All opinions are my own.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Why Have the Fine and Specialty Chemical Sectors Been Moving from the Developed Countries?

I am sure we all have been wondering about the shift. I have my own rationale, potential solution and would like to share. I believe there are opportunities to innovate and we can capitalize on them.

I speculate and believe the industry moved for combination of the following reasons.

1. Environmental laws
2. Health and Safety laws
3. Significantly lower labor costs in the third world countries.
4. We did not invest in the technologies to improve processes.

In early seventies, the developed countries were adopting new environmental protection laws. They seemed unrealistic and unachievable [this is based on my being at a state EPA] to some. Many complied. For some it was easier to shut down rather than invest in the complying technologies. In my view, improving process technologies was a missed innovation opportunity. The chemicals were needed and since there was a need, companies in China and India filled in the supply gap.

India and China also had advantage of Rupee/Yuan/Dollar parity. This made investments in their country cheaper.

Laxity of health and safety laws persists in the developing countries. The associated expenses are low compared to the developed countries. In my recent trips, I saw workers with open toe shoes, without safety glasses, wearing street cloths and eating meals on the operating floor. These might not be across the board but is there. Human life needs to be valued as an asset.

Environmental laws are comparatively lax also compared to the laws in the developed countries. Thus, the respective investment in pollution abatement is lower. I have seen multi-colored water bodies next to the plants. Abatement of eco-toxicity is not a high priority. In the developed countries endocrine disruptors have been found in the drinking waters. I am sure these and other chemicals exist in the water in the developing countries also and the scale is different.

Labor costs in China and India are magnitude levels lower than the costs in the developed countries e.g. a plant operator in India could be paid $200 per month (we have to recognize high Yuan/Rupee/Dollar parity) compared to $4000.00 per month or more in US.

Combination of the above factors has resulted in China, India and some of the East European countries making the fine and specialty chemicals to feed the insatiable need for these chemicals in the developed countries.

As the time has progressed, these suppliers found that their products were being used to produce the active pharmaceutical ingredients or other higher valued products i.e. moving up the supply chain. These companies also moved up the supply chain. These have resulted in additional plant closures in the developed countries.

With time the costs in the developing countries are going up as they incorporate better safety, health and environmental laws but are not to the levels in the developed countries. They still have price advantage and customers wiling to purchase their products.

Now we have a situation where many of the pharma APIs and other strategic drugs and products are coming from China and India. This is discomforting as expressed in a recent New Times article. Drug Making’s Move Abroad Stirs Concerns.

We have to recognize that the pharmaceutical and other companies are buying products (API, intermediates and fine specialty chemicals) from the companies in India and China who are alleged not to be playing by the rules companies in the developed countries have to live by. It is a demand and supply question and rules in every country are different.

Can this be reduced, prevented or stopped? Do we have a way out of this quandary? Yes we do, but it would require an effort. We have to have total involvement of the suppliers and buyers, which might not be easy. If such an attempt is made, I hope it would not turn out like “the Doha WTO negotiations” as many companies/countries have lot to loose and/or gain. I doubt if any trade organization can influence any country’s environmental, health, safety and pay scale policies. Those changes have to come from within. Maslow still rules.

SOCMA, CEFIC and other organizations could identify the highest imported chemicals, API or formulated products. Interested companies in the developed countries could develop technologies for these products that will offset the cost advantages of the imported products and convince the companies in the developed countries to buy their products. Every advantage perceived or otherwise from the developing countries will have to be offset by cost and quality through better technologies.

Partial protectionism under a “strategic defense initiative” could be a temporary alternate for certain chemicals or drugs. Such a program cannot be government subsidized. This could give interested companies a “time window” to develop better technologies. With many countries now part of WTO, such an initiative is not going to sit well with many countries, companies and organizations.

Competing technologies that will offset the costs due to local wages, environmental, health and safety rules and methods is the only answer. If this does not work safeguards leading to continuous supply of strategically vital products can be implemented but there are costs associated with that strategy. A win-win strategy needs to be developed.

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