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Chemicals and Related Products

Author: Christopher Robinson
International Trade Analyst

Change in 2014 from 2013:

  To view changing data, mouseover the graphic below.
  • U.S. total exports: Increased by $3.4 billion (1.5 percent) to $234.7 billion
  • U.S. general imports: Increased by $14.9 billion (6.3 percent) to $251.6 billion

U.S. total exports of chemicals and related products rose by $3.4 billion (1.5 percent) to $234.7 billion. The rise in exports was driven by the increased popularity of higher-priced specialty pharmaceuticals in Europe and opportunities created by plastics feedstock supply issues in Mexico. These factors outweighed the decrease in exports of organic chemicals attributable to a combination of expanding production capacity and shrinking demand in East Asia. The markets that accounted for the largest increase in domestic exports were Mexico (up $1.8 billion, or 5.7 percent), Belgium (up $1.7 billion, or 12.9 percent), and the Netherlands (up $1.3 billion, or 15.9 percent) (Table CH.1).

Table CH.1: Chemicals and related products: U.S. exports and general imports, by selected trading partners, 2010–14
 
Million $
 
           
Absolute change,
Percent change,
Item
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2013-14
2013-14
U.S. exports of domestic exports merchandise:              
Canada 31,623 35,559 36,291 36,316 36,949 633 1.7
China 13,306 15,057 14,192 14,226 14,419 193 1.4
Mexico 23,868 27,699 30,599 31,708 33,504 1,796 5.7
Germany 10,826 7,834 7,473 7,137 7,615 478 6.7
Ireland 2,147 1,992 2,192 2,443 2,720 277 11.4
Japan 10,703 11,185 12,194 10,718 11,300 582 5.4
Belgium 10,315 11,773 12,260 13,061 14,752 1,691 12.9
United Kingdom 8,074 8,734 8,419 6,833 7,162 329 4.8
Switzerland 2,849 2,922 2,344 2,651 3,041 390 14.7
Netherlands 8,556 8,219 7,562 8,047 9,324 1,277 15.9
All other 74,775 82,993 84,010 85,093 82,092 -3,000 -3.5
Total domestic exports 197,041 213,966 217,536 218,232 222,877 4,645 2.1
Re-exports 9,983 11,342 11,378 13,044 11,810 -1,234 -9.5
Total U.S. exports (domestic exports and re-exports) 207,025 225,308 228,914 231,276 234,687 3,411 1.5
U.S. general imports:              
Canada 29,858 34,087 33,540 33,299 33,529 229 0.7
China 21,338 25,700 28,022 29,470 31,874 2,404 8.2
Mexico 7,041 8,386 9,130 9,652 10,656 1,004 10.4
Germany 15,587 18,054 20,843 21,856 25,151 3,295 15.1
Ireland 25,316 31,069 24,996 22,384 24,395 2,011 9
Japan 12,397 12,710 12,916 12,660 12,642 -18 -0.1
Belgium 5,128 4,746 3,884 5,003 6,356 1,353 27
United Kingdom 11,970 11,019 10,029 8,665 9,407 742 8.6
Switzerland 7,424 9,001 10,005 10,979 12,103 1,124 10.2
Netherlands 2,425 2,716 3,775 4,104 3,987 -117 -2.8
All other 66,608 80,439 80,121 78,632 81,516 2,884 3.7
Total general imports 205,093 237,927 237,262 236,704 251,615 14,911 6.3
Source: Compiled from official statistics of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2010–14 period. These reflect all official revisions of previously published data up to June 2014 (accessed April 21, 2015).
Note: Import values are based on Customs value; export values are based on free along ship value, U.S. port of export. Calculations based on unrounded data. The countries shown are those with the largest total U.S. trade (U.S. general imports plus U.S. domestic exports) in these products in the current year. Re-exports (also called foreign exports) are further defined in the “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQs) and in the special topic chapter.

U.S. general imports of chemical and related products rose by $14.9 billion (6.3 percent) to $251.6 billion. Increased spending on high-value pharmaceuticals targeting relatively small patient groups and expanded use of plastic products in the U.S. packaging, construction, transportation, and electronics industries contributed to the rise of imports. These factors outweighed a decline in imports of fertilizers that resulted from increased U.S. production and the effects of low crop prices on demand. The countries that accounted for the largest increases in imports were Germany (up $3.3 billion, or 15.1 percent) and China (up $2.4 billion, or 8.2 percent).

U.S. Exports1

U.S. chemical domestic exports primarily increased in two areas: medicinal chemicals and miscellaneous plastic products. The largest decline in exports was in organic commodity chemicals (table CH.2).

Table CH.2: Chemicals and related products: Leading changes in U.S. domestic exports and general imports, 2010–14
 
Million $
 
           
Absolute change,
Percent change,
Item
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2013-14
2013-14
U.S. domestic exports:              
Increases:              
Medicinal chemicals (CH019) 47,182 45,453 48,573 48,488 51,942 3,455 7.1
Miscellaneous plastic products (CH033) 21,328 23,198 23,856 24,663 25,982 1,319 5.3
Decreases:              
Organic commodity chemicals (CH004) 5,047 6,033 6,528 7,269 6,262 -1,006 -13.8
All other 123,485 139,282 138,579 137,812 138,690 878 0.6
Total 197,041 213,966 217,536 218,232 222,877 4,645 2.1
U.S. general imports:              
Increases:              
Medicinal chemicals (CH019) 86,532 92,961 89,365 85,433 93,487 8,054 9.4
Miscellaneous plastic products (CH033) 23,222 25,567 27,713 29,264 31,191 1,927 6.6
Decreases:              
Fertilizers (CH010) 9,639 13,617 13,233 12,051 11,313 -737 -6.1
All other 85,701 105,782 106,951 109,956 115,623 5,667 5.2
Total 205,093 237,927 237,262 236,704 251,615 14,911 6.3
Source: Compiled from official statistics of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2010–14 period. These reflect all official revisions of previously published data up to June 2014 (accessed March 27, 2015).
Note: Import values are based on Customs value; export values are based on free along ship value, U.S. port of export. Calculations based on unrounded data.

