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:

Summer Haze

While smoke from B.C. wildfires hangs heavily over Interior and Coastal landscapes, so too a certain smoke obscures lumber market horizons searching for uncertain outcomes of softwood lumber negotiations.

When prices climb, lumber as a commodity finds extra supply available: mills re-open, add shifts, build more mills, areas that were too remote to haul timber from become more economical etc. But we interrupt this program with an unprecedented wildfire season. Fire danger has disrupted logging operations, stalled production at a number of mills, and fractured the transportation chain. As the contractor handling our recent home renovation liked to point out, “These costs are real.” Perhaps most alarming, reports this week tell us industry analysts are concerned the fires will compound B.C.’s dwindling timber supply. “Part of the tragedy we are dealing with is that fires are also burning through trees spared by the pine beetle outbreak, including young planted stands that were being counted on as timber supply over the next several decades,” said Phil Burton, professor of forest ecology and management at UBC here.

Traders meanwhile point to the upcoming expiration of the preliminary countervailing duty on Canadian softwood lumber shipments to the United States week of August 28th. Following the recent spike in lumber prices, many dealers appear to be anticipating a steep market correction when the 20% CVD is lifted. Will the bottom fall out? If only things were that simple. We’re told negotiations for a possible new SLA involving a cap on market share are progressing. While there is perceived motivation and hope for striking a deal before NAFTA negotiations are set to begin, some have now questioned that timeline, warning the U.S. Lumber Coalition’s “de-facto veto” on any proposed agreement might prolong the dispute, suggesting a quick resolution may not be congruent with their interests.
BREAKING: U.S. industry rejects Canada’s latest softwood-lumber proposal

Burrard Inlet today, and downtown Vancouver

What’s wrong with this picture?

We’re told that “rising material costs” were a significant factor in the wake of 51% of U.S. home builders raising prices last month. This according to surveys conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting, noting this ratio marks only the second time in the last 10 years more than half of new home communities raised prices – the highest rate since the dramatic surge in U.S. housing prices in 2013. Meanwhile The Economic Calendar reports here that “cost pressures” can help to explain why housing starts and permits have been relatively uneventful over the past few months. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) suggests that this trend of firming confidence in the face of underwhelming housing data is liable to continue due to “supply-side issues.”

Aside from unprecedented seasonal B.C. wildfire impact on lumber markets, restricted fibre supply looms on the horizon. At the same time as questions of housing affordability challenge builders and consumers across the continent, does it make sense for narrowly defined interests of The U.S. Lumber Coalition to seek further price-increasing tariffs on lumber imports?

Some of the groups that are hurt by foreign competition wield enough political power to obtain protection against imports. Consequently, barriers to trade continue to exist despite their sizable economic costs.
The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

More: Canadian Wildfires Choke Lumber Supply to U.S. Home Builders – WSJ

Close?

While industry spokespersons are being tight lipped about progress in softwood lumber negotiations, rumours abound.

Last Friday, word circulated that Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Christina Freeland and United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross “shook hands” on a ten year Softwood Lumber Agreement restricting market share. This rumour seemed to be congruent with perceived political motivation to achieve a managed trade agreement ahead of potential NAFTA negotiations. By Monday however, a declared state of emergency due to mega-fires in B.C. superseded quota chatter. Then CIBC Capital Markets cautioned that any proposed settlement could be vetoed by the U.S. Lumber Coalition. The rumour fizzled Monday afternoon when in a Madison’s Lumber Reporter follow-up, we were told a source close to the U.S. Lumber Coalition had cleverly confirmed that Minister Freeland and Secretary Ross “surely shook hands” on Friday but “did not shake hands on a deal”. In an update just this afternoon, CIBC Capital Markets noted the framework of the rumoured “handshake deal” was almost identical to a proposal the two sides were reportedly close to agreement on two weeks ago before it was rejected by the Coalition.  CIBC estimates the probability of an agreement between the two countries by the end of August at “greater than 50%”.

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As recently as last Thursday, the only talk about forest fires in this province was about how few were burning (“three or four”). Suddenly 140 fires started Friday, followed by nearly 100 more Saturday, and a few dozen more Sunday. It’s interesting to learn here how a below-average fire season in 2016 and an unseasonably wet spring in 2017 may have made the forest more susceptible to fire, fueling the unprecedented spread over the weekend. Mills watch with anxiety as the wildfire season, just begun, is impacting Interior communities and forest operations. The Vancouver Sun reports West Fraser, Tolko, and OSB manufacturer Norbord are among the companies that have suspended operations around 100 Mile House and Williams Lake, with 1,000 employees from West Fraser alone off work due to the closures.