid-19_testing_supplies_compiled_052121-compliant.pdf.

Gross, Andrew. “Pandemic Pause: Americans Cut Driving Nearly in Half in Early Stage of COVID Crisis.” AAA Newsroom, July 15, 2021. https://newsroom.aaa.com/2021/07/travel-before-and-during-covid-july-2021/.

Hays, Kristen. “China Launches Antidumping Investigation on US PVC.” S&P Global Platts, September 25, 2020. https://www.spglobal.com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/petrochemicals/092520-china-launches-antidumping-investigation-on-us-pvc.

IndustryWeek. “Global Auto Production Dropped 16% Last Year Thanks to COVID-19,” March 26, 2021. https://www.industryweek.com/the-economy/data-and-statistics/article/21159389/global-auto-production-dropped-16-last-year-thanks-to-covid19.

Kavilanz, Parija. “The Clorox Wipes Shortage is Expected to Last into 2021.” CNN, August 4, 2020.  https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/04/business/clorox-wipes-shortage/index.html.

Kirn, Jacob. “Manufacturer Adding Middle Tennessee Jobs After Demand Spikes for Hygiene Products.” Biz Journals (Nashville), October 7, 2020. https://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/news/2020/10/07/manufacturer-adding-jobs.html.

Leggate, James. “Where to Find Hand Sanitizers.” FOX Business, March 6, 2020. https://www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/where-are-popular-hand-sanitizers-made.

Olick, Diana. “Pandemic Home Remodeling Is Booming: Here’s What Your Neighbors Are Doing.” CNBC, August 7, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/07/pandemic-home-remodeling-is-booming-what-your-neighbors-are-doing.html.

Premium Beauty News. “U.S. Prestige Beauty Sales Declined 19% in 2020, Reports NPD,” February 16, 2021. https://www.premiumbeautynews.com/en/u-s-prestige-beauty-sales-declined,17992,en.

Singh, Neetu, Arabinda Nayak, and Duncan Clark. “para-Xylene-CEH.” IHS Markit Connect Chemical Economics Handbook, November 30, 2020. (subscription required). https://connect.ihsmarkit.com/chemical/markets-reports-analysis/research/chemical-economics-handbook.

Szymkowski, Sean. “COVID-19 and Plant Closures: The Auto Industry’s Response, Potential Return Dates.” Roadshow, May 13, 2020. https://www.cnet.com/roadshow/news/covid-19-automakers-plant-shutdowns-coronavirus-pandemic-return-date/.

U.S. Department of Commerce (USDOC), Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). “Domestic Auto Production.” Retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, June 14, 2021. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/DAUPSA.

U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC). “COVID-19 Related Goods: The U.S. Industry, Market, Trade, and Supply Chain Challenges.” USITC Publication 5145. Washington, DC: USITC, December 2020. https://www.usitc.gov/publications/332/pub5145.pdf.

U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC). Phosphate Fertilizers from Morocco and Russia (Inv. Nos. 701-TA-650-651 (Final), USITC Publication 5172, March 2021). https://www.usitc.gov/publications/701_731/pub5172.pdf.

U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC). “Special Topic: Trade Metrics,” Shifts in U.S. Merchandise Trade, 2014. Investigation No. 332-345. USITC Publication 4536. Washington, DC: USITC, June 2015. https://www.usitc.gov/research_and_analysis/trade_shifts_2014/trade_metrics.htm.

Vroomen, Harry. “Fertilizer Market Factors and Price Influencers.” The Fertilizer Institute webinar, April 20, 2021.