Slowdown ahead for forestry

By Simon Hartley

Contractors at work on DCC-owned City Forests' plantation near Dunedin. Photo / Ross Chambers
Contractors at work on DCC-owned City Forests' plantation near Dunedin. Photo / Ross Chambers

New Zealand's forestry sector has had a stellar two to three years, with China soaking up the country's logs as fast as they could be sent there. However, Westpac industry economist Paul Clark explains clouds are gathering, to Simon Hartley.

New Zealand's forestry owners, managers and contractors are being cautioned to heed the changing times, as Chinese building activity is expected to ease in the year ahead.

Westpac industry economist Paul Clark said the Chinese softening in demand during the next year is expected to slow demand for New Zealand logs, and prices should fall as a consequence.

"This won't be good news for forestry owners, managers and contractors, who have, for some time, dined out on China's massive appetite for logs.

"Cashflow-dependent contractors will be especially vulnerable during this time," Mr Clark said in report on the forestry and wood processing sector.

However, as with every supply and demand story there is a winner, and Mr Clark picked lower prices would be better news for the downstream wood processing industry.

That sector had struggled during the past two to compete with prices paid by the Chinese for logs produced locally, he said.

Otago and Southland have a large slice of the softwood forestry pie, with about 12% of the country's commercial plantation forests. Northland has about 11% and the central North Island regions about 33%.

"Since 2008, the volume of logs exported has grown by a whopping 190%," Mr Clark said.

That was mainly because of the growth in demand from China. Almost 12.7 million cubic metres, or 70% of softwood logs harvested in New Zealand were exported to China in the year ending June 2017.

That figure compared with just 1.4 millioncum exported in 2008, he said.

Logs of council-owned City Forest are loaded aboard Bunun Dynasty at the Beach St wharf in Port...
Logs of council-owned City Forest are loaded aboard Bunun Dynasty at the Beach St wharf in Port Chalmers last November. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
"Not surprisingly, earnings generated from exporting logs to China have also risen sharply, from $131 million in 2008 to $1.9billion for the year ending June 2017," he said.
Mr Clark said the increase was largely driven by strong demand from China's subsidised wood processing sector, supplying its own construction sector.

Increased Chinese demand came from a lowering of import tariffs on logs and a clampdown on logging activity, following an extended period of unsustainable harvesting in China.

"Industry sources have suggested that logs from New Zealand are mostly processed into timber products that are used to build dwellings," Mr Clark said.

Of plantations in the 1000ha-10,000ha range, Otago and Southland sit in third place alongside Nelson and Marlborough, with 15.2% of their plantations in that size range.

Topping that list is the North Island's East coast with 24% of its total in that size and Northland, with almost 20%.

With the exception of the southern North Island region, all but one of the nine areas in the report have the majority of their forests in the 10,000ha-plus size; from roughly 50% to as much as 70-80%.

Both Port Otago and South Port at Bluff have recorded record annual log turnover during several quarters of each of the past two years.

Since 2008, softwood log harvesting increased 50% to 33.1 millioncum in 2017.

Export log exports grew 11.1% from 2016 to 2017, with 19.4 millioncum going offshore.

Mr Clark said, over the next decade, up to 30% of wood available for harvest would come from forests less than 1000ha in size.

There are about 13,500 small forest owners whose plantations are less than 40ha.

Mr Clark said the near-term outlook was less positive for log producers, than his longer-term outlook.

"Residential building activity in China has begun to slow, with recent indicators suggesting that there's been a decline in completed dwellings.

The implementation of wide-ranging structural reforms in China, slower economic conditions overall and tighter credit conditions is likely to deepen contraction, slowing demand for New Zealand exports, he said.

However, Mr Clark said the medium to long-term outlook for demand looked promising for log producers.

"As the world's population expands, so too will the demand for logs.

"Growth will be driven by emerging markets, especially those that have large populations and rising income levels," he said of countries such as India, the Philippines, Indonesia and potentially Brazil. Demand from India, in particular, was expected to grow strongly as its economy expanded, following a similar, albeit delayed, trajectory to that of China's economy.

"That's not to say that there will be no further growth in demand from China," Mr Clark said.

While China's population growth had slowed dramatically because of its strict adherence in the past to the one-child policy, and its economic growth pace had "ratcheted down", China's urbanisation drive still had some way to run, Mr Clark said.

"This is likely to mean that over the medium to long-term, residential building activity should continue to grow strongly, which is likely to be good news for New Zealand exports," he said.

Russia remained a potential threat, given it had dramatically increased its timber exportsto China in recent years, Mr Clark said.

New Zealand's downstream sawmillers, in particular, should benefit from having to pay lower prices in the future and having more logs being directed to their mills, as external demand slows.

"Whether they will be able to take advantage of this depends on what happens to residential building activity domestically," Mr Clark said.

New Zealand's competitive advantage is in growing logs, producing them quicker than most other countries. However, New Zealand loses that competitive edge in downstream processing, as it does not have the economies of scale to compete head-on with large overseas producers.

"Despite some significant investment, this is unlikely to change anytime soon," Mr Clark said.

Mr Clark painted a tough "knock-on" effect for sector participants, in the event prices begin to soften.

He said forest owners and forestry managers were much more likely to limit their harvesting activities, which would mean lower revenues and falling investment returns.

"This will have negative consequences for contractors, particularly those involved in logging, a large number of whom will be heavily indebted because of prior investments made in capital equipment when times were good," he cautioned.

Those cashflow-dependent operators were unlikely to survive for any period of time and could well leave the industry.

Transport contractors could similarly be affected, and while being able to service other industries, they would face strong competition. Domestic road freight charges could be forced lower.

By species

- Softwood radiata pine: 1.5 millionha, grows in NZ faster than most other countries because of climate and soil conditions, Douglas fir, 100,000ha

- Exotics: cypress, redwoods, larch, cryptomeria, combined 33,000ha

- Hardwoods: eucalyptus, 23,000ha; poplars, acacias, willow, black walnut, oak, combined 12,000

- Softwoods: Almost 60% exported as logs; balance for domestic use

— Source: Westpac

Plantation sizes

- 55% are bigger than 10,000ha

- 14% are between 1000ha-10,000ha

- 11% are 100ha-1000ha

- 20% are 1ha-100ha (most less than 40ha)

— Source: Westpac

- Otago Daily Times

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