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)

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

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%”.

~

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.

Lumber Trader’s Witch Hunt!

The Information Age has seemingly spawned increasingly polarized views on pretty much everything – exposing even close ties between supplier mills and wholesalers, some with ties to blogging. Fake news occasionally rears its ugly head. Reg Foot of Carrier Lumber is about to experience this when the B.C. Wholesale Lumber Association (BCWLA) honours him as The 2017 BCWLA Lumberman of the Year this week. We posed ten questions to Reg in advance of Thursday evening’s gala at the Terminal City Club in Vancouver:

1. How did you get into the business?
Started playing squash with Terry Kuzma (previous Carrier Lumber’s Woodlands Manager) about 20 years ago and he asked if I would ever be interested in a career change.. the rest is history.

2. When did you join Carrier Lumber and how long have you been Lumber Sales Manager?
Joined Carrier in September ’99 under the direction of Ron Gettling, Sales Manager and became sales manager in April, 2002.

3. Any mentors?
Absolutely.. Gord Wilkinson – my first sales manager when I was in newspaper advertising sales. Gord gave me my first break into sales and taught me some foundational sales techniques that I still practice today. Curt Garland, President of Lomak Bulk Carriers Corp – this was my second job in sales. Curt was instrumental in helping me transition from retail sales to an industrial sales environment. Ron Gettling, retired sales manager of Carrier Lumber. Ron taught me the finer points of mill lumber sales and its time-honoured traditions.

4. Others besides bloggers who have had a positive influence on your career?
My wife Sylvia, for supporting me throughout all the trials and tribulations of the lumber industry and for being my soundboard on the challenging days and helping me stay focused. Bill Kordyban, President of Carrier Lumber, for showing me resiliency, loyalty, and calmness in spite of some major market challenges.

5. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry?
Technology has really advanced the way we manufacture lumber, allowing us to be competitive in very challenging markets. As far as lumber sales, technology has changed the way we confirm orders, but thankfully it has not replaced the power of a customer-mill relationship. I hope that never happens.

6. What’s the most exotic destination you have shipped lumber to? 
Mongolia

7. How’s your squash game?
Limping along.. literally.

8. What do you fear most about being subject of the BCWLA Roast on Thursday evening?
No one will show up.

9. Can you describe why some consider the Roast merely to be a witch hunt, unlikely to expose positive details of your distinguished lumber career, that, with humility, you have heretofore been seeking to cover up, according to Carl Bernstein?
I am totally OK with a witch hunt. It is more entertaining to hear about a person’s failures than to listen to all the wonderful accomplishments. Just ask TMZ or the National Enquirer for further proof.

10. Please tell us why even an arms-length association you might enjoy with BCWLA distributors should not be a subject of investigation under terms of NAFTA, or, at very least, subject to renegotiation?
???? – next question.

BREAKING NEWS

Some of us might wonder if the North American Wholesale Lumber Association risks upstaging CNN and Wolf Blitzer with BREAKING NEWS when the 2017 NAWLA Regional Meeting convenes in Vancouver next week. We can’t be sure of that. Although the anticipated public announcement of the U.S. Department of Commerce preliminary CVD ruling April 25th against Canadian softwood lumber imports is expected to draw a full house to the NAWLA gathering two days later, April 27th. An expert panel’s assessment of implications of the preliminary ruling is sure to attract heightened interest:

  • Jason Fisher, Associate Deputy Minister, Forest Sector at B.C. Ministry of Forests
  • Susan Yurkovich, President & CEO, B.C. Council of Forest Industries
  • Duncan Davies, President & CEO, Interfor Corporation

For more information, visit the NAWLA Vancouver Regional Meeting webpage here.

Update from NAWLA (April 25):  The 2017 Vancouver Regional Meeting has reached capacity and is unable to accept additional registrants at this time. The wait list for this event is also now full. Only those who are on the attendee list will be granted access to this event.

2017 COFI Convention – 26 Takeaways

1. Convention buzzwords: shift (in fibre supply), declining (timber quality), instability (of supply), balance, diversification, value, engage, relationships, confidence, communication, connecting, collaboration

2. Most important trend shaping the global environment: dramatic expansion of the global middle class.
Jock Finlayson, Business Council of B.C., bemoaned Canada’s “slow-moving jurisdiction in a fast-moving world.”
The American economy continues to advance. Over the medium term, “B.C. needs to address a number of important structural weaknesses that threaten our prosperity”.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people are so full of doubt.
– Burtrand Russell

3. Historical devaluation of the Ruble triggered significant investment in state of the art sawmilling equipment in Russia. Currency-based advantage led to surge in softwood exports to China. Notion that Russia has an aging, limited infrastructure, is wrong. There are no logistical cost issues in Russia.
– Russ Taylor, President, Wood Markets

