Weathering a Stormy Paper Market Forecast
There’s no sugarcoating it:
The paper market is bleak for buyers. The problems lie in both price and availability, and the forecast for 2008 has almost no bright spots. So, several questions have emerged: How did we get here? What can you do to cope with this new reality? What trends may affect paper purchasing this year and beyond?
First, it’s easy to be puzzled by how the paper market changed so abruptly and intensely. Paper buyers have seen the dark clouds massing over the mills for years, but little has come of it. Why is it actually raining now?
In the last five years, we’ve seen several mill closures. Tembec and UPM closed mills, and other mills shut down individual machines. The net effect was a drop of at least 20 percent of North American coated-paper capacity. As the first of these closures occurred, paper availability might have tightened a bit, but there always seemed to be another ready source of supply.
Now the industry has finally carried its capacity reduction to a point that supply is constrained both here and in Europe. It moved in what looked like baby steps, but, in the end, a real distance was crossed. Depending on the specific stock, demand is now very close to or in excess of supply.
Let us consider the paper industry’s perspective for a moment. If you’ve watched the market through several cycles, you’ve probably noticed that the mills seem to have forgotten a little section of “Economics 101”—namely, commodities prices can rise when demand exceeds supply. So why, you might have wondered, didn’t mills limit capacity sooner?
We’ll leave out some of the variables, but there are two key reasons why shutting down machines hasn’t been a shortcut to profitability. First, the enormous capital costs of papermaking mean mills become profitable only when capacity utilization is extremely high. Roughly speaking, a mill might start turning a profit when it’s producing about 95 percent or more of all the paper it could possibly make. Notice the limited upside, as well as the long, brutal road to profitability. The gap between losing money and making money is very, very narrow.