Chemicals and Related Products

Author: Christopher Robinson
International Trade Analyst

Change in 2015 from 2014:

  To view changing data, mouseover the graphic below.
  • U.S. total exports: Decreased by $6.9 billion (3 percent) to $228.0 billion
  • U.S. general imports: Increased by $8.9 billion (4 percent) to $260.4 billion

U.S. total exports of chemicals and related products decreased by $6.9 billion (3 percent) to $228.0 billion. The drop in the value of exports was driven by the lower costs of petroleum derivatives, reduced consumption of a fuel additive in Mexico and Venezuela, and the combination of expanded production capacity in Asia of paraxylene and soft demand for polyester, one of its major end-uses. These factors offset increased exports of pharmaceuticals due to expanded usage of higher-priced specialty products. As noted in table CH.1, the markets that accounted for the largest decline in exports, in value terms, were Canada (down $3.1 billion, or 8 percent) and Mexico (down $1.9 billion, or 6 percent).

Table CH.1: Chemicals and related products: U.S. exports and general imports, by selected trading partners, 2011–15

 
Million $
 
Item 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Absolute change,
2014–15
Percent
change,
2014–15
U.S. exports of domestic merchandise:              
    Canada 35,559 36,291 36,335 37,127 34,000 -3,127 -8.4
    China 15,057 14,191 14,229 14,419 14,141 -279 -1.9
    Mexico 27,699 30,599 31,704 33,485 31,597 -1,888 -5.6
    Germany 7,834 7,473 7,137 7,580 7,529 -51 -0.7
    Ireland 1,992 2,192 2,439 2,751 3,265 514 18.7
    Japan 11,185 12,193 10,722 11,295 10,777 -518 -4.6
    United Kingdom 8,734 8,419 6,834 7,215 8,467 1,252 17.4
    Belgium 11,773 12,259 13,056 14,719 15,467 748 5.1
    Switzerland 2,922 2,344 2,651 3,040 2,973 -67 -2.2
    India 4,541 3,623 3,217 3,052 3,248 196 6.4
    All other 86,670 87,942 89,906 88,208 83,439 -4,769 -5.4
        Total domestic exports 213,966 217,529 218,228 222,893 214,904 -7,989 -3.6
Foreign exports 11,342 11,394 13,068 11,932 13,059 1,127 9.4
Total U.S. exports (domestic and foreign) 225,308 228,922 231,296 234,825 227,963 -6,861 -2.9
U.S. general imports:              
    Canada 34,087 33,540 33,299 33,520 32,159 -1,361 -4.1
    China 25,700 28,022 29,470 31,873 31,009 -865 -2.7
    Mexico 8,386 9,130 9,652 10,654 10,750 96 0.9
    Germany 18,054 20,843 21,855 25,172 24,845 -327 -1.3
    Ireland 31,069 24,996 22,384 24,380 28,780 4,400 18.0
    Japan 12,710 12,916 12,659 12,641 11,723 -918 -7.3
    United Kingdom 11,019 10,029 8,665 9,406 13,940 4,535 48.2
    Belgium 4,746 3,884 5,002 6,310 6,295 -15 -0.2
    Switzerland 9,001 10,005 10,978 12,106 11,943 -162 -1.3
    India 6,698 8,063 8,293 8,875 9,745 869 9.8
    All other 76,457 75,815 74,439 76,497 79,192 2,695 3.5
        Total general imports 237,927 237,243 236,697 251,434 260,380 8,946 3.6

Source: Compiled from official statistics of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2011–15 period. These reflect all official revisions of previously published data up to June 2015 (accessed June 30, 2016).
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 trading partners 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).

U.S. general imports of chemicals and related products increased by $8.9 billion (4 percent) to $260.4 billion. Contributing to this trend were increased spending on high-value pharmaceuticals targeting relatively small patient groups, approval of a higher than usual number of new drugs, and widespread price increases. These factors outweighed the effects of a decline in value of petroleum derivatives, the loss of patent protection of a key pharmaceutical, decreased usage of chlorobenzene, and increased U.S. production of methanol. The countries that accounted for the largest increases in imports were the United Kingdom (up $4.5 billion, 48 percent) and Ireland (up $4.4 billion, 18 percent).

U.S. Exports 1

U.S. chemical domestic exports decreased primarily in two areas of petroleum-derived products: certain organic chemicals and organic commodity chemicals. The largest increase in exports was in medicinal chemicals (table CH.2).

