O Christmas Tree

It’s a buoyant market… if you’re talking Christmas trees. On both sides of the 49th parallel, Christmas tree growers say that sales are on the right track this year.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, environmentally-conscious Millennials might be to thank. Both Canadian and U.S. tree farmers indicate it’s mostly younger couples who are fueling the optimism for green tree sales. “They’re coming in for the experience. It’s their first Christmas and they want to purchase a real Christmas tree.”

Bloomberg confirms it’s going to be a green Christmas for tree growers. With more buyers opting for pine over plastic, prices in the U.S. have surged 17% over the past two years. In the Great White North, growers point to $77 million annual sales, with approximately half their production heading to U.S. markets.

At our house, while the Christmas lights are up, ‘we’ usually prefer to wait until mid-December to buy a tree. Turns out our kids were paying close attention to the systematic setup of our neighbourhood tree lot this year. They pass the site daily when my wife drives them to and from school. Fencing went up couple weeks ago. Big tent popped up. Then activity seemed to stall. Suddenly this week, rows of crisscrossing 2×4’s appeared. Plywood walkways surfaced. Wednesday, colorful signage! On the way home yesterday, LIGHTS!! This morning, my phone rang early at the office. “Daddy, we’re thinking of buying our Christmas Tree now.”

Spirit of Thanksgiving

Posted by Ernie Harder 11-20-2018:

While Americans and Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on different dates, we note an increasing universality in search for genuine meaning in events of traditional significance. Celebrations built around tradition are less inclined to differentiate the changing times and circumstances. Even so, realities of change, well beyond climate, traumatized lumber markets, or traditional celebrations touch us all. How we adapt is becoming a question of increasing relevance. Celebrations that mark historic or seasonal events, such as the recent honoring of sacrifices and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, or, the American Thanksgiving celebration this week, command our attention even as we ponder revised distribution yard inventory values.

The events of life intersect with our lives at the same time as we struggle to assimilate disparate transitions – comprehend election results, seek resolutions to concerns such as those posed by unprecedented raging California wildfires, contemplate the world’s refugees in search of a safe place to call home, support ongoing hurricane and flood revival efforts.

Adapting to the dynamics of life is complicated by the increasing speed of unfolding change. A study published last week out of the University of British Columbia suggests humans have become one of the largest drivers of evolutionary change on the planet, with conclusions that “evolution is now speeding up”.

We’re told that peace is not a season, anymore than a holiday defines the spirit of Thanksgiving. Borders that demarcate North American as well as global nations may help delineate different currencies, exchange rates, trade objectives and culture. However, in recognizing that “the rain falls on the just and the unjust”, the laws of nature do not differentiate between country or region. So too the symbolism found in celebration around specific events is measured in lives and relationships demonstrating acts of integrity and compassion everyday. It is in that spirit that we’re reminded of the life of the late senator John McCain, who infused language of Thanksgiving with demonstrated action beyond his quote: “If there is one word that embodies the ideal of duty, honor and country it is gratitude.” Happy Thanksgiving blessings to all our American neighbors and friends.

Atlin Lake, BC

Market Milieu

Where, oh where has the market gone? This is the mournful lament intoned on lumber trading floors spooked well in advance of Hallowe’en this year.

Conditions testing the resilience of experienced traders are drawing comparisons with the global financial crisis and US housing market collapse of a decade ago. Today’s geopolitical landscape seems besieged with instability amid crises, including international trade concerns, rising interest rates, financial market volatility, and looming US elections.

Seasoned traders seek to offer reassurance and calm aimed at validating longstanding customer-supplier relationships. While financial analysts scramble to make sense of conditions in the face of seemingly disparate economic data, it seems timely to explore tips for dealing with the biggest lumber market meltdown in history.

Google has advice for handling times like these. One link offering “28 positive things you can do when business is slow” suggests a slow period is just another name for opportunity: “ask for help, take some down time, take a course, take up a hobby, network, develop new offerings, rethink your business model and processes, strengthen important relationships, write, teach, volunteer, exercise, study another industry.” Some guys have even been known to enthusiastically take up coaching – not one – but two girls’ soccer teams.

Another column suggested eating lots of leafy green vegetables to keep your cognitive abilities sharp and on high alert. Even so, we’re told Canada’s legalized cannabis should not be seen as a tool for alleviating anxiety in current market milieu.

Where, oh where has the market gone?
Like a saucer of yesterday’s beer.
I don’t wanna be short,
I don’t wanna be long,
In fact Duthie, I don’t even wanna be here.

– Ernie Harder, singing live at the 1995 British Columbia Wholesale Lumber Association Roast honoring Duthie Welsford, BCWLA Lumberman of the Year (recording below)

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.