2021 chemical industry outlook

Exploring chemical market trends and the continued impact of COVID-19

To succeed amid ongoing challenges in the chemical industry, companies should implement strategic initiatives in areas such as R&D and technology—including both short- and long-term focused efforts. Explore five trends companies in the chemical goods industry could see emerging as they deal with disruption in 2021.

The chemical market enters a period of profound transition

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the US economy and the state of the chemical industry, which experienced a significant decline in demand over the past eight months. While the industry was already facing cyclical challenges such as overcapacity, pricing pressures, and trade uncertainty before 2020, many postpandemic changes have shown a structural or disruptive character. Chemical companies in the United States have responded to the crisis by focusing on operational efficiency, asset optimization, and cost management.

As the industry moves into 2021, the changed economic, social, environmental, and political expectations are expected to play an even greater role in shaping its future. To succeed in the shifting industry landscape of the chemical market, companies should consider implementing a series of targeted, strategic initiatives across major functional areas such as R&D and technology. Too much focus on the short term, however, could mean that companies end up neglecting long-term opportunities, including investing in innovation, emerging applications, and adopting new business models that generate sustained growth.

A critical aspect of dealing with this disruption in 2021 will be understanding which customer behaviors are temporary versus those that are permanent, as recovery will likely be uneven across end markets and geographies. Companies can address this uncertainty by revisiting their product portfolio and conducting robust scenario planning that includes the unknowns. In this chemical industry outlook, we see five trends emerging in the coming year.

Five trends in the chemical market

Five oil and gas trends to consider

Focus shifting toward new value streams and applications that can drive industry recovery and future growth

Owing to end-market diversity and exposure to more resilient sectors, the impact of the economic recession on the state of the chemical industry will likely be moderate in 2021 when compared with other industries, such as automotive. Therefore, in addition to cost optimization and capital discipline, industry players will likely respond to shifting demand by prioritizing growing end markets, such as health care and electronics.

Policy proposals related to regulation, trade, and sustainability could have material impact

The new administration has pledged to review industry tariffs, as his campaign views them to be a less effective trade tool compared to other measures, such as alliances and coalitions. The new administration also advocates for ending the ongoing trade dispute with China. This could boost US chemical market exports and improve industry profitability through a potential revival in prices.

Feedstock volatility unlikely to change the global export competitiveness of US chemical companies

Fifty-eight percent of chemical executives in a recent Deloitte postelection poll indicated they believe the feedstock cost advantage for export competitiveness will continue through at least the next three years for the US chemical goods industry. However, the advantage could be temporarily disrupted by an unexpected and sustained surge in natural gas prices due to factors such as supply-demand imbalance, or a significant and persistent decline in oil prices.

Emerging opportunities amid growing concerns around plastics waste

Chemical market consumers may increasingly value sustainability and prioritize products based on circularity and carbon footprint, driving chemical companies to accelerate their decarbonization technologies, reexamine their existing assets, and begin to diversify away from hydrocarbons where possible. In 2021, many US chemical companies are expected to add mechanically recycled and renewable feedstock-based polymers to their product offerings and invest in advanced recycling to introduce potentially game-changing green technologies on a commercial scale.

Chemical companies to increasingly leverage remote and digital sales channels

Unlike the recent downturns that were primarily cyclical in nature, chemical companies are now experiencing significant changes in how they operate and the way they serve customers. Companies are adjusting how to work remotely, how they sell products, and how they interact with customers. Chemical industry customers are expecting a simplified ordering process, especially in a contactless environment. Buyers expect better digital experiences and e-commerce solutions, such as live chat, that limit in-person interaction.

Preparing for new opportunities in the chemical market

Chemical companies can use the COVID-19–driven economic crisis as an opportunity to build lasting business strength by making informed and deliberate strategic choices about which end markets they focus on. Furthermore, as companies focus on divestments of noncore or underperforming assets to raise cash during the economic downturn, industry players that are well-prepared and have robust balance sheets can look at making smart acquisitions that create greater long-term shareholder value.

Companies can grow earnings in different operating environments if they build a product portfolio that can withstand changes in macroeconomic trends. The end of life for materials can often be the start of something new, and so chemical companies should collaborate with their stakeholders to find ways to create new value. In the coming year, players in the chemical goods industry should keep their eye on these larger trends shaping consumer preferences and the end-market environment in order to focus on new growth opportunities and extract more value from current resources and assets.

Energy and industrials trends in 2021

Our industry outlook collection, covering oil, gas, and chemicals; power, utilities, and renewables; and industrial products and construction, evaluates sector landscapes to help executives better plan for success and unforeseen challenges.

Review the entire collection of energy, resources, and industrials industry outlooks.

Look again

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