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Softwood lumber imports to the US were up 4.5% y-o-y in 2020, contrary to most other regions of the world. From 2019 to 2020, importation to China and Japan was down 11% and 13%, respectively.

The MENA region also saw decreased importation, importing only an estimated 8.6 million m3 in 2020, down from about 10.5 million m3 in 2019. In contrast, most of Europe’s lumber imports, which are typically intra-continental, remained practically unchanged from 2019 to 2020.

Softwood Lumber – North America

The lumber market in the US has been highly unusual during the winter season with an active home building sector, tight lumber supply, low wood inventories, and record prices. Lumber production was up in all regions of North America in the 4Q/20 y-o-y. Furthermore, there are reports that operating rates have gone up in early 2021 due to strong lumber demand from the housing sector.

Unexpectedly, US lumber prices reached record highs in early 2021, with prices being higher for most species in both Canada and the US than they were at the previous all-time highs in September of 2020.

Overseas lumber supply to the US reached a record 15% of the total importation in the 4Q/20, predominantly driven by higher shipments from GermanySweden, and Romania. The total US import volume, including that from Canada and overseas, was close to 10 million m3 in the 4Q/20, the highest quarterly volume in 13 years.

Although lumber exports from Canada picked up in the second half of the year, 2020 was the fourth consecutive year with y-o-y declines. The total export volume fell to 26 million m3, down from over 33 million m3just five years ago, mainly due to limited log supply in the province of British Columbia. Canadian shipments to the strong US market were up slightly from 2019, while the sales to all other markets fell. In particular, lumber volumes to China shrunk in 2020, down 33% from the previous year. The good news for Canadian lumber exporters has been the dramatic increase in the values of the shipped goods over the past year.

Softwood Lumber – Europe

Sawmills in several European countries have long been exporting large volumes of softwood lumber outside their domestic markets. Historically, most of the shipments were to neighboring countries on the continent, and only about 20% were shipped overseas to the Middle East/Northern Africa (MENA), the US, and Japan. In 2020, this share grew to 45%, with shipments to China having expanded the most.

A combination of stagnant wood demand in Europe, readily available log supply in Northern and Central Europe, and a lack of forest resources available to supply domestic lumber manufacturers on other continents has created opportunities for sawmills in Europe to increase production and expand exports overseas.

The four largest producers and exporters of softwood lumber in Europe are SwedenFinlandGermany, and Austria. Together they produced just over 55% of Europe’s total lumber production. Overseas shipments by these “Top 4” accounted for about two-thirds of the continent’s total lumber export volume in 2020.

Softwood Lumber – Russia

Russian lumber exports reached a record high in the 3Q/20, with shipments to China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Finland, and the UK moving up from the previous quarters. Activities slowed down in the fourth quarter, and the total export volume in 2020 was close to the same as in 2019, which was the highest yearly shipments on record.

China is by far the largest market for Russian lumber (56% of total exports in 2020), followed by the CIS countries, Europe, other Asian countries, and the MENA region. The most significant change in Russian exportation over the past five years has been the relative decline in the share of total shipments to Asia and the increased sales to the CIS region.

Softwood Lumber – China

Lumber imports to China fell dramatically in the 4Q/20, resulting in a total Chinese import volume of just over 24 million m3 for the entire year, a 30% decline from 2019. The reduced imports in the 4Q were not the result of decreased construction activities. GDP was up 6% and the real estate market was strong. Instead, it was because of high lumber inventories that were built up during the 2Q and 3Q, and because purchasers appeared reluctant to further build inventories during the uncertain times created by the pandemic. However, there is optimism in the construction and manufacturing sectors for 2021, which should offer a promising outlook for lumber suppliers to China.

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