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North American Lumber Market: Adjusting to Uncertainty

March 26, 2020
Author: John Greene

As I wrote just a month ago—in the initial days of the coronavirus pandemic once it gripped the US— “Even if the virus ultimately doesn’t create a full-scale pandemic, it’s easy to imagine how force majeure disruptions to supply chains (e.g., two-thirds of China’s economy was shuttered for an extra week following the Lunar New Year, and residential areas of Beijing have been locked down) might spawn a banking crisis—perhaps first in the export- and China-dependent Eurozone—that ultimately cascades around the world.”

Wow. Did I miss the mark.

It's difficult to comprehend, with the benefit of hindsight, that such a dismal forecast would be on the moderate side of what has ultimately unfolded across the globe. As Pete Stewart recently wrote, we are truly in unprecedented times with no historical correlations to use as reference points.

The situation has hit the new-construction market hard and swift, which has impacted lumber demand, prices and capacity.

Woodworking Network noted recently that “Canadian lumber giants Interfor, West Fraser, and Western Forest have announced major output curtailments due the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Interfor has announced it's cutting its lumber production in British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest, and the southern U.S. by 35 million board feet per week, for two weeks. That's about 60 percent of its capacity.”

Here’s a glimpse of what’s happening across the North American softwood lumber market courtesy of Madison’s Lumber Reporter and Forest2Market data:

Western Spruce Pine Fir (SPF - US):

The coronavirus-related slowdown of the lumber market deepened further this week as workers from all levels of the supply chain went into self-quarantine mode. Prices and sales activity dropped off a cliff according to WSPF purveyors in the United States. Underscoring the enormous effect this pandemic is having on the North American economy, Canada and the US agreed to partially close the border between the two countries, allowing only trade and commerce traffic to persist. Scattered reports of logistical headaches began to surface, including sharply increasing freight costs and stranded or undelivered loads.


Western Spruce Pine Fir (SPF - Canada): 

While most of last week was characterized by falling prices and sluggish demand, WSPF trading apparently saw some decent fits and starts among the malaise. One large producer described Tuesday as their biggest day in weeks, though they weren't happy with prices. Two- or three-week order files at sawmills were common. While prices of most bread and butter items fell between US$10 and US$40 per mfbm, low grade was a bright spot with 2x6 #3/Utility and #4/Economy flat in pricing. A few pockets of consumption and building activity remained in the US, keeping some yards busy last week. Most regions have essentially shut down construction, however. Late-arriving rail cars again prevailed, especially in Northern British Columbia. Transportation wasn't actually as bad as some expected: due to the torpid economy, transit volumes have decreased. As well, the majority of truck and rail operators already work in comparative isolation.


Southern Yellow Pine: 

Building on four weeks of increases, southern yellow pine (SYP) lumber prices surged in early March to their highest level since April 2019. However, no doubt driven by the pervasive sense of panic that has gripped the world surrounding the COVID-19 contagion, SYP lumber prices reversed course in late-March and dropped 3.5% (week-over-week) for the week ending March 20.

The following data represent prices for benchmark dimension products (#2&btr 2x4) for the week ending March 20, 2020.



While we are in a highly fluid situation, prices will likely begin trending down in the coming weeks based on slack demand as homebuilding has all but halted in most markets. Per CNBC: “The SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF (XHB) has seen an outsized decline relative to the S&P 500 year to date as investor worries about a possible economic slowdown tied to the global spread of the coronavirus multiply, with the group falling nearly 24.5% versus the S&P’s more than 20.5% loss.”

It's difficult to tell where prices will settle as the market rebalances to account for the “new normal,” and lumber manufacturers begin to align production with the dramatic shift in market conditions. As Ian Fillinger, Interfor’s president and CEO noted: "We are very focused on ensuring the health and safety of our employees as well as adapting to the evolving market conditions. In addition, Interfor will remain disciplined in its approach to capital deployment as it focuses on retaining a strong capital structure."

While North American lumber prices will moderate in the coming weeks, the scheduled decreases in production will likely limit the downside price pressure that will be driven by slack demand as manufacturers draw down their inventories. The US/Canada border remains open to trade and commerce at this time; however, pricing and inventory levels will likely change should trade restrictions take effect.

This ability to quickly react to market signals and match production to the market as needed is what makes North American lumber manufacturers so competitive in a global market.

Madison's Lumber Reporter

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