The latest WOOD MARKETS annual survey of the “Top 40” Canadian and U.S. softwood lumber producers featured steady production growth in 2016 due to the cooperation of a strong U.S. market, plus growth in China. Amid an absence of any major mill acquisitions, almost all of the production gains came from existing mills. Of the top forty companies, only three in Canada and four in the U.S. recorded any production declines – a sign of a good year.
These and other industry highlights were recently released in the March 2017 issue of WOOD Markets Monthly International Report. The consultants at International WOOD MARKETS Group, Vancouver B.C. have conducted this survey annually since 1997.
The Canadian top 20 lumber companies saw their output rise from 19.6 billion bf in 2015 to 20.45 billion bf last year, while their share of national production slipped to 72% (from 74%). However, Canadian mill investments in the U.S. South are proving very strategic due to the ample timber supply in the region and high sawmilling margins (the result of low timber prices). As well, with U.S. duties being implemented on Canadian lumber shipments commencing in May, Canadian mill ownership in the U.S. is looking to be a very astute move. While there was no U.S. sawmill acquisition activity in 2016 by Canadian companies, the current collective U.S. mill count of West Fraser, Canfor and Interfor — 39 mills in all — allows their sawmill operations to enjoy excellent diversification.
Turning to the ranking of the top 20 Canadian firms, 12 were based in Western Canada and collectively produced 14.7 billion bf (52.0% of Canada’s shipments); this was higher by 390 million bf (+2.7%) than in 2015. Production for the top eight eastern Canadian producers was 5.7 billion bf (20.1% of Canada’s shipments), up 445 million bf (+8.4%) from the prior year.
The top five Canadian producers were as follows: West Fraser, Canfor, Tolko, Resolute and Western Forest Products. Of note, West Fraser surpassed Canfor as Canada’s top lumber producer — a position the former last held in 2011. Collectively, the top five raised their production to 12.3 billion bf (43.0% of Canadian lumber output), versus 12.0 billion bf (45.1%) in 2015. West Fraser inched up to lead spot, raising its output by 197 million bf (to 3.80 billion bf; +5.5%) at its 13 mills. Canfor dropped to second position with 3.79 billion bf and recorded a decline in output of 42 million bf (-1.1%). Tolko placed third, with its output falling by 63 million bf to 1.90 billion bf (-3.2%) as it cut production by half at its Quesnel, B.C. mill beginning in October 2016 (it also closed its Merritt, B.C. mill in Q1/17). Fourth-place Resolute gained 166 million bf (+9.9%) to reach a healthy 1.84 billion bf. Western Forest Products saw its output expand by 52 million bf (to 943 million bf).
In the U.S., total lumber shipments of the top 20 companies rose from 19.7 billion bf to 20.9 billion bf (+6.3%). The top 20 U.S. companies increased their output at a pace that was almost twice that of the entire U.S. industry and 50% more than that of the top 20 Canadian companies. The top 20 firms produced 63.9% of all U.S. softwood lumber shipments in 2016 (versus 62.1% in 2015). Despite the lack of export duties on Canadian lumber in 2016, the larger U.S. sawmills enjoyed excellent results. This growth indicates the rising confidence of the largest U.S. producers (including Canadian owners) in the housing market recovery and corresponding lumber consumption growth. The other apparent driver behind these growth strategies (on both sides of the border) was the need to improve cost-competitiveness by driving down costs and increasing efficiencies.
As In 2015, Weyerhaeuser retained its first-place U.S. position through a moderate increase of 230 million bf to 3.64 billion (+6.7%). Weyerhaeuser’s acquisition of Plum Creek Timber was the blockbuster deal of the year: it included two sawmills (with timberlands that are now the core assets of the combined companies with a total of 13 million acres of forests). Georgia-Pacific remained in second position with an estimated 2.5 billion bf (+6.9%). In third place was West Fraser, growing its production by 131 million bf to 2.14 billion bf (+6.5%) as a result of the rebuilt Quincy mill being in operation for the full year. Sierra Pacific was in fourth spot with production down 22 million bf to 2.01 billion bf (-11%). Interfor retained its fifth-place spot with production of 1.61 billion bf, a decrease of 101 million bf (-5.9%). The top five U.S. firms produced 11.9 billion bf, representing 36.3% of all U.S. lumber shipments, a slight (3.5%) increase from 2015.
Four of the largest North American softwood lumber producers have operations in both the U.S. and Canada. These publicly traded companies were positioned in both the top six in Canada and U.S. for last year (the percentage of their 2016 U.S. lumber production is shown in brackets): Weyerhaeuser (81%), West Fraser (36%), Canfor (26%) and Interfor (65%). “When comparing the earnings (EBITDA) amongst the four companies,” noted Russ Taylor, WOOD MARKETS’ President, “Weyerhaeuser’s above-average earnings since 2014 is noticeable (and has the highest percentage of U.S. mill assets) and this does lead to a timely question: why is the U.S. claiming that Canadian mills are subsidized when Weyerhaeuser is achieving such exceptional financial results with only 19% of its mill production in Canada?” The other three Canadian-based companies achieved lower earnings than Weyerhaeuser over the same three-year period and have more Canadian-based mills than Weyerhaeuser.