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Five-year forecast calls for continued volatility

December 18, 2015 - In Wood Markets' new five-year forecast, the short-term outlook for North American and global economies, as well as softwood lumber and panel markets, are all forecast to improve but at a much slower pace than expected. 

What has short-circuited the prospects of stronger demand is a slowdown in China and Japan, impacting export markets. The new wildcard that caused U.S. dollar prices to plunge in 2015, especially in softwood lumber, was the rapid currency devaluations of almost all major lumber producers as compared to the U.S. dollar. These factors have changed the Wood Markets outlook to one that expects more lacklustre demand and corresponding price growth through 2018. After that, it starts to look very good!

These details and further analysis of commodity lumber and panels was released last week in the report, Wood Markets 2016 - The Solid Wood Products Outlook: 2016 to 2020.

The supply-side dynamics feature eroding sustainable timber harvests in key provinces in Canada, resulting in dramatically lower lumber production than in the previous decade. Canada's total lumber output will start to flatten out by 2018, with no further increases expected - just as U.S. and global demand are expected to gain momentum.

The U.S. West Coast region continues to watch log export prices in China and Japan, as many domestic log prices are correlated with export prices - this can quickly tighten the wood supply for sawmills and plywood mills, as export prices rise. The U.S. South is forecast to be the only region where any significant lumber and panel production will occur, mainly due to its ample, under-utilized timberland base of southern yellow pine. As lumber and panel demand increases, it is forecast that the current depressed log prices will start to move higher to feed incremental wood consumption of the expected additional panel and sawmill production.

On the demand side, the U.S. market has had some steady growth in the repair and remodeling and industrial sectors, but it has been the slow and steady pace of the new residential housing construction market segment that has underwhelmed lumber and OSB producers. U.S. housing starts have been growing annually at only 10 to 15 per cent the last two years (reaching 1.12 to 1.14 million starts in 2015), but from very low levels. It's a long way to go to get back to a more normal level of 1.5 million housing starts, so there is still some huge upside. Wood Markets’ previous forecasts, and the current one, continue to hold to the belief that a structural change has been occurring in the U.S. housing market, taking much of this decade before a "new normal" result emerges. As evidence, our conservative 2015 housing starts forecast from last year's report should almost exactly equal this year's final housing numbers.

The potential of a "supply gap" in North America is still considered to be real and is forecast, but is pushed out towards 2019. Wood Markets’ expects that rising wood products demand will trigger much higher lumber prices, attracting more log and/or lumber supply to the market -  including European lumber exports to the U.S. market. European exports are expected to increase as U.S. lumber prices eventually move higher, resulting in stronger demand and tighter wood supplies starting about 2019. They could reach at least half of their previous peak (achieved in 2005) by the end of this decade.

Published since 1996, the five-year forecasts in Wood Markets 2016 explore the evolving recovery of U.S. and Canadian lumber and wood panel markets, including international developments. Trends assessed in the report include:

•Lumber output in the B.C. Interior will start to decline about 2017 after being relatively constant since 2011, at near 11 billion bf.

•Eastern Canada (Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes) has seen lumber production increase by 2 billion bf since 2009 and output should expand by another 1.5 billion bf by 2020, before it flattens out.

•The U.S. West lumber output should increase slowly but steadily (2% per year), as log exports to China and Japan interfere with log supplies and prices.

•In the U.S. South, lumber production will see the fastest growth rate in North America, but there needs to be a lot more sawmill capacity added to this region to make up the slack from other regions.

•The role of lumber exports to China and Asia had pulled excess lumber from North America, but it is expected that China's slowdown will now limit exports and cause an over-supply in the U.S. market.

•With U.S. housing starts set to rebound towards the long-term level of 1.5 million starts by the end of the decade, and Chinese construction and European markets expected to rebound slowly, steady increases in global log and lumber demand are expected with the prospects of much higher lumber prices by 2019.

•Five-year forecasts of OSB and plywood also see a prolonged period of demand growth, but without the sustained price increases forecast for lumber. Market volatility will continue, especially for OSB, as previously curtailed mills gradually re-enter the market - this sequence of mill restarts will have much more impact on prices than overall demand.

•For the MDF and particleboard sector, steady demand is expected, but MDF prices are expected to be under steady pressure from lower price imports.

•In fact, the devaluation of all major currencies against the U.S. dollar is expected to limit any price increases from occurring in 2016 - not good news for U.S. mills!

While there is expected to be a steady tightening of the global softwood timber supply base, slow demand growth continues to prevent the potential of any shortages from appearing. However, there is still a very possible supply gap in timber and sawmill capacity that can occur, especially in North America, which could drive prices much higher. However, the pace of demand is still the limiting factor, though it is possible we'll see the first signs of a major supply imbalance by 2019 - still a long way out, according to the conservative Wood Markets demand forecast.

Full details of the five-year outlook for the U.S. and Canada's lumber and panels consumption, imports, exports, production and price trends are available in Wood Markets 2016 - The Solid Wood Products Outlook - 2016 to 2020. Visit https://www.woodmarkets.com/publication/5-year-outlook/outlook-to-2020/ 

December 18, 2015  By Wood Markets Group

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