Breakfast of Champions

Pure gold. That’s how Ryan Holmes describes customer feedback.

In 2008 at their Vancouver headquarters, Holmes created Hootsuite, the world’s most widely-used social media management platform. He writes here in the Financial Post that while the majority of Hootsuite’s 15 million users pay absolutely nothing, “they mean everything.” Why? Because free users stress-test the company’s platform every day, discovering flaws and demanding new features. The constant feedback these users tweet provide enables Hootsuite to continuously refine their product before focus shifts to landing big clients who pay.

According to Holmes, the best market disrupters learn to listen very closely to their initial users. “Because the barrier to entry is so low.. the only thing keeping (users) tied to the product is its innate usefulness,” says Holmes. Today, we’re told that big paying customers now form the heart of Hootsuite’s market. But Homes argues Hootsuite’s strongest competitive advantage remains the millions of free users endlessly stress-testing the company’s platform every day. At the core of Hootsuite’s business, there rests an underlying acknowledgement of the importance and potential for social media to foster customer feedback in developing customer-supplier relationships.

It’s easy, even inevitable, for the pendulum to swing too far, however. The scrappy upstart becomes the industry leader. Instead of catering to end users, attention shifts to landing those huge deals. There is an antidote, of course – staying obsessed with the free users. Google, not surprisingly, is a master at this. Today, Gmail’s billion-plus monthly active users dwarf the three million businesses who pay for GSuite. That won’t change anytime soon. But having a focus group that large ensures Google is always miles ahead of its competitors.
– Ryan Holmes, Hootsuite CEO

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AAC Reduced in PG

The announcement of a 33 per cent reduction in the annual allowable cut (AAC) in the Prince George Timber Supply Area is no surprise. Back in 2011, the AAC in Prince George was temporarily elevated for salvage-logging operations. Five years later, at the 2016 COFI Convention, Tim Sheldan, Deputy Minister, B.C. Ministry of Forests confirmed that “most of the economically harvestable beetle-killed timber has been harvested.”

According to the news release, the measurable real impact on economic activity is expected to be less significant in consideration of average timber harvests in recent years. The effective cut reduction is 8 per cent. Even so, industry observers and lumber traders could rightly be wondering about longer term implications for markets, domestic and foreign, at the same time as trade issues remain unsettled.

There’s no doubt we’re coming closer and closer to the point where the cuts will be reduced. There will be less timber.
– Dave Peterson, B.C. Chief Forester (21 Nov. 2014)
See: Beetle Boundaries

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Lumber Market Pricing

“What’s going to stop this market?!” is among the questions that lumber traders are pondering these days. Could softwood negotiations be the determining factor? What if the U.S. Department of Commerce throws out the case? More weather-related factors? This time, snow? Salvage logging? Traders taking a position, a stand, …or, a knee?

Back in 1994, when Michael Carliner was Staff VP for Economics at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), he wrote What’s Driving Lumber Prices?. In the article, it’s noted that changes in inventory levels create expectations on future levels of activity. It’s accepted that expectations about future supply and demand are key determinants in short-term behaviour of market participants. We’re told that rising prices, such as have been experienced, may of themselves create expectation of further price increases, causing speculative behaviour.

Carliner points out that historically, prices of lumber have not increased gradually with increased demand and constrained supply. Instead, data suggests an erratic pattern of booms and busts that are largely attributable to changes in expectations about future supply. Historically when supplies were not so uncertain, changes in housing statistics and other demand factors were reportedly less pronounced in their impact on short-term market pricing. We’re told that price spikes occurred when market participants were subject to uncertainties in policy, litigation impacting trade, plus the many additional factors that historically impact timing between a tree being felled and being delivered as lumber to market.

What’s different now?

The run-up in lumber prices over the past few months contains some short-term speculative elements, but the underlying trend is toward higher average prices.
– Michael Carliner, Housing Economist (January, 1994)

On this National Tree Day, any image of a tree is music to our ears! Hat Tip: Al Harder (Source: boredpanda.com)

An Accident of Circumstance

Some participants on both sides of the softwood lumber dispute are seemingly struggling to understand basic tenets of supply and demand. A global market is in play in the long run to influence supply and pricing. However, as this Bloomberg report demonstrates, imposition of duties on Canadian softwood lumber is mostly hurting U.S. consumers these days.

