Bhopal a catalyst that could well weaken US chemical industry

Look around you. Try to find something that isn't bathed, glued, protected, or actually made of a chemical. The Union Carbide Corporation makes the No. 1-selling plastic wrap, dry-cell batteries, and antifreeze. It's a rare sodbuster who can't wax eloquent on Lasso , a Monsanto Company herbicide. And any painter knows Du Pont sells paint.

The point is that chemical manufacturers supply almost everything: plastic cups (plastic anything), man-made fibers such as nylon, glue, ink, floor wax, dyes, cosmetics, drugs, film - some 50,000 commercial products.

But lately, the mere mention of chemicals seems to evoke unpleasant images: the tragedy in Bhopal, India. Or closer to home: toxic dioxins at Times Beach, Mo., and the Agent Orange settlement with Vietnam veterans.

Such is the dirty laundry of the chemical industry. The Union Carbide accident has rekindled ''chemophobia'' in the public, industry-watchers say. Some experts say Bhopal may be to chemical companies what Three Mile Island was to the nuclear industry.

''It has irrevocably altered the consciousness of the public,'' says Nicholas Dinos, chairman of the chemical engineering department at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

The resulting economic toll?

The price of Union Carbide stock has plummeted some 15 points, a paper loss of about $1 billion. (Stock prices of a few other chemical concerns have softened - ''temporary weakness,'' analysts say.) It's too soon to tell if the huge sums expected to be paid to Indian victims will sink the company.

To what extent will the entire industry pay for this accident?

Analysts agree that accident insurance rates will rise. Companies will likely spend more on training, safety equipment, and evacuation procedures. If recent congressional subcommittee hearings are any indication, tighter regulations are coming, as well as stricter enforcement of existing laws by the Environmental Protection Agency.

''Government regulation usually isn't very efficient, and it's expensive,'' says Fred H. Siemer, an industry analyst at Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. Emily S. Plishner, an analyst at Cyrus J. Lawrence, agrees: ''The entire regulatory system will be taking a closer look at this industry.'' But she adds, ''We are far from the point of specific plans or costs that can be evaluated.''

Once costs are incurred, will the price of such things as garbage bags or auto dashboards go up? In the near term, probably not.

Competition within the industry is now keen. This is pushing prices down on all major plastics. But profit margins have held and even widened a bit as the price of oil has dropped. Weak oil prices are a twin boon: It's cheaper to run chemical plants and, more important, product savings are substantial, since oil is the chemical industry's basic building block. This trend is likely keep the chemical industry's production costs down.

That's the good news. The other side is that the dollar's strength is undercutting profits abroad. The ''big four'' (E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Dow Chemical Company, Union Carbide, and Monsanto) rake in 27 to 52 percent of their total sales from overseas markets. The result has been ''relatively profitless prosperity,'' according to John H. Qualls, an economist at Monsanto.

But the dollar can't take all the blame for poor profits abroad. Oil-rich countries - Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, Canada, and Mexico - are all developing their own chemical industries and moving into overseas markets rapidly. These countries are entering with the advantages of efficient new plants as well as low costs of energy and raw materials.

''The last two or three years have been very difficult for US chemical companies,'' says Myron Foveaux of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA). ''Sales have plateaued in the basic chemical commodity products such as styrene (foam cups), polyvinyl chloride (car dashboards), polyethylene (plastic toys), and many man-made fibers. We're beginning to lose export sales.'' And cheaper imports from abroad are starting to compete in what not long ago was almost exclusively a domestic market.

In fact, for the last four years the industry's trade balance has declined. There is still a trade surplus of $8.6 billion, but that is down from $12.2 billion in 1980 and is expected to decline further.

''The Saudis are doing very well,'' Mr. Foveaux says. The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, strongest in European markets, expects by 1990 to capture 5 percent of the world petrochemical market.

The muscle-bound dollar and cheaper goods from foreign competitors, plus stiffer regulations abroad as a result of the Union Carbide accident, may combine to hasten the departure of US chemical companies from overseas markets.

For several years now, the big four have been deemphasizing the basic petrochemical end of the business and moving downstream into specialty chemicals and finished consumer goods. For example, ''Instead of just producing ethylene and selling it, they're taking it further and producing styrene to make foam cups,'' says Foveaux at the CMA. The shift includes producing more refined and complex special chemicals for use by the pharmaceutical and electronics industries.

US companies are capitalizing on their technological edge, and downstream products are seen as the future profit centers for the industry. ''The hunt for new products is at an all-time high,'' Foveaux explains. Big money is being pumped into research and development. Du Pont upped its R&D budget $100 million this year, totaling more than $1 billion. Industrywide, R&D was increased a record 16 percent and is expected to be up 10 percent next year.

A good portion of that funding is going into biological engineering.

''We're now seeing the beginning of a new kind of chemical industry,'' says Mr. Dinos at Ohio University. ''They're now taking organisms to make certain kinds of products. With the obvious concerns about gene splicing, cloning, and so on, I think chemical engineering is about to become involved in the same evironmental and ethical tussles that biologists are having to deal with.''

How these tough issues are dealt with remains to be seen. But the Union Carbide accident in India has served to heighten the awareness of executives to safety concerns, according to Karen Giddens-Emig, a consultant and professor of management and strategic planning at De Paul University. That, in her view, is a positive and necessary development.

''All businesses have risks involved. But often managers are so attentive to the opportunities and cash flow that they just don't think about the risk,'' she says. ''Of course, major companies do worst-case scenarios. But they often don't stretch their thought processes far enough to properly assess the downside risk potential.'' The 'big four' chemical companies Du Pont Sales: $36 billion Foreign sales: 31% of total Sample products: Teflon, Dacron, Orlon, Kevlar- used in tires and composite plastics Subsidiaries include: Conoco, Remington Arms Employees: 160,000 Dow Chemical Sales $11.6 billion Foreign sales: 52% of total Sample products: Saran Wrap, Styrofoam Ziploc bags Subsidiaries include: Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Employees: 54,000 Union Carbide Sales: $9.5 billion Foreign sales: 31% of total Sample Products: Glad wrap and bags, Everready batteries, Prestone antifreeze, Simoniz waxes, Sevin insecticide Subsidiaries include: Sony-Everyready Inc. (Japan) Monsanto Sales: $6.7 billion Foreign sales: 27% of total Sample products: Lasso and Roundup herbicides, AstroTurf Subsidiaries include: Fisher Controls Int'l. Source: Value Line Investment Survey. Sales figures are estimates for 1984

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