Robots and Lumber Traders

Robots are increasingly being blamed for job losses these days. At the same time its been said that robots can’t perform as well as humans when it comes to “complex social interactions”. According to Science Daily, researchers recently found that personality factors are the best defence against losing your job to a robot.

Humans outperform machines when it comes to tasks that require creativity and a high degree of complexity that is not routine. As soon as you require flexibility, the human does better. The edge is in unique human skills.
– Rodica Damian, assistant professor of social and personality psychology, University of Houston

In assessing the threat therefore that robots pose for replacing lumber traders in the marketing function, could it be that the critical determinant may involve evaluating the degree to which lumber trading is deemed to involve “complex social interactions”?

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We’re told the study’s findings also suggest that traditional education may not be fully equipped to address the rapidly changing labour market. With that in mind, I read with interest Thomas Friedman’s column in today’s New York Times, Owning Your Own Future. Friedman argues that in the face of automation (“accelerations set loose by Silicon Valley in technology and digital globalization”), the self-motivation to learn – and keep learning – has become the most important life skill. He quotes education-to-work expert Heather E. McGowan: “Stop asking a young person WHAT you want to be when you grow up. It freezes their identity into a job that may not be there. Ask them HOW you want to be when you grow up. Having an agile learning mind-set will be the new skill set of the 21st century.”

Political analysts will long debate over where Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen came from. Many say income gaps. I’d say.. not quite. I’d say ‘income anxiety’ and the stress over what it now takes to secure – and hold – a good job. The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge for the next 30 is over. If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner.
– Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times (11 May 2017)

Think Harder

Market Minute: Amidst the Canada-U.S. softwood lumber dispute, underlying strong demand on both sides of the border seems to be catching buyers unawares on many fronts. There are reports this week that some mills in B.C. are extending order files to unprecedented levels. In their February 8, 2017 Industry Update, CIBC Capital Markets describes dramatic lumber price increases since February 1 as “an encouraging sign for producers’ ability to pass on duties to U.S. consumers when tariffs are actually imposed.. considering we are only in partial retroactive territory, and we still have no idea how high Commerce will set initial duties..”

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There are many joys in blogging. We appreciate that cyberspace offers bloggers virtually unlimited latitude in expression and range of viewpoints. The medium can be a useful tool in support of business and development of customer relationships. In these days of heightened political sensitivities and polarized opinions, it’s evident that messaging via any medium creates perception of opportunity as well as risk. Measuring effectiveness may call for nuance. It’s interesting to read of the early feedback on the Super Bowl ad of our friends at 84 Lumber.

Of course daily now we’re exposed to direct messaging of folks marching in the streets, advertising a particular point of view or belief on, what is often a hastily-scratched message on cardboard. Through six years, I have found Harderblog to be a positive experience and useful medium for periodic messaging in support of lumber marketing here at Dakeryn Industries. Some might suggest that the messaging here is no more effective than if I decided to march in the streets with a placard advertising personal beliefs in support of the value-added services we provide. But then I took heart in affirmation of my beliefs on that score when I saw the image below. My only suggestion is that if I were a sign-carrying marcher in that parade I’d suggest a small revision to make it read: If you believe in lumber, think Harder…

best-damn-photos-beliefs-sign-fit

image source: brobible.com

Q&A – Final Five for 2016

Answers to the five remaining questions from the Harderblog Top Ten Questions for 2016:

6. Is oil in the $20’s an inevitable reality?
No. In early January, crude prices had plunged to $34 in the face of oversupply, a level not seen since the early 2000s. But that would turn out to be the low for the year. Most recently, a curtailment deal between OPEC and rival producers was expected to further tighten supply in midst of growing demand.

7. How low can the loonie go?
The low of the year was January 20, when one Canadian Dollar was worth 0.6854 US Dollar.

8. Where will Conifex stock be priced in 12 months?
See TSE:CFF. Conifex Timber Inc. has risen over 30% since December 31, 2015.

9. Is this the year 3-D printers stationed in Fraser Lake begin mass production of 2×10-14’s and 16’s?
While there is little evidence of 3-D printers mass producing 2×10-14’s & 16’s at Fraser Lake this year, there is evidence that technological developments in production of new wood products are making a profound impact on many fronts. The opportunity to spend an afternoon touring the 18-storey mass timber hybrid structure pictured below at UBC was one of the highlights of the year. See High on Wood.

10. Will the Chicago Mercantile Exchange implement circuit-breakers to tame volatility in the lumber futures market?
According to reports that regularly publish updates on lumber futures activity, it’s generally acknowledged that what happens in the lumber market is a microcosm for the entire commodities asset class. However the factors behind volatile changes are felt much more acutely in lumber, than, say, crude oil, because the market/volume is so small. This week we posed Question #10 to Stinson Dean, Broker & Risk Manager at Tall Tree Lumber Company, who confirms volume/open interest is especially low in lumber right now. “Below 4,000 open contracts is very low. Lumber used to have 10,000 in open interest back in 2012-13. When there are limited participants, there are limited sell orders and buy orders. When bullish news is announced, there aren’t enough sellers in the market to absorb an influx of buyers and we get locked limit-up. Buyers are forced to go higher and higher to find sellers.” He adds, “Random Lengths noted that 2014 was one of the least volatile years on record. That’s been followed by two very volatile years. The difference between 2014 and the two most recent years is non-commercial speculator participation. 2014 was a trendless year, 2015 was a bear trend, and 2016 was a bull trend. Funds, in particular, love trends. ‘The trend is your friend’. So, when that group recognizes a trend, they start to pile on. And that starts a chain reaction.” According to Stinson, the funds are out of the market right now; it’s anticipated they will step back in long in the new year.

