Unprecedented transportation disruptions caused by floods in British Columbia have sent lumber prices soaring, boosting revenues for many North American producers but piling fresh pressure on sawmills in the province that are struggling to get their lumber to market.
Softwood lumber prices have doubled since mid-November after road and rail links across B.C., which accounts for 16 per cent of North American supply, were washed out by record-breaking rainfall.
Even before the floods, a record price rally in 2021 boosted profits for many lumber producers, underpinning a strong year for mergers and acquisitions. And analysts expect more deals.
“We’re probably going to see an outsize number of M&A transactions next year,” said Dustin Jalbert, an economist for commodity price reporting agency Fastmarkets. “The industry is still very fractured and so from a consolidation standpoint there’s a lot of room to run.”
Mr. Jalbert said massive cash infusions enjoyed by companies in 2021 were helping fuel deals and the long-term trend of production moving outside of B.C., which used to be the epicentre of the North American industry.
The province faces a dwindling supply of trees for harvest after years of beetle infestations, wildfires and a recently announced provincial government plan to reduce harvesting of old-growth trees. Analysts predict more sawmill closures in B.C. in coming years.
Lumber remains the most fragmented segment of all the forest products industries, with the top five companies controlling 32 per cent of North America’s production capacity, according to TD Bank.
“Both our strategy and ambitions are to continue with disciplined growth,” Mike Mackay, Interfor’s vice-president of corporate strategy, told Reuters, adding the deal will help diversify its products and open up new markets.
North American forest product and paper industry has seen $10.2-billion worth of deals in 2021, the highest since 2018, according to Refinitiv data.
Lumber climbed above US$1,100 per thousand board feet on Monday after hitting a record above US$1,600 in May. But some smaller mills cannot capitalize on higher prices.
The latest price spike is only being enjoyed by companies able to ship their product to market, highlighting the divide between large diversified Canadian producers and those still focused entirely within B.C.
“The flooding situation has compounded an already serious logjam in logistics everywhere,” said Roger Keery, president of privately owned Skeena Sawmills in Terrace, northwestern B.C., which halted operations for a week during the floods, and will shut down again for nearly a month over Christmas.
“We’re struggling with the question of whether we should run,” Mr. Keery said.
Skeena has been struggling for months with a trucker shortage and is facing congestion at the Port of Prince Rupert, Mr. Keery said.
Widespread sawmill closures in 2019 cut B.C.’s production capacity by 14 per cent to around 12 billion board feet, and BMO Capital Markets analyst Mark Wilde estimates another one billion board feet will be shuttered in coming years.
A decades-long U.S.-Canadian softwood lumber dispute is also weighing on B.C. sawmills, after Washington doubled tariffs on Canadian imports last month.
“If you’re a smaller producer and have your business only within Canada, you’re penalized,” said Harry Nelson, a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia. “[They’re] the real collateral damage.”
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