The phantom chemicals boom

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Monday, June 01, 2009
Given China’s remarkable economic rise over the past decade, it comes as no surprise that it has grown into Oregon’s largest export market, with the state’s savviest players such as Nike and Intel well embedded there and prospering as a result. But it is surprising which sector has seen the sharpest growth: chemicals.

Statistics compiled by WISER Trade, a Massachusetts-based firm recognized as an expert on exports, show an astronomical 292% increase in chemicals exported from Oregon to China from 2007 to 2008, catapulting them over scrap waste and paper to become the state’s second-biggest China-bound export behind only computer and electronic products.

But if you’re wondering which Oregon companies are benefiting from this trend and whether it is expected to continue, don’t waste your time. There is no trend.

The biggest clue can be found in the corresponding fall-off for exported minerals, which dropped dramatically at the precise time that the chemical numbers shot up. Hmmm.

It turns out that the great boom in chemicals exported from Oregon to China has nothing to do with Oregon business and everything to do with a change in the classification of potash mined in Saskatchewan, sent by rail to Portland and shipped around the world as fertilizer. The market for this chemical (or is it a mineral?) made a few investors temporarily rich during the commodity boom of 2008, but that boom has gone bust along with trade in general. Vessel calls and tonnage are down more than 30% at the Port of Portland, and Oregon will be hard pressed to approach, much less improve on, the record $2.5 billion worth of exports shipped to China last year.

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