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In terms of source of plywood supply in Europe, China is reported to be keeping up with demand, albeit with longer lead times, but prices have been rising increasingly steeply.

“In the first quarter increases were moderate, but in Q2 we’ve seen rises of 15-20% F.O.B.,” said an importer.

“Compared to Brazilian, that’s not too bad, but when you factor in freight rates it makes quite a difference.” Chinese producers are also reported to have become increasingly assertive.

“Some are trying to renegotiate outstanding contracts,” said an importer. “For orders placed April/May they’re maybe asking for another US$15-20 per cube.

They say they’re facing rising costs for raw materials, including glues, logs and veneer.

If you don’t pay, you risk the plywood not being produced and, if you’ve booked the breakbulk ship space, you then risk incurring dead freight and demurrage charges from the shipping line.” Chinese ports are also reported to be congested with breakbulk vessels and shipping lines are asking for surcharges to cover added waiting times. Brazilian price inflation is attributed primarily to the combination of the impact on manufacturing of the severe Covid-19 situation in the country, plus huge demand from the US construction market.

“For standard 18-20mm elliottis plywood we were paying US$250-300/cu.m last October/November. Lately the asking price from Brazil has been US$500-600/cu.m. Basically they’ve doubled up,” said an importer. “Unless they desperately needed a specific product, European importers more or less stopped buying Brazilian in March/April this year when prices reached this level.

More recently we’ve heard that there have been shipping line issues between Brazil and the US and we’ve had more spot volume offers from Brazilian producers at slightly lower prices. Whether this is the start of a wider downward trend remains to be seen.

Despite these shipping problems, the US remains a booming market, the government is injecting more money into the economy and, even at recent high price levels, Brazilian plywood remains the cheapest Americans can get for the quality.” Brazilian prices are in turn said to be helping push up Chinese.

“People who used to buy volume from Brazil have been trying to replace it from China, adding further inflationary pressure to their products,” said an importer distributor. Russian birch plywood supply is reported as tight, sold until September, and prices have also reached new heights. “Yesterday we were asked to pay £62 per board for 18mm.

At the start of last year pre- pandemic it was £17,” said a UK importer. Adding a further market challenge is the preliminary antidumping duty imposed on Russian plywood by the EU on June 15. This has been set at 16% DAP (delivered at place) and will remain in place until December, when the EU will decide on the rate going forward.

“This has also led more European buyers to look to Asia, but freight rates are limiting the extent to which it’s viable to switch from Russian,” said an importer-distributor. But for the cost of containers, importers thought Indonesian producers, in particular, would be able to capitalise on the anti-dumping duty and substitute Russian film-faced with their products.

“We saw an increase in Indonesian timber imports into Europe from 2016-2019, partly due to rising consumption generally, but we also feel to an extent due to FLEGT licensing and the fact it has a green lane through the EUTR,” said an importer. “If it wasn’t for the container rates, they could potentially now have a real opportunity to replace Russian film-faced.

With quotes on containers from Indonesia at US$13,000- 15,000, however, it isn’t a viable proposition. Switching to breakbulk on Indonesian is also problematic. To make it feasible you need shipments of 1,000cu.m to 2,500 cu.m. That’s OK in China, but more difficult to organise in Indonesia. Delivery to port is less reliable and you risk incurring charges from shipping lines if cargo doesn’t show. We’ve got outstanding orders from Indonesia set for departure in June, which we’re now told won’t be shipped until the end of September. We’re hearing producers are facing log shortages too.

Clients are not really interested in placing orders if they’re going to face three month delays, or possibly longer. So Indonesia has potential to be an interesting partner for us, but with this combination of negative factors, it isn’t the attractive option it could be. Things could change. If container rates come down to US$7,500, the dollar doesn’t get too strong and, with the EU anti-dumping duty on Russian in play, then Indonesia could be in business. But there’s a lot of what ifs and question marks there.”

Looking further ahead, some European importers anticipate Russia’s log export ban, set to come into force in the New Year, having plywood market repercussions.

“It shouldn’t affect production in Europe unduly, as its Russian birch log imports are limited,” said an importer. “But China imports huge volumes of logs from Russia in all species, including birch. So unless the two strike a bilateral deal, Chinese manufacturers may face a raw materials challenge and we could see further pressure on their production and prices.”

The option of plywood importers buying European product rather than expensive imports from elsewhere has been limited by manufacturers’ capacity. “European prices have also been rising,” said an importer-distributor. “We’ve bought a little Polish recently, but pricewise, they’ve also followed the international trend.”

An added issue for UK businesses has been fallout from Brexit. They report increased transport costs from mainland Europe, with haulage companies upping rates to offset the increased time taken by new port and customs procedures.

There are issues too trading with Northern Ireland and Ireland. Under the UK’s EU exit deal, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market. That means plywood and other timber products from the British mainland imported into Northern Ireland have to undergo EU Timber Regulation due diligence.

“Also if we ship goods to Northern Ireland for transit to Ireland, they incur further duty, even if we’ve paid duty on them entering the British mainland,” said a plywood company with sites in England and Northern Ireland. “There are ways around this, but it really isn’t a satisfactory arrangement.”

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