U.S. domestic exports of medicinal chemicals increased by $3.5 billion (7.1 percent) because of trade in immunological products and biologic medical products, which are typically more expensive than traditional chemical pharmaceuticals. Monoclonal antibody therapies, which treat rheumatoid arthritis and similar inflammatory diseases, contributed to the $2.5 billion increase in the exports of immunological products.2 Among biologic medicines, a key contributor to this shift was likely the introduction of new products, including two that treat hepatitis C.3

U.S. domestic exports of miscellaneous plastic products increased by $1.3 billion (5.3 percent). Much of this rise, $455.6 million, was accounted for by U.S. trade with Mexico.4 This shift may be linked to shortfalls in Mexican petrochemical feedstock and plastic resin production that started in 2013 and continued into 2014, reducing domestic Mexican production of plastic products and resulting in increased Mexican purchases of some plastic products from the United States.5

Exports of organic commodity chemicals experienced the largest decrease, down $1.0 billion (13.8 percent) to $6.3 billion in 2014. The decline was largely driven by competition from increased production in Asia of paraxylene (used in the production of polyester) and decreased styrene demand in China. In 2014, paraxylene production capacity increased in Singapore6 and South Korea, while demand for the chemical was decreasing. U.S. exports of paraxylene to Singapore experienced the largest decline (falling $343.7 million),7 softening in parallel with demand for polyester.8 During the year, exports of styrene to China fell by $315.9 million9 as demand declined in that country, in part due to a slowdown in construction and to government efforts to decrease domestic spending on luxury goods and housing.10

U.S. Imports

U.S. imports of chemicals and related products rose by $14.9 billion (6.3 percent) in 2014. This trend was driven by medicinal chemicals, which rose by $8.1 billion (9.4 percent), and miscellaneous plastic products, which rose by $1.9 billion (6.6 percent).

Imports of medicinal chemicals increased because of higher prices and the international nature of pharmaceutical supply chains. Spending on pharmaceuticals rose 13 percent in the United States in 2014. In part this higher spending reflects the increased usage of higher-priced specialty pharmaceuticals, which are often focused on smaller patient groups. Such products require more complex production, handling, administration, and monitoring than traditional pharmaceuticals. Another factor contributing to the price increase was the fact that fewer major pharmaceuticals went off patent than in 2013, resulting in less cost limitation through generic pharmaceutical production.11 Also, much of international pharmaceuticals trade is related-party trade within large companies. The increase in imports in 2014 likely reflects multinational firms operating in the United States using facilities in other countries, most notably Switzerland and Ireland,12 to meet growing U.S. demand. Switzerland and Ireland combined accounted for $2.4 billion of the increase in U.S. imports.13

U.S. imports of miscellaneous plastic products increased by $1.9 billion in 2014. The rise was broadly spread among a variety of products and countries and likely reflects increased economic activity in high-use markets such as packaging, construction, transportation, and electronics.14

U.S. imports of fertilizers declined $737 million. One likely reason for this was an increase in U.S. domestic capacity for nitrogen fertilizer production because of lower natural gas prices.15 Another probable reason was a reduction in U.S. usage of potash and phosphate fertilizers (which are generally not applied on an annual basis) linked to lower crop prices.16


1 As appropriate, this section will address total exports, domestic exports, and re-exports.
2 AbbVie, “AbbVie Reports Fourth-Quarter and Full-Year,” January 30, 2015.
3 Gilead, “Gilead Sciences Announces Fourth Quarter,” February 3, 2015.
4 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity group CH033; accessed March 20, 2015).
5 Business News Americas, “Mexico’s Plastics Industry Shrinks,” June 2, 2014.
6 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for HTS subheading 2903.43; accessed March 31, 2015).
7 Platts, “Asian Paraxylene/Benzene Spread Falls,” May 9, 2014.
8 Chan, “Painful Stocktaking for Jurong Aromatics,” January 12, 2015; Platts, “Asian Paraxylene/Benzene Spread Falls,” May 9, 2014.
9 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for HTS subheading 2902.50; accessed March 31, 2015).
10 Kao, “Oil Price Fall Hits Styrene Monomer,” December 24, 2014.
11 Weinstein, “Report: U.S. Drug Spending Jumped 13%,” March 10, 2015.
12 Nine out of 10 of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies have facilities in Ireland, in part due to low corporate taxes and a highly skilled workforce (Burns, 2013). Switzerland’s pharmaceutical industry benefits from, among other factors, a relatively high level of research spending per employee (Science Industries Switzerland, 2012, 27).
13 USITC DataWeb/USDOC (for commodity group CH019; accessed March 20, 2015).
14 American Chemical Council, Resin Review—2014, 2014, 9–10.
15 Enoch, “Nitrogen Fertilizer Market Nearing Saturation,” July 25, 2014.
16 Nickel, “Exclusive: U.S. Farmers Seen Cutting Fertilizer Use,” October 16, 2014.