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Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its bad consequences on trade, there are more positive signals to notice in the global lumber markets: a huge surge in demand in China, a booming demand and record lumber prices in US, while the European sawmills are taking advantage of both cheaper damaged logs, which make them more competitive, as well as of the surging demand in the US and China. 

China

In the 2Q 2020, China increased importation of softwood lumber by 42% quarter-on-quarter, reaching 7.1 million m3. This large increase followed a quarter where import volumes had fallen to a four-year low.

However, for the whole first half of the year, the imported softwood lumber to China was 12,478,800 cubic meters, worth 2.16 billion US dollars, and the unit price was 173 US dollars per cubic meter, down 11.6%, 16.1% and 5.1% respectively.

Chinese imports from Russia and Canada, the two main source countries of imported softwood lumber, both dropped sharply in the first half of the year, down 12% and 45.6% respectively year-on-year; imports of European softwood lumber increased by 35.4%, of which Belarus saw the largest increase of 147.9%. Mainly because of pests and diseases, Europe has increased the output of softwood lumber.

Finnish and Swedish softwood lumber producers in Northern Europe were forced to lower prices in the first half, and their unit prices also fell sharply, down 17.1% and 20.3% respectively. Imports of Finnish softwood lumber fell by 16.7% in the first half of the year, while imports of Swedish softwood lumber increased substantially by 50.1%.

US

The good news for lumber producers in North America has been the increased usage of wood products in the repair and remodeling sector.

US softwood lumber prices have risen spectacularly this year. Market prices for commonly traded grades have more than doubled from May to August.

Record high lumber prices in the US and slightly lower costs for sawlogs moved 2Q 2020 gross margins for US sawmills to some of the highest levels seen since 2005.

Several major lumber mills cut back on their production when COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. earlier this year. Mill officials cited concerns of a worsening economy and the health and safety of their employees, but didn’t foresee demand rebounding as quickly as it did.

Lumber producers both in the U.S. and Canada curtailed operations to a great extent in March and early April, both because there were lockdown orders and they forecasted that plunge in demand.

But months-long quarantines enacted throughout the country caused a spike in do-it-yourself projects, with Americans heading in droves to their local home improvement store to purchase construction supplies.

Lumber producers didn’t anticipate the resurgence of the housing sector being as strong as it has been, and the massive increase in this do-it-yourself demand.

Both softwood lumber and treated lumber are difficult to find right now, and producers have been able to hike up the prices because the wood is in such high demand. Treated and untreated framing lumber have risen in cost by at least 50 percent since the beginning of the year.

Europe

The acceleration of the spruce bark beetle infestation in Europe has provided mills with low-cost logs, a higher proportion of production being directed to export markets such as China and now the U.S. European sawmills have gained market share in the U.S. at the expense of higher-cost Canadian and U.S. producers. From a European exporter’s perspective, the U.S. market also has the advantage of being accessible by both break-bulk vessels and containers.

German and Swedish exports to the US increased by 54% and 82% in the first half of the year.

The prices of exported lumber from Europe to the United States has doubled for European suppliers since mid-April. With a weekly gain of 44 € / m³, the previous week reached an average of 408 € / m³ for 2X4.

The price level achieved in August is the highest ever for European exporters with a currency ratio of 1.18 US $ / €. Such price highs were not even reached in the early summer of the record year 2018.

Lumber exports of German sawmills can currently be estimated at around 360 € / m³. The current price level is a 160 € / m³ higher than at the same time in 2019. All prices apply to delivery free US east coast for 2X4 SPF (KD) # 2 & better.

The U.S. looks to be a very good fit for central European mills in an era of spruce bark beetles, but it will depend on net lumber returns and prices relative to other markets. Lumber exports to China are also expected to continue rising.

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