Myra P. Saefong
The lumber market has been particularly volatile in the past three months, but demand and prices for the commodity are likely to see a long-term climb as a “new normal” emerges, analysts say.
Among major commodity futures, lumber is one of the largest price gainers for the month, but also one the biggest decliners for the quarter.
The do-it-yourself and over-the-counter consumers of lumber and building materials led the dramatic price moves in 2020-21, says Kyle Little, Sherwood Lumber’s chief operating officer. As the white collar workforce moved to a work-at-home environment for much of the pandemic, there was “literally nothing else to do than complete the majority, if not every, project that had been sitting idle prior.”
That boosted demand for lumber, lifting futures prices (CME:LB00) to a record-high settlement of $1,670.50 per 1,000 board feet on May 7.
The do-it-yourself project boom, however, was a “generational event that we will not see again for some time,” says Little. The marketplace is moving “back from the overextended extremes and is developing its new normal.” That new normal hasn’t been fully determined, but its range “looks to be better than pre-Covid” times, he says.
At $602 on Sept. 21, lumber trades 64% below the record settlement price. Lumber prices are up nearly 25% this month, but down 16% for the quarter. “There will certainly be an ebb and flow to the housing market over the next few years,” says Scott Reaves, director of forest operations at Domain Timber Advisors. “We expect to see sustained increases in lumber demand from housing during that time.”
For now, the real opportunity for investors is “further up the supply chain in forestland investment,” he says. Increased demand for raw materials, including lumber, packaging, and mass timber, coupled with growing interest in reducing carbon emissions, suggest an “attractive entry point for forestland investment.” Early this year, for example, Weyerhaeuser Co. (NYS:WY) reached a deal to buy 69,200 acres of Alabama timberlands from a unit of Greif Inc. (NYS:GEF) for $149 million.
Home-construction demand, meanwhile, is going to be very high for the next eight to 10 years, even without a pandemic, Little says, as the U.S. “underbuilt shelter needs” from 2008 to 2018 as a result of the 2007-09 recession.
In August, U.S. home builders started construction on homes at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.62 million, up 3.9% from July’s upwardly revised pace, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “Lower commodity prices are relieving some of the cost pressure on builders,” says James Knightley, chief international economist at ING. “We believe that housing activity is returning to its pre-Covid trend.”
News that Chinese property giant China Evergrande Group (HKG:HK:3333) was on the brink of defaulting on more than $300 billion in debt contributed to a 6% drop in lumber futures on Sept. 20.
“This shifts the balance of risks to slower growth in China and slower commodity demand growth, including for lumber,” but for now, this is seen as a China issue without broader global effects, assuming that Chinese authorities step in to mitigate the risks, says Knightley.
Looking ahead, Steve Loebner, Sherwood Lumber’s director of risk management, sees an opportunity in physical cash lumber, referring to on-the-spot pricing and product delivery.
Lumber futures have been well ahead of the cash market and carry a premium to cash for delivery into next year, which is bullish, he says. That, coupled with robust demand and customers positioning themselves in the cash and derivative markets to avoid the risk of explosive price moves, point to a “cash market where the risk/reward is definitely skewed to the upside over time.”