INSIGHT: US chemicals show hope amid caution in Europe

19 April 2010 17:39  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS news)--It has been years since so many US economic and chemicals-sector indicators have pointed upward, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said last week.

In the EU, chemicals confidence in March (or, rather the EU’s confidence indicator) was positive for the first time in 21 months, the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) noted on Monday.

EU chemicals growth is being driven greatly by export demand but underpinned by industrial production growth. Indeed, industrial production in the eurozone was up 4.1% year on year in March.

Chemicals production in the US continues to expand, with petrochemicals and plastics production in March showing significant gains on a relative year-on-year, three-month-moving-average basis.

The principal economic and chemicals sector indicators in the US look positive, and the ACC gives the sector a green banner for basic and specialty chemicals”.

The strong recovery has been confirmed by the recent sharp upward trend in railcar loadings, an important indicator of market activity, particularly for polymers.

The industry council talks about further gains in activity across most of the US economy, with retails sales improving, especially in automobiles.

Capacity utilisation in the wider economy has tightened as businesses have begun to restock across the supply chain, the ACC's economists say.

The still positive outlook is reflected in the latest report from Cefic on the leading EU industry indicators.

The IFO global economic climate indicator rose above its long-term average for the first time in two years in the first quarter, although outside of Asia the indicator is still below its long-term average. And EU economic sentiment is gaining momentum, Cefic economists add.

There was a hiccup in February, but the region and its chemical industry appear to be back on a growth track. Activity remains muted, however, and below the pre-crisis level, but the improvement appears steady.

EU chemical industry managers are more confident based on healthier order books and lower stock levels.

Production and selling-price expectations are also more positive.

The industry-wide level of capacity utilisation, including pharmaceuticals, has edged up to close to 78% but is still well below its long-term average of 82%.

Recent EU chemicals data demonstrate the importance of exports particularly to petrochemicals and polymers. Specialty and consumer chemicals, though, have lost ground as the trade balance has narrowed.

Recovering from the pits of the downturn is taking time and the sector generally still needs greater impetus if it is to continue along the road to recovery.

Extra EU chemicals exports were down €13.3bn ($18bn) last year, or 10%. Imports were down €16.8bn, or 18%.

The good news for chemicals in Europe is that broader confidence in construction and retail is helping to raise demand, with a similar boost seen from growth in the automotive and electronics sectors.

On the downside, however, Cefic notes that consumer confidence in the EU remained broadly unchanged in March from February.

In a diverse Europe, views across countries on the general economy and employment expectations differ, as might be expected. The outlook then remains generally cautious.

($1 = €0.74)

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By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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