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Blog Home   |   Economic Trends


Blog Home   |   Economic Trends

Weekly Chemistry and Economic Trends (February 21, 2020)

Specialty Chemical Volumes U.S. CPRILeading Economic Indicators

Macroeconomy & End-Use Markets

Running tab of macro indicators: 15 out of 20

Macro Table

Producer prices advanced 0.5% in January, an acceleration from a 0.2% gain in December and a 0.1% decline in November, leaving headline prices up 2.1% Y/Y. Nearly all of the gain is attributable to higher prices for services. That said, prices less foods and energy (or core producer prices) rose 0.5% and were up 1.7% Y/Y as prices for vegetables, iron and steel scrap, jet fuel, instrumentation, and grains moved higher. Inflation pressures seem to be mounting at this stage of the supply chain.

Housing Starts and Building Permits

Existing home sales fell 1.3% in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.46 million units. A sharp decline in the West offset slightly higher sales in the rest of the country. The median price was up 6.8% Y/Y to $266,300. Inventories of existing homes rose 2.2% and now represent a 3.1-month supply, up from 3.0 months in December. Inventories remain very lean. Compared to a year ago, existing home sales were up 9.6% while inventories were down 10.7% Y/Y.

Led by weaker single-family activity, housing starts eased 3.6% to a 1.57 million unit pace in January and were up 21.4% Y/Y. Activity rose in the Northeast and West but fell in the Midwest and South. The more forward-looking building permits rose 9.2% to a 1.55 million unit pace, up 17.9% Y/Y, with gains in every region. The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) eased one point to 74, indicating that homebuilder sentiment remains strong due to strong demand, low mortgage rates and a solid jobs market and is supportive of further gains in housing. Supply-side headwinds such as shortages of labor and buildable lots remain in place.

The Empire State Manufacturing Survey indicated that general business conditions improved in February, with business conditions index moving up 8.1 points to 12.9. The new orders index shot up 15.5 points to 22.1, and the shipments index climbed 10.3 points to 18.9. Delivery times lengthened, and inventories jumped sharply. Employment expanded only modestly and the average workweek was little changed. Input price increases slowed somewhat, and selling price increases picked up. Optimism about the six-month outlook was fairly stable and capital spending plans remained firm. The Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey reported improvement in manufacturing activity in the Philadelphia region. The current activity index rose by 19.7 points to 36.7, its highest reading in three years. The component indices for new orders and shipments accelerated. Inventories rose following a decline in January and delivery times lengthened. Employment growth slowed. Looking ahead over the next six months, expectations continue to improve.


The Conference Board Leading Economic Index® (LEI) rebounded 0.8% in January from a 0.3% decline in December. In January, eight of the 10 component indicators increased. Strength has become slightly more widespread. The LEI suggests that the expansion in economic activity will continue in the short term, but at a moderate pace. Next week, our Chemical Activity Barometer (CAB) will provide an early (and provisional) look at overall business cycle trends in February.

Survey of Economic Forecasters US
Survey of Eoconomic Forecasters Global

Survey of Economic Forecasters

Forecast Highlights:

Each month, ACC’s Economics & Statistics department collects forecasts from a number of economic professionals who have a track record for accuracy and expert knowledge of manufacturing. The data presented in the above tables are averages of their forecasts. The latest forecasters’ survey results — including the range of responses; historical data from 1994 through 2019; forecasts from 2020 through 2024 and beyond; as well as forecasts for other major nations — are available on MemberExchange for ACC members.

  • Expectations are for weaker economic growth in 2020 compared to 2019, especially for business investment and industrial production, which in addition to trade tensions and lower oil & gas development now are faced with potential supply disruptions related to the coronavirus outbreak in China.
  • In 2021, growth edges higher, driven by gains in business investment and consumer spending. Industrial production improves.
  • Housing starts continue to improve in 2020 and 2021.
  • In 2020 and 2021, vehicle sales drift lower, but remain at historically solid levels. After 2022, vehicle sales are expected to move higher.
  • The U.S. labor market remains resilient and unemployment is expected to remain historically low through the forecast, though it edges higher.
  • Consumer prices are expected to rise at a faster pace in 2020 and continue firming through the forecast horizon.
  • Interest rates (10-year treasury) are expected to drift lower again in 2020 before rising throughout the rest of the forecast.

In light of the Covid-19 coronavirus, our forecasters have become more pessimistic about global economic prospects. This is especially the case for world economic growth, trade and industrial production.