Table CH.2: Chemicals and related products: Leading changes in U.S. exports and imports, 2011–15

 
Million $
 
Item 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 Absolute change,
2014–15
Percent
change,
2014–15
U.S. domestic exports:              
    Increases:              
        Medicinal chemicals (CH019) 45,453 48,575 48,465 51,983 55,507 3,523 6.8
    Decreases:              
        Certain organic chemicals (CH006) 20,763 19,643 19,691 18,992 16,443 -2,549 -13.4
        Organic commodity chemicals (CH004) 6,033 6,528 7,254 6,244 4,189 -2,055 -32.9
    All other 141,717 142,783 142,818 145,672 138,765 -6,907 -4.7
        Total 213,966 217,529 218,228 222,893 214,904 -7,989 -3.6
U.S. general imports:              
    Increases:              
        Medicinal chemicals (CH019) 92,961 89,365 85,435 93,388 109,822 16,434 17.6
    Decreases:              
        Organic specialty chemicals (CH005) 11,140 11,661 12,784 13,662 11,937 -1,726 -12.6
        Certain organic chemicals (CH006) 11,290 10,715 10,970 11,660 10,416 -1,244 -10.7
    All other 122,536 125,502 127,508 132,723 128,205 -4,518 -3.4
        Total 237,927 237,243 236,697 251,434 260,380 8,946 3.6

Source: Compiled from official statistics of the U.S. Department of Commerce for the 2011–15 period. These reflect all official revisions of previously published data up to June 2015 (accessed June 30, 2016).
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 value of U.S. domestic exports of certain organic chemicals decreased by $2.6 billion (13 percent) as prices declined for crude petroleum and natural gas feedstocks, even as export volume increased by 4 percent.2 Trade in methyl-tert butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive, also contributed to the decrease in exports. Exports of MTBE decreased by $457 million (26 percent) in value and 4 percent by volume. The trend was led by Mexico, which implemented a mandate to increase the use of ethanol as a fuel additive,3 and Venezuela, where an economic contraction lowered gasoline demand.4 Trade results in acrylonitrile also reflected declining fossil fuel prices. Exports of this chemical, used in manufacturing acrylic fabric and resins, increased 11 percent by volume, but lower prices of the feedstock propylene (derived from either natural gas or petroleum) contributed to a $179 million (26 percent) decrease in export values.5 

Exports of organic commodity chemicals, which are largely petrochemical derivatives, declined by $2.1 billion (33 percent) by value, outstripping the 13 percent shrinkage in export volumes. Paraxylene, a petroleum derivative primarily used as a precursor for polyester fibers and packaging, led the decline in exports with decreases of $900 million (48 percent) in value and 24 percent in volume. Lower paraxylene exports were likely linked to both weak polyester demand6 and the expansion of Asian paraxylene production capacity in 2015.7 The decline in petroleum prices also affected trade in styrene, a petroleum derivative that is the precursor for polystyrene, a plastic with many commercial applications, notably in packaging and consumer goods. Styrene prices declined with petroleum prices,8 resulting in a $766 million (27 percent) decrease in export value, despite a 13 percent increase in exports by volume.

Declines in other chemical sectors offset a $3.5 billion (6 percent) increase in exports of medicinal chemicals. The increased value in exports of medicinal chemicals coincided with expanding global usage of higher-priced pharmaceuticals, 9 notably treatments for cancer, hepatitis C, and autoimmune diseases.10 Reasons for this expansion included both approval of new drugs in the key EU market in 201511 and increased sales of previously approved high-value drugs, such as hepatitis C treatments Sovaldi and Harvoni, for which sales outside the United States rose by a combined $4.8 billion.12

U.S. Imports

U.S. imports of chemicals and related products rose by $8.9 billion (4 percent) in 2015. The trend was driven by imports of medicinal chemicals, which rose by $16.4 billion (17.6 percent).

The increased value of imports of medicinal chemicals reflects, in part, the growing use of higher-priced pharmaceuticals,13 notably new treatments for cancer, hepatitis C, and autoimmune diseases14 described above. In addition, in 2015, the U.S. pharmaceutical market demonstrated increased emphasis on high-cost, novel treatments, mostly focused on rare diseases (those affecting 200,000 patients or less).15 The FDA approved 45 such treatments in 2015, compared with 41 in 2014 and 27 in 2013.16 In part, the relatively high number of drugs approved in 2015 stemmed from the use of an expedited FDA approval process granted to 60 percent of drugs approved that year.17 Another factor that potentially contributed to higher import values was a widespread increase in list prices of pharmaceuticals in the U.S. market in 2015, although the impact of this is not clear, given the imprecise relationship between list prices and actual purchase prices.18

