Housing slowdown may mean more downtime for lumber

By Kevin Mason, Managing Director
ERA Forest Products Research
November 4, 2022
Category: Opinion / EdiTOADial
Region: Canada, United States

Kevin Mason

With signs that U.S. inflation has peaked, expectations are becoming more widespread for the Fed to begin tapering rate hikes as early as December ahead of a complete pause in mid-2023. The Bank of Canada’s whiff on an expected 75bp hike (to 50bp) added fuel to the “pivot sooner” prospects. …A further 125bps of hikes over the next nine months should cause housing activity to cool further and perhaps more sharply than previously expected. …Solid-wood producers will be most directly impacted by rate hikes and their attendant impacts on housing demand. Clearly, the next several quarters will be challenging for all lumber and structural panel producers. Nevertheless, most (if not all) have extremely strong balance sheets and are well positioned to ride out a brief downturn in demand. Housing usually leads the economy out of a recession, and we expect such a move this time around.

With our updated forecast of 1.4MM housing starts for 2023 (900,000 singles and 500,000 multis), we now expect lumber demand from new residential construction to decline by fully 2.9Bbf y/y to ~16.0Bbf. This compares to lumber demand from residential construction of 19.2Bbf in 2021 and 16.8Bbbf in 2020. A shift of 50,000 starts from single-family to multifamily (i.e., the latest tweak to our housing forecast) results in a lumber demand decline of ~460MMbf, roughly the equivalent of two greenfield SYP sawmills. …All else being equal, a steeper decline in lumber demand from new housing will necessitate even more sawmill downtime in 2023. We suspect that most downtime will take place in BC given its position as the highest-cost producing region in North America. BC accounted for 15% of total North American lumber production in 2021 and significant, timely downtime in the region should be enough to keep North American lumber markets somewhat tensioned through 2023. As such, we still expect benchmark lumber prices to hover around BC cash-cost levels next year, and we forecast a 2023 average S-P-F 2×4 price of $510, with SYP 2x4s priced slightly lower (at $495) given accelerated lumber supply growth from the U.S. South.

A slowdown in U.S. housing starts is more consequential for OSB demand given its greater exposure to new-residential construction (~55% of total end demand compared to ~30% for lumber). In light of our 1.4MM forecast for housing starts, we now estimate that OSB demand from new-residential construction will decline by ~1.9Bsf to 12.3Bsf in 2023. For context, OSB demand from new housing starts totalled 14.4Bsf in 2021 and 12.7Bsf in 2020. A shift of 50,000 homes from single-family to multifamily results in a demand decline of ~340MMsf. …Despite the impending pullback in OSB demand, near-term changes in supply could help keep markets tensioned and prices stable (around current levels) through the next several quarters. …Ultimately, we forecast benchmark North Central 7/16” OSB prices to average $365 next year, with prices gradually weakening after Allendale and Corrigan add incremental supply to the market.

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