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

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.

Softwood Solution?

We’re not so sure that buyers of Canadian softwood would concur with a rationale contending that increased prices could form part of the solution to the ongoing cross-border trade dispute. Differences in costing our timber resources on either side of the border feed into complexities in resolving the issue. Even so, it’s interesting to hear the many interested viewpoints on the subject, including the following letter to the editor at Kelowna News (HT: Tree Frog News):

I am sure this sounds overly simplistic, but if the U.S. wants our softwood lumber to cost more, I believe we should accommodate them. Raise the stumpage rates and use the extra cash for forest renewal and fire mitigation projects. Canadian mills should raise the price to be comparable with U.S. prices. At least that way the extra money stays in Canada. The U.S. will want to keep the countervailing duties and penalties as they have in the past.
– Gord Marshall – May 3, 2017 / 2:14pm | Story: 196125

In related news, Conan O’Brien asked random Americans what issue mattered most to them during the 2016 election. Surprisingly, their answers were all the same.
Click here.  (HT: Geoff Berwick, Atlantic Forest)

 

Who’s going to pay?

A jam-packed North American Wholesale Lumber Association Regional Meeting in Vancouver last evening heard a panel of experts discuss implications of countervailing duties on softwood lumber announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The latest round of the long-running dispute comes amid ramped-up political rhetoric on both sides of the border.

In candid presentations and Q&A session at the NAWLA Regional Meeting, Susan Yurkovich, President and Chief Executive Officer, Council of Forest Industries; Duncan Davies, President and Chief Executive Officer, Interfor Corporation; Jason Fisher, Associate Deputy Minister, Forest Sector at BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, captured attention of more than 250 industry participants. While Executive Director of NAWLA, Marc Saracco, acknowledged the significant role of lumber distributors on both sides of the border in facilitating efficient continental marketing of forest products, the real question of who pays looms heavily over the ongoing dispute.

Interfor’s CEO, Davies, reminded us that they, like Canada’s other major producers now heavily invested in U.S.-owned production facilities, are not part of the U.S. Lumber Coalition that is once again creating havoc, unprecedented price patterns of volatility and strength in lumber markets. Reports in today’s Vancouver Sun (“Canfor eyes acquisitions amid fallout from new U.S. duties”) confirm Canfor’s optimistic outlook with “well-positioned balance sheet in recent quarters,” with Canfor CEO Don Kayne adding that they see organic growth opportunities worth up to $300 million by 2018.” Sounds great. Meanwhile, it’s the small and medium-sized businesses who don’t own sawmills in the U.S. – the vast majority of Canada’s softwood operators including re-manners – who will be forced to pay the duties retroactively on any shipments made to the U.S. since Feb. 1.

In the face of the United States’ inability to satisfy American demand for softwood lumber with domestic production, the objective of restricting Canadian market share, with underlying aims of enhancing privately-held timber in the hands of select U.S. entities, points to inevitable, further increase in costs for the U.S. homebuilding industry. Ultimately, of course, the consumer pays. Someone tweeting about the issue might simply add:  Sad. Bad.

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Thanks to Tree Frog News for the following images from last evening at The Vancouver Club, posted with permission. Tree Frog’s full report available at this link: NAWLA 2017 Overview.

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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.