This unexpected boon for Canadian lumber producers is essentially an accident of circumstance. The attacks on Canadian lumber exports combined with serious wildfire issues in both Canada and the U.S. have served to reduce lumber supply. Meanwhile, the recent hurricanes that impacted the U.S. have led to a spike in construction – causing lumber demand to soar.

The result of these simultaneous supply/demand pressures has been a sharp surge in lumber prices. According to The Globe & Mail, Canadian softwood lumber producers have seen gains in their share prices of more than 40%. In contrast, U.S. lumber producers are averaging gains of only 10%.

The end result of the latest harassment on Canadian companies is that these companies have become more profitable, while U.S. consumers are paying significantly inflated prices for lumber – even as natural disasters have created an imperative need for new U.S. construction.

– Stockhouse Newswire 09-20-2017

Talk About the Weather

On the heels of the worst wildfire season in memory, a continent braces for reportedly the most dangerous hurricane ever. There’ll be time later to cast all this talk of weather in relation to climate change. For now, the impact on human lives is of foremost concern. Even so, lumber traders try to make sense of the variables that shape lumber markets thrown into unpredictability by virtue of trade talk uncertainties and subject to more volatility by forces of nature.

The reporting of Random Lengths since July (see excerpts from Random Lengths Lumber Market Reports below) suggests that traders sensed greater downside market risks heading into September. Pricing trends in evidence this week suggest the opposite to be true. We’ll share buyer caution in interpreting the changes that shape lumber markets this fall. Hazarding pricing forecasts seems especially risky for the remainder of this year. A recent posting we noted on a Vancouver church sign this week might have been aimed as a caution at bloggers and lumber reporter forecasters: “If pride comes before a fall, we should see humility by winter.”

July 21
“Some traders pointed to the gap in the application of the preliminary CVD on Canadian imports that starts August 26, hoping that prices would ease with no CVD in place.”

July 25
“While some quicker loads developed, mills widely quoted shipments for the weeks of August 14 and 21. Buyers were leery of booking into or beyond those weeks. They cited the coming pause in the countervailing duty, a steep discount in September futures, and quicker shipments from secondaries.”

July 28
“But the coming pause in collection of countervailing duties starting in late August, and the possibility of a lumber trade deal between the U.S. and Canada, left traders sensing downside price risk in the weeks ahead. Many turned to secondaries to fill holes in inventories.”

Aug 1
“With the preliminary CVD only in effect through August 25, buyers of Canadian S-P-F showed an increased fear of downside risk. The futures market’s huge discount to cash gave buyers another reason for caution.”

Aug 4
“Buyers maintained the view that purchases at current levels in advance of the onset of the gap in the countervailing duty carried risk. Producers, meanwhile, were largely content to limit sales to the U.S. until the gap starts, if not stack production until then.”

Aug 8
“Buyers anticipated downside in Canadian lumber amid the gap coming in the CVD. Reports circulated that shipments could be CVD-free as early as August 14.”

Aug 11
“Trading slowed as buyers’ sense of the market turned more bearish. Numerous factors weighing on the market generated uncertainty, which in turn led to a cautious approach. Topping the list was the coming pause in the countervailing duty, and anticipation that Canadian mills could lower prices with the nearly 20% CVD suspended.”

Aug 15
“A bearish tone grew more prevalent in softwood lumber and structural panel markets. Near record prices in many markets kept buyers only purchasing enough to fill in inventory, amid increasing fears of downside risk. Traders awaited next week’s countervailing duty gap period.”

Aug 18
“Dealers, distributors, and office wholesalers were reluctant to purchase more than immediate needs. They cited current price levels, the suspension of the preliminary CVD, and a slowdown in consumption as key reasons to hold back.”

Aug 22
“Buyers grew more concerned about downside risk and delayed purchases as long as possible. The pause in the countervailing duty on Canadian shipments to the U.S. takes hold at the end of the week, causing further fear.”

Aug 25
“Buyers anticipated opportunities to buy Western and Eastern S-P-F at lower levels with the August 25 arrival of the CVD-free period. Producers, however, proved to be far less vulnerable than buyers anticipated.”

Aug 29
“Monday’s announcement by the Commerce Department of a two month delay in the final determination of the countervailing and anti-dumping duty cases drove many buyers to the sidelines, waiting to determine a market direction.”

Sept 1
“Activity in S-P-F markets picked up Wednesday and Thursday once buyers digested news on the CVD case and returned to the market.”