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Summer Surprise

A number of forest analysts were projecting that while we are in midst of a long period of strengthening lumber markets, prices could fade this summer due to increasing production on both sides of the border. The 20% jump year-over-year in U.S. housing starts experienced in Q1 was widely explained by the mild winter compared to 2015. While no one projects another 20% jump in starts this year, homebuilding activity continues to grind forward. Demand for lumber has been surprisingly strong through mid-August. Notably, the Framing Lumber Composite Price is up almost 20% since the Softwood Lumber Agreement expired last October.

The positive correlation illustrated below suggests the “surge” in cross-border shipments during the standstill period to date is largely demand-driven. The chart plots B.C. softwood exports to the U.S. per BCStats vs. the Framing Lumber Composite Price by month per Random Lengths (most recent data for softwood shipments is June; the Composite Price had climbed to $369 by the end of last week).

Export Vol vs Composite Price (2)

Big Tippers

Folklore abounds with stories of Wall Street stock traders and lavish steak dinner lunches. Lumber traders not so much. We’re told that stock traders are sticking closer to their trading desks these days, leaving many of Manhattan’s lunchtime eateries vacant.  Global turbulence in financial markets through the first 60 days of 2016 explains a “re-calibrating” of the Wall Street lunch; the steakhouse slowdown coincided with the S&P 500’s worst-ever start to a year. Even so, it’s reported a recent $1,000 lunch tip left by one regular suggests there are still a few traders seemingly immune to the market’s ups and downs.

In midst of a year without export tax winter, no doubt lumber traders are also spending more noon hours at their desk. Unlike this time last year, when one of the harshest winters on record stifled demand, lumber is even hotter than the weather. It’s reported here that lumber futures is up 22% this month, outperforming stocks, oil, and gold. Out in the field, Random Lengths confirms “producers have kept order files advancing deeper into April” on #2&Btr Western SPF and “moved prices up accordingly”. At the secondary level meanwhile, at least one trader/blogger has characterized activity over the past ten days as “the quietest hot lumber market” in recent memory. With the BC Wildfire Service having just announced early burning restrictions due to dry conditions in the Cariboo, traders will be closely monitoring the day-to-day changing landscape – mostly from their desks.

“There’s nothing like a little bit of a sharp correction to improve our work ethic.”
– John Manley, New York-based chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management, which oversees about $233 billion.

wolf of wall street

Lunch scene from “The Wolf of Wall Street”

 

~Musical Refreshment~

I recently finished recording sax tracks on two more original compositions by Dave Friend for our Funkify album.


Happy Birthday

So what’s to celebrate this week? Harderblog is five years old! What’s changed in five years? Media tell us the world has changed. The lumber business continues to change. Markets change. We’re learning that climate changes.

One of many significant changes captured in the blog archives is the bottoming/gradual recovery of the U.S. housing market. In February 2011, the seasonally-adjusted annual rate of housing starts in the United States was just 518,000 and the Random Lengths Framing Lumber Composite Price averaged $296. Today, starts have doubled while the Composite Price is barely 8% higher at $320. As one American dealer recently noted during our conversation re. lumber prices, “What is this, the 1950’s?!” If a new Softwood Lumber Agreement is negotiated before October, is it any wonder it will be a more restrictive deal than the last one and it won’t be good news for Canada?

Christmas 2015-001

Dec 25, 2015

Probably some of the most prominent changes I’ve experienced involve the fact that suddenly not only do I have the daily pleasure of fulfilling lumber requirements of valued customers, but also, I’m into negotiating the daily whims of an active six year-old daughter – with a four-year-old encore commanding equal time most days. On some days no doubt the opportunities awaiting attention at the office seem like welcome respite.. until I’m back home at night, where a small daughter’s smile wins me over.. and over.. reaffirming reality that fives years has gone by in a flash!

HB5ann

Searching for Lumber Man

Volatility that characterizes global financial market activity seems less pronounced in North American lumber markets these days. While winter weather contributes to a pause this week in especially Northeastern jobsite activity, there is evidence of general price support as reflected in mill order files. Despite unseasonably active markets, the Framing Lumber Composite Price has drifted sideways since the October 12th expiry of the SLA ($311 Oct 13 vs $313 today). A weak Canadian dollar has so far helped keep a lid on significant US price increases.  Dealer hand-to-mouth buying patterns and pressure on timely deliveries also suggest the memory of last year’s market collapse still lingers.

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In keeping with the preservation of old growth timber these days, now comes word Random Lengths is searching for the industry’s oldest active lumber trader. According to Random Lengths, candidates “must work full time in the U.S. or Canada, and spend at least half their time buying and/or selling lumber or panels”. It’s been suggested that at minimum, applicants should demonstrate a vague recollection of their last sale and/or purchase.

baby boomer cartoon