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Blog Home   |   Economic Trends


Blog Home   |   Economic Trends

Weekly Chemistry and Economic Trends (October 23, 2020)

LEIU.S. CPRIU.S. Specialty Chemical Volumes


Running tab of macro indicators: 15 out of 20

Macro Table

The number of new jobless claims eased by 55,000 to 787,000 during the week ending 17 October. Continuing claims fell by 1.024 million to 8.373 million and the unemployment rate for the week decreased 0.7 percentage points to 5.7%.

Existing Home Sales

With growth across all regions, existing home sales jumped in September, up 9.4% to 6.54 million, the highest level since 2006. Compared to a year ago, sales were up 20.9%. Strong demand has drained inventories, which are down 19.2% Y/Y and now represent a 2.7-month supply, down from 4.0 months last September. With tight supplies, the median sales price was up 13.8% Y/Y to $311,800. The surge in existing home sales reflects not only record-low mortgage rates, but also shifting patterns of work and learning that have been accelerated due to Covid.

Housing starts rose 1.9% to a 1.415 million pace in September, but from downwardly revised August figure. Starts were up in all regions except the Midwest. Chemistry-intensive single-family starts were up by 8.5% to the highest level since 2007. Forward-looking building permits were up 5.2% driven by gains in single-family. Compared to a year ago, housing starts were up 11.1% (22.3% Y/Y for single-family) while permits were up 8.1% Y/Y. The NAHB/Wells Fargo homebuilder confidence index continued to climb in October, up to a new record-high 85. All three components–current sales, sales expectations, and buyer traffic–either set or matched record highs.


The Conference Board’s Index of Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) rose 0.7% in September following a 1.4% increase in August and a 2.0% gain in July. The gain in the LEI was driven primarily by declining unemployment claims and rising housing permits. Compared to a year ago the LEI was off 3.9%. The decelerating pace of improvement suggests slowing momentum as the economy enters the final months of the year.

Survey of Economic Forecasters US Survey of Economic Forecasters 2


  • Following improvement during August and September, the trend in new coronavirus cases is on the rise in the U.S. and many other countries. Moving into Q4, indicators confirm that a recovery is in place and our panel of forecasters was generally more optimistic about the magnitude of the declines for 2020. Looking into 2021, forecasters are looking for improvement in all indicators compared to 2020.
  • While GDP, consumer spending, and business investment are all expected to contract sharply in 2020, expectations continue to be less negative. In addition, compared to September’s Interim Situation & Outlook, consumer spending is expected to rise at a faster rate. Looking ahead to 2021, forecasters continue to expect rebounding activity.
  • Expectations also improved for housing starts which are now projected to exceed the pace in 2019 as demand for housing has grown due to remote work/learning and record low mortgage rates. Vehicle sales are expected to fall in 2020, with expectations unchanged since September. In 2021, activity expands in both measures.
  • The unemployment rate is expected to continue to ease throughout 2021 as the labor market gradually improves and forecasters have continued to lower their estimates for the unemployment rate in both years.
  • With demand firming for many goods and services, growth in aggregate inflation is expected to be higher in both 2020 and 2021 compared to September’s forecast.
  • Reflecting an improving outlook, expectations for interest rates (10-year treasury) have increased for both 2020 and 2021, compared to September.
Survey of Economic Forecasters Global

The global economy is experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression. Global economic output is expected to contract by 4.6% this year and recover only partially in 2021. As projections continue to be released, they are generally offering slight improvements from previous estimates. Generally, assessments of global economic health over the short-term remain sobering. However, more analysts appear to be giving consideration to a potential upside scenario.

Global trade collapsed as economies across the world entered lockdown earlier this year. World trade volumes will be down significantly in 2020 with the contraction weighing heavily on export-oriented sectors. World trade volumes will be down 12.4% in 2020.The outlook for global manufacturing is for a 5.9% contraction in 2020.



The rig count rose by 13 to 279 rigs during the week ending 16 October. Oil prices strengthened during the week on a second consecutive inventory decline (-1.0 million barrels) and positive economic news. Natural gas inventories grew by 49 BCF, smaller than the typical build for this week of the year.


For the business of chemistry, the indicators still bring to mind a green 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 4.2% to 29,718 railcars the week ending 17 October (week 42). The declines were likely, in part, due to the impact of Hurricane Delta on the Gulf Coast region. Loadings were down 6.3% Y/Y. On a YTD basis, loadings were down 5.0% compared to 2019. Loadings have been on the rise for 7 of the last 13 weeks. The 13-week moving average, which is used to smooth out volatility, was down 4.8%, a slight uptake compared to the previous week’s comparison.

Chlor-Alkali Production

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic continue to show in the data on chlorine production. Chlorine is a key input into PVC (among others), the production of which is heavily impacted by the transportation and construction markets, two industries that been negatively affected by the pandemic. The Chlorine Institute (CI) reported that production of chlorine was 27,378 in September, down 6.1% compared to the previous month; YTD production was down 9.6% Y/Y. The output of co-produced caustic soda fell 5.4% to 29,208, and YTD production was also down 9.6% compared to the same month in 2019.

Total US Specialty Chemical Market Volume

With the recovery in the U.S. economy slowing, headline U.S. specialty chemicals market volumes were stable in September, off from a revised (and stronger) 0.9% gain in August, and 2.8% gain in July. Of the 28 specialty chemical segments we monitor, 13 expanded in September, a reversal from 27 rising in August. Thus, on a sequential (one-month change) basis, diffusion was 46%, a setback from 96% in August. Of the 13 segments rising in September, eight featured gains of 1.0% or more: antioxidants, dyes, flame retardants, mining chemicals, oilfield chemicals, printing ink, rubber processing chemicals, and textile specialties.

During September, overall specialty chemicals volumes were off 8.1% Y/Y basis, a slightly better comparison than August. Volumes stood at 102.9% of their average 2012 levels in September. This is equivalent to 7.01 billion pounds (3.18 million metric tons). On a Y/Y basis, there was a gain in only three chemical segments: cosmetic additives, electronic chemicals, and flavors & fragrances. On a year-earlier basis, diffusion was 11% in September.

The U.S. Chemical Production Regional Index (U.S. CPRI), which is measured as a three-month moving average, rose by 0.8% in September following a 0.8% gain in August and a 1.0% increase in July. During September, chemical output expanded in all regions, with the largest gains in the Northeast region. Compared with September 2019, U.S. chemical production was off by 4.3% Y/Y, the sixteenth consecutive month of Y/Y declines, but an improvement over the past several months. Chemical production remained lower than a year ago in all regions, with the largest year ago declines in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and West Coast regions.

As measured on a 3MMA basis, chemical production continued to improve in many segments including, chlor-alkali, organic chemicals, industrial gases, synthetic dyes & pigments, consumer products, synthetic rubber, manufactured fibers, other specialty chemicals and fertilizers. Production trends eased, however in plastic resins, coatings, adhesives, and crop protection chemicals.

As nearly all manufactured goods are produced using chemistry in some form, manufacturing activity is an important indicator for chemical demand. The recovery continued at a slower pace into September, with overall factory activity up by 1.6% (on a 3MMA basis). The trend in production rose in nearly all key chemistry end-use industries, with the strongest gains in motor vehicles, aerospace, iron & steel, tires, and structural panels.

For More Information

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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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Excel Business Analysis with Power Query (online)
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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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