Trade of organic specialty chemicals reflected the drop in petroleum prices, with a $1.7 billion (12.6 percent) decline in imports, exceeding the 3.3 percent decline in volume. One U.S. Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) subheading, 2933.79.08,19 accounted for $1.4 billion of this decrease. This basket category covers the imports of multiple products, notably the drug aripiprazole (Abilify), imported from Japan. Aripiprazole, with U.S. sales of $4.9 billion in 2014, 20 lost its patent protection and began facing generic competition in 2015.21

Another leader in the decrease in imports of organic specialty chemicals was chlorobenzene, used as an intermediate in a wide range of chemicals, including rubber, dye stuffs, and herbicides. Chlorobenzene use has been in a long-term decline in the United States and other industrialized countries as it is being replaced in some uses, for example, by phenol. In addition, some of chlorobenzene's end products, such as herbicides and solvents, have experienced market declines.22

Imports of certain organic chemicals fell by $1.2 billion (10.7 percent), led by methanol, 23 imports of which dropped by $627 million (36.6 percent). Methanol, generally produced from the methane found in natural gas, has a broad range of uses, most significantly to produce formaldehyde, a component of many coatings and adhesives.24 The increase in U.S. natural gas production boosted domestic methanol production capacity, with at least three new methanol plants opening in the United States in 2015, and lowered demand for imports.25

 

1 As appropriate, this section will address total exports, domestic exports, and re-exports.
2 The average price of crude petroleum dropped from $88.39 per barrel in 2014 to an average of $44.39 per barrel in 2015. The average price of natural gas dropped $5.80 per 1,000 cubic feet in 2014 to $4.32 per 1,000 cubic feet in 2015. For a further discussion of crude petroleum and natural gas market trends, see the “Energy and Related Products“ webpage and the special topic chapter of this report.
3 USDOC, ITA, 2015 Renewable Fuels Top Markets Report, July 2015; Alire Garcia and Martinez, “Mexico's Pemex Launches Ethanol Biofuels Program,” March 19, 2015.
4 Argus Media, “Venezuela Shifting Gasoline Consumption Trends,” February 2016.
5 Platt's, “European Acrylonitrile Hits Six-Year Low,” August 12, 2015.
6 Su, “Asia Polyester Yarn,” July 30, 2015.
7 Lim, “Asia PX Price Swings,” January 6, 2016.
8 Ong, “Asia Styrene Monomer Prices,” July 7, 2015.
9 Lorenzetti, “Global Drug Spending Will Reach $1.4 Trillion,” November 18, 2015.
10 Thomsen Reuters, “Global Pharma Sales to Reach $1.3 Trillion,” August 4, 2015.
11 Houlton, “Pills, Prices and Politics,” December 17, 2015.
12 Gilead Sciences, “Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2015 Results,” February 2, 2016. Numbers derived from summing listed sales for “Europe” and “Other International Sales” under “Product Sales Summary.”
13 Lorenzetti, “Global Drug Spending Will Reach $1.4 Trillion,” November 18, 2015.
14 Thomsen Reuters, “Global Pharma Sales to Reach $1.3 Trillion,” August 4, 2015. <
15 Taylor, “FDA Approvals Hit 19-Year High,” January 6, 2016.
16 Serebrov, “Biologic's Share of Medicine Chest Grows” (accessed May 3, 2016).
17 Jarvis, “The Year in New Drugs,” February 1, 2016.
18 Koons, “Pfizer Raised Prices” (accessed May 2, 2016); Nisen, “Massive, Unexpected Drug Price Increases Are Happening,” October 1, 2015.
19 Covering “Aromatic or modified aromatic lactams with nitrogen hetero-atoms only described in additional U.S. note 3 to section VI.”
20 Silverman, “Otsuka Struggles to Prevent the FDA,” April 17, 2015.
21 FDA, “FDA Approves First Generic Abilify,” April 28, 2015.
22 IHS, “Chemical Economics Handbook: Chlorobenzenes,” October 2013.
23 This discussion refers to methanol imported under HTS heading 2905.11.20, covering the majority of methanol trade but not methanol used directly for fuel.
24 Nash, “The Changing Face of Methanol Demand,” July 20, 2015.
25 Trager, “Shale Feeds U.S. Methanol Boom,” January 7, 2016. The impact of the increase in U.S. methanol production is further demonstrated by the 219 percent increase in exports from 2014 to 2015.