Sept 8
“Many buyers.. scrambled for coverage, having held off for weeks in anticipation of a pullback once the pause in the countervailing duty on Canadian shipments to the U.S. commenced. Many were wary of booking loads past September at current prices.”

Log flume – Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve (North Vancouver, BC)

The Art of the Deal

By definition, lumber traders earn their living through negotiation. Most days, the process is more nuanced than “buy low – sell high”!

Trade deals involving negotiation are making news on many fronts these days. Online articles readily offer varying principles, guidelines, and rules for effective negotiation. One such report in the Harvard Business Review offers what the author terms “four ‘golden rules’ to be the most helpful towards productive negotiation outcomes.”

Some have been known to describe successful outcomes around strategy of ‘winning versus losing’, or characterizing established trade deals as “the worst ever”. However, experienced lumber traders know that successful long term customer-supplier relationships, as with international trade deals, are built on effective “win-win” negotiations.

Current NAFTA negotiations are taking shape around what has been described as a list of ‘demands’ from the parties involved. While noises and threats of cancelling NAFTA eminate from some quarters, serious folks tell us to keep focus on the real work of negotiations that recognize there are benefits to be gained for all in working toward effective updating of the deal. Thus the ‘golden rules’ as spelled out in HBR that parallel different stages of a negotiation are interesting to view in the light of negotiations underway on many fronts.

1. The background homework: This serves as a good reminder that any beginning of negotiation calls for need to understand the interests and positions of the other side relative to your own interests and positions.

2. During the process, don’t negotiate against yourself: It’s pointed out that this is especially true if you don’t fully know the position of the other side. This is a recommendation not to give in too early on the points important to you. Wait to better understand which points are more important to the other side.

3. The stalemate: We’re told that there will often come a point in a negotiation where it feels like there is zero room for either side to budge. Both sides are stuck on their position and may have lost sight of the overall goals of the negotiation. If you recognize that you’ve reached this point, see if you can give in to the other side on their issue in exchange for an unrelated point. My Dad relates the story of how my parents negotiated the sale of their first home in Prince George 52 years ago, when a transfer back to Vancouver by his wholesale lumber employer, Ralph S. Plant Ltd, necessitated sale of the home. When negotiations seemingly reached a stalemate over price, Dad recognized that the unfinished basement in the home had been mentioned as one of the sticking points. The prospective buyer, a self-described handyman, was satisfied to point of successful closure on the sale with offer from my Dad to include a trailer of fine Carrier studs, sufficient for completion of the home’s basement.

4.To close or not to close: That is, whether you drive too hard a bargain, cannot reconcile on key terms, or feel that the deal is just too rich for your blood, it’s suggested you “make the offer you want to and let the other side walk if they don’t want it.” This is not to say to be offensive or to low ball, but rather, to be honest, straightforward on what you are willing to do, and explain that you understand if it doesn’t work for them and that it is the best you can do.” No doubt this rule garners respect among all parties involved, including buyers and sellers of wood.

Aspirational Lumber Labors

A social media article at Quartz this week categorizes blogging as aspirational labor. Social media researcher and author Brooke Erin Duffy describes ‘aspirational labor’ as “a forward-looking and entrepreneurial enactment of creativity.. seen as something that will provide a return on investment.” Broadly speaking then, we might comfortably frame our work trading lumber under the umbrella of ‘aspirational labor’.

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Influencer Marketing?

The degree to which intermittent posts at Harderblog are “influencers” on a road to personal riches, so far at least, is undetermined. We mostly share questions and topics gauged to hold common interest with our 135 followers to date – valued subscribers who include Mom and Dad, two uncles, and my cousin Dean. According to “influencer marketing” experts, a blogger needs at least 1,000 followers to be considered a “super blogger” or “super influencer”. At this lofty subscriber level, we’re told advertisers come calling. It’s much cheaper for a brand to reach out to a super blogger’s “organic following” than it is to place an ad in a magazine or on TV. The article at Quartz cautions that there are risks in abandoning your blog for a week, or “you see a huge dip in your followers”.  It’s a risk we accept as a part-time blogger, and full-time lumber trader.

 

Subscribers? Brother Matt, Nephews Cal and Seb, Paul – Quilchena on the Lake (4 Aug 2017)

 

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Musical Refreshment

Project Funkify continues: