Forest 360: Log export market commentary

(OPINION Forest360) Just when you think you might be able to wipe the brow of an unpredictable 2021 and settle down into some form of normality, 2022 decides to have a bit of a flex and show you the fun ride isn’t over yet. Last year saw export log prices swing from record highs to breakeven lows within the space of a few months and so far, 2022 is not looking much different.

The issues around Evergrande and the wider issues in the Chinese construction industry seem to be worrying the media more than the buyers with demand still reasonably solid in the face of continued bad vibes from news reels. The proof will be in the pudding in terms of demand over the next few weeks as the manufacturing sector kicks back into gear following the Chinese New Year holidays. Global supply into China remains subdued and, at present, demand appears to be outstripping supply with sales prices (CFR) increasing $US30/m3 in the past 3 weeks.

Freight has taken the fun out of any price increases with freight rates increasing at a similar rate to sales prices. Some of this is attributed to fuel as barrel prices climb out the gate. To compound issues, the EPA introduced a host of new rules in January this year that all but prevent the use of Methyl Bromide for fumigation. Methyl Bromide is a key fumigant for cargos bound for China which is used on port to fumigate the logs that are stowed on the top deck of a vessel. Now that this is all but impossible, exporters have had to move to debarking deck stowed logs or finding vessels that carry full under deck cargos, further increasing costs and port congestion.

The effect of the Ukraine invasion on freight rates is yet to be fully understood. Putin’s navy conveniently lobbed a missile into the side of a Bangladeshi cargo vessel last week in the Black Sea which has put the frighteners up the shipping industry. This, and the threat of excluding Russia from the Swift payment system, is seeing many of the vessels operating in the Atlantic now headed south to the Pacific which will hopefully free up some capacity and counter some of the increased fuel costs.

March at wharf gate (AWG) export prices surprised many with solid increases from a number of exporters but a very wide spread of around $15/JAS between either end of the spectrum. A grade in most ports (excluding Gisborne) is in the early $140’s/JAS which is $10/JAS over the 3-year average. The disparity between exporters is primarily due to the rapidly increasing freight costs with some having been smart/lucky enough to fix March rates earlier than others.

It is likely that the CFR price will continue to climb over the next few months and the ability to see this in AWG prices will rely solely on how far the shipping companies can push their rates. To compound matters, the $NZ:USD has climbed $NZ0.02 over the past few days which has the net effect of removing $NZ5/JAS from sales prices.

NZ log supply is usually peaking during March but Covid will probably pull the handbrake on as it infiltrates the supply chain. The biggest issue will be at the ports with marshalling companies already signalling reduced hours in reaction to staff illness. Port congestion is generally an issue at this time of year anyway but, as every log needs to be measured and bar coded before it’s loaded on a ship, absenteeism is likely to put a stranglehold on the NZ supply in the short to medium term.

Carbon has traded some solid increases in 2022 breaking through the $85/NZU mark before retreating to just under $80/NZU at close of play last week. This represents around $50k/ha or $1,900/ha/year for those who are in the averaging scheme. Sounds appealing but don’t expect to plant your hill country out this year as seedlings and labour are already spoken for.

We are continually fielding calls from landowners wanting to plant this year, however, we (and most other companies) are fully committed for 2022 and 2023 is filling up fast. Minister Nash has recently indicated changes to policy settings so that Radiata will no longer be allowed as a permanent forest species. This will be viewed as a positive sign by many in our industry as large scale, untended, non-productive permanent radiata forests benefit no-one long term and will more than likely create a liability for someone down the track.

Resilience is the key in any commodity-based business, and it looks like 2022 will test how resilient some players in the industry are in the face of rapidly changing and volatile global parameters. Having said that, this is not our first rodeo and we’re all used to wearing steel undies, so bring it on.

Story credit to WoodWeek – 9 March 2022

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