The oil and gas rig count rose by one to 788 rigs. In the most recent week, U.S. crude inventories grew slightly while natural gas inventories were drawn down faster than the usual pace. Oil prices edged higher as fears about the impact of COVID-19 eased. At the same time, abundant supplies and relatively mild winter have fostered soft natural gas prices.


For the business of chemistry, the indicators bring to mind a yellow banner for basic and specialty chemicals

Chemical Table

According to data released by the Association of American Railroads, chemical railcar loadings, the best ‘real time’ indicator of chemical industry activity, fell by 205 to 32,465 railcars during the week ending 15 February (week 7). Loadings were up 0.4% Y/Y, up 1.9% YTD/YTD and have been on the rise for 6 of the last 13 weeks. The 13-week moving average, which is used to smooth out irregularities, was down 0.9% compared to last year.

Chemical production and Producer Prices

Chemical producer prices eased 0.4% in January and follows a 1.2% decline in December, leaving prices off 3.3% Y/Y. Feedstock prices fell 11.7% during January. Weakness was centered in inorganic chemicals, plastic resins, manufactured fibers, and agricultural chemicals. Gains occurred in bulk petrochemicals and organics, synthetic rubber, coatings, other specialties, and consumer products 

Total US Specialty Chemical Market

U.S. specialty chemicals market volumes started 2020 on a good note, with a 0.5% headline gain in January following a 0.7% gain in December. Of the 28 specialty chemical segments we monitor, 18 expanded in January, up from 15 in December. Nine markets declined in January and one was flat. During January, large market volume gains (1.0% and over) occurred in antioxidants, catalysts, cosmetic chemicals, electronic chemicals, mining chemicals, plastic compounding, printing ink, and rubber processing chemicals. On a sequential (one-month change) basis, diffusion was 66%, up from 55% in December. During January, the overall specialty chemicals volume index was up 0.3% on a Y/Y 3MMA basis. Year-earlier comparisons eased since 3rd quarter 2018 and were negative through December. The index stood at 113.8% of its average 2012 levels in January. This is equivalent to 7.75 billion pounds (3.52 million metric tons). On a Y/Y basis, there were gains in 11 market and functional specialty chemical segments. Compared to last year, volumes were down in 16 segments and was flat compared to a year ago. On a year-earlier basis, diffusion was 41%, an improving comparison. 

For More Information

ACC members can access additional data, economic analyses, presentations, outlooks, and weekly economic updates through MemberExchange.

In addition to this weekly report, ACC offers numerous other economic data that cover worldwide production, trade, shipments, inventories, price indices, energy, employment, investment, R&D, EH&S, financial performance measures, macroeconomic data, plus much more. To order, visit

Every effort has been made in the preparation of this weekly report to provide the best available information and analysis. However, neither the American Chemistry Council, nor any of its employees, agents or other assigns makes any warranty, expressed or implied, or assumes any liability or responsibility for any use, or the results of such use, of any information or data disclosed in this material.

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Upcoming Events of Interest

“Industry Disruptors: IMO, Coronavirus Impact on Global Economy and Refining Industry”
Debnil Chowdhury – Head of US Refining, IHSMarkit
The Association of Industry Analytics
26 February 2020
Cyviz Experience Center
Houston, TX

“China and Coronavirus: Current and Future Impact on the Chemical Industry”
Dr. Kevin Swift – Chief Economist, American Chemistry Council
Complimentary Webinar for Members & Non-Members – 2:00-3:00 PM
Société de Chimie Industrielle
27 February 2020

WPC 2020: 35th Annual World Petrochemical Conference
IHS Markit
24-27 March 2020
Hilton New Orleans Riverside
New Orleans, LA

ADI Chemical Market Resources
14 April 2020
Houston, TX

AgChem Summit 2020: Innovation in Action
28-30 April 2020
21c Museum Hotel
Durham, NC

TZMI TiO2 Summit 2020
12-13 May 2020
Park Central Hotel
New York, NY

10th ICIS World Surfactants Conference
13-15 May 2020
Hyatt Regency
Jersey City, NJ

Note On the Color Codes

The banner colors represent observations about the current conditions in the overall economy and the business chemistry. For the overall economy we keep a running tab of 20 indicators. The banner color for the macroeconomic section is determined as follows:

Green – 13 or more positives
Yellow – between 8 and 12 positives
Red – 7 or fewer positives

For the chemical industry there are fewer indicators available. As a result we rely upon judgment whether production in the industry (defined as chemicals excluding pharmaceuticals) has increased or decreased three consecutive months.

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