4. Russia has Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC). “Don’t ask me how.” – Russ Taylor

5. The panel assembled for the International Markets Review was a rare convention disappointment. U.S. homebuilding constraints are well-known. U.S. housing starts forecasts have become tedious. As for China, when Eric Wong, Canada Wood Beijing Office, warned that B.C. is losing softwood market share, no alarm bells sounded at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Growth in demand offshore is “continual” according to Wong, attributed in part to logging bans in China’s “natural forests” (25 million cube/year harvest reduction). Record softwood imports in 2016 in China >32 million cubes. In a post-beetle world, at least one trader was left wondering if B.C. (“the global resource for softwood,” according to architect Michael Green) should just go off the market.

6. India will be the 5th largest consumer market by 2025. 60% of the population in India is <35.
– Peter Bradfield, Forestry Innovation Investment

7. “The concept of innovation is.. what are you going to do with all of this growing information? Big Data connects people, like us, to the brilliance in the room”. Challenges facing the Big Data Revolution: Volume, Velocity, Variety, Veracity.
– Rory Armes, Founder & CEO, Cumul8

8. “Innovative technologies will help attract tech-savy video gamer kids who aren’t considering a resource-based industry.”
Mark Gerberman, AR/VR Strategic Partnerships & Business Development, Finger Food Studios

9. How can we keep better track of our natural resources using emerging technologies? We need better data and better analysis tools.
In the future, drone technology and remote sensing will identify the log and the mill, and determine the optimal products and customers – before that tree is felled. “We’re working to offer the industry a turn-key drone.”
– Mike Wilcox, Co-founder/COO, Spire Aerobotics

10. “It’s Urban Wood Building instead of Tall Wood Building.”
– Michael Green, Principal, MGA 

11. “Instability of (wood) supply makes people step back.” – Michael Green

12. “Changing the public perception about what’s possible.. reshaping public perception.. is the challenge. But it’s really happening. These ideas are not abstract. Thirty storeys? When we do that or will we do that remains to be seen, but it’s possible.” – Michael Green

13. “The construction industry is broken.”
– Michael Green

14. “Here in B.C., we may be making the right products but we need to be part of the right system. The idea is universal. We want to be leaders in becoming part of this ‘system’ thinking.” – Michael Green

15. TOE = Timber Online Education. Open access to leading experts.. “from forest to frame”. Free global education in wood design, construction, policy, markets, ownership, and environmental impact.

16. “We didn’t blockade because we wanted to stop the forestry, we wanted to be a part of it.”
– Chief Derek Orr, McLeod Lake Indian Band

17. “The Tsilhqot’in decision was a game changer. When I first meet with a chief, it better not be to ask to build a road. We’re there to undertake their unique vision for their community. What is your vision? Under-promise and over-deliver. If you don’t honour one of those commitments then your relationship goes backwards.”
– Karen Brandt, VP, Corporate Affairs & Sustainability, Interfor

18. “Engage and engage early. Meaningfully engaging with First Nations is how you build relationships. If you’re too busy to sit down with us, then we’re too busy to give you support.”
– Willie Sellars, Councillor, Williams Lake Indian Band

19. “I like to think Prince George is the Bio Energy capital.”
– Lyn Hall, Mayor, City of Prince George, who confirmed the COFI Convention returns to PG next year.

20. “The urban and rural connection, not the urban and rural divide.”
– Greg Moore, Mayor, City of Port Coquitlam
21. “Reinvesting in our business to innovate and modernize the technology in our mills isn’t about making more lumber. We’re not going to make more lumber. We’re going to make more value. Industry and government need to get together to get more value out of a scarce fibre resource.”
– Ted Seraphim, President & CEO, West Fraser

22. “How to run at two shifts efficiently instead of three shifts is the challenge. Three shifts are not possible.” – Nick Arkle, Co-CEO, Gorman

23. “(The softwood lumber dispute) could lovingly be called a hardy perennial. But it is a mutating form of bacteria that has all but become antibiotic-resistant.”
– David Emerson, B.C.’s Trade Envoy to the United States

24. “The consumer will pay the price.” – Duncan Davies, President & CEO, Interfor

25. “The softwood file is top of mind for the entire government. We have a strong case but that’s cold comfort for the people feeling the pain of the imposition of duties. A good, strong, fair, mutually-beneficial deal is preferable to long litigation. On both sides of the border, trade is central to maintaining standard of living. Trade creates jobs.”
– Kirsten Hillman, Assistant Deputy Minister, Trade Policy & Negotiation, Global Affairs Canada

26. Q: Is a market share-based quota inevitable?
A: “Nothing is inevitable.” – Kirsten Hillman