For the global chemical industry, 2018 was another strong year, yet it showed signs of a slowdown, according to C&EN’s annual survey of the Global Top 50 chemical companies. Sales rose healthily for the group during 2018, the fiscal year on which the survey is based. Excluding PetroChina, which reported chemical sales for only 2018, chemical companies in the top 50 combined for $926.8 billion in chemical revenue, an increase of 13.4% from the same companies’ sales the year before.

Earnings didn’t increase as much, an indication, possibly, that the market might be losing its steam. For the 48 chemical firms posting comparable year-over-year results, chemical operating profits rose only 3.4%, to $110.1 billion.

Twenty-three firms posted profit declines. Interestingly, six out of eight Japanese firms on the list reported a drop in earnings.

One factor that might explain the softening profitability is the petrochemical building cycle. Ethylene and polyethylene plants are coming on line in the US, putting a damper on profit margins globally. Petrochemical softening is always particularly acute in Asia, where profit margins are slim to begin with. Indeed, India’s Reliance Industries reports that the new capacity was a business headwind all year.

Leading the Global Top 50 is a new company: DowDuPont, the result of the 2017 merger between Dow Chemical and DuPont. It ends BASF’s 12-year reign as the largest chemical company in the world, but only temporarily. DowDuPont already split into three separate firms—Dow, DuPont, and Corteva Agriscience—earlier this year. Dow and DuPont will surely appear in next year’s ranking a year from now.

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