Timber traders tackle the perfect storm
While global governments are using building and construction as a stimulus to fight their way out of the economic repercussions of COVID, this – combined with several unusual economic factors — has gone on to create the “perfect storm” for timber supply in both the national and global markets.
Australian Timber Importers Federation (ATIF) General Manager, John Halkett believes there is so much domestic and commercial construction nationally because consumers cannot spend their money on travel and also have access to cheap money. This has only exacerbated problems because it is not only timber that has an increased demand and a decreased supply – but building supplies as well.
“While international demand for timber has placed pressure on supply, local issues are also proving to be challenging, especially after Australia lost 40 per cent of its softwood plantation resources during the 2019/20 bushfires. The capacity domestically to make those products, which is predominantly structural softwood, has flat lined and is likely to decline in the medium term. This will also increase the demand for imported timber in a global marketplace with lots of competition from Northern Hemisphere countries for this product,” he said.
“Australia is a challenging market not only because of its geography but also because its timber sizes (90×35) are different to Europe. Australia’s code and standards requirements in logging are also relatively demanding in an international context. So, if we are going to get MGP10, which is the grade that is required to make frames and trusses in Australia, it has to come from the Northern Hemisphere. This is the only other source other than the domestic source,” Mr Halkett said.
For now, it is up to importers and associations, such as the ATIF, to try and source product from across Europe and North America and continue to communicate with perspective suppliers to see how they can support the market, he said.
While it is no secret that timber prices have skyrocketed recently, with the price of logs doubling to US$160 per log, this price hike combined with heightened demand means there is now a two- or three-month delay in terms of orders, Mr Halkett said.
“This delay has again exacerbated because Northern Hemisphere suppliers are also prioritising Northern Hemisphere customers. This is because their local customers are not as demanding when it comes to compliance as the Australian market.”
“This is already the perfect storm – in terms of supply – before you even get into the really big issue which is the logistics of shipping,” he said.
Since the pandemic escalating shipping prices have gone from US$1500 to US$5000 per container, with shipping delays also heightened due to the shortage in shipping containers alongside the increased demand for timber and building supplies.
“Shipping containers are not being repositioned globally because ships are already too busy carting full containers. The sweeper ships that usually pick up the empty containers are no longer operating. The shipping lines are also charging congestion fees and peak season fees while industrial action is also holding up the wharfs. Industrial action, congestions, delays in shipping, extra costs, plus the challenges around supply has seen shipping costs go through the roof. It is for this reason that local builders are not only finding it difficult to source product, but they also now have to pay a lot more for timber and building products,” he said.
Mr Halkett did point out that those builders who have been loyal to their wholesalers are still sourcing supply because big timber wholesalers continually push to meet the orders from their well-established customers.
“If you have a decent relationship with a wholesaler, they will endeavor to meet your order, but you will still wait up to three months for your order. And if you are a smaller builder who has always shopped around for your frames and trusses, you will find it an extra challenge to source the timber that you need for the jobs – as well as tiles and taps and other bits and pieces.”
“All together our assessment is that this supply and shipping situation is not expected to get better for another 18 months. The advice I have also sought from Europe suggest this is likely to be the scenario. Bear in mind that a lot of the European mills also shut down in September so they can refurbish, update and repair the mills. This will again see supply problems escalate in Europe and in the Australian market that sources this product because it is compliant with local codes,” he said.
Mr Halkett said he and his colleagues have continued discussions with Ministers in Canberra around the timber shortages because a substantial amount of the timber demand was fueled by the Federal Government due to its HomeBuilder grants and incentives to employ apprentices. The meetings included a round table for officials to try and identify factors that would make it easier for prospective suppliers from the Northern Hemisphere to provide additional quantities of resources to the Australian market.
“A lot of the issues currently sit around standards and codes. This is because you have got the possibility of harmonisation of some international Canadian codes with Australian building codes, as well as issues around border control in regards to quarantine, and also some no tariff barriers that may be able to ease. One of the issues we have is having the ability to talk to people on the ground,” he said.
In the meantime, one solution could see supply sourced from Russia as it produces a significant amount timber in the global market.
“We currently see some real opportunities to increase the supply of sawn timber out of Russia. In saying this, there is not a lot of Russian product that comes to Australia directly because Russian logs are processed through the Czech Republic. The Russians have also announced a ban of log exports from 2022. However, with a fifth of the world’s round log exports coming out of Russia we ought to see some of that product come into Australia. The problems that the Russians have had is understanding the Australian market, conditions and compliance,” he said.
Another challenge in sourcing supply from the Russian market comes from Australian importers not having any current links with trade authorities or Russian trade associations.
“The Federal Government could assist with a dialogue with prospective suppliers or increase the supply from Canada. We are currently working on a paper and we have had significant and valuable input into that paper from the freight groups already. Currently there are two parts to the equation – one is the timber supply and the capacity of the saw mills, while the other is that logistics and shipping which is just as big as the conundrum as the supply side. In putting the paper together, we have liaised closely with freight and customs brokers groups and we have a joint paper that will go to the Federal Government soon.”
“For now, we are trying to see what we can do as a Timber Importer’s Federation to improve the flow of structural softwood products and engineered wood products into the Australian market because of the demand here,” he said.
Local market woes
Looking to the Australian market, domestic mills are still running at more than 100 per cent capacity, while there is also continued salvaging of the fire kilned plantations particularly around southern New South Wales.
In saying this, local mills only have a small window to salvage the fire kilned plantations, according to Mr Halkett.
“When pine trees are burnt, unlike eucalypt trees they die, so you have only got about six months to harvest those trees and process before the logs can no longer be sawn. That salvage is now finished and that wood is now flowing in to the market,” he said.
“We could export pine logs to China but why the hell are we exporting pine logs to China when we have a demand for the sawn product in Australia? China do not want them anyway. There seems to be an opportunity, perhaps courtesy of the Chinese to investigate how we might saw and use the sawn wood domestically from logs that might have, in the past, been exported.”
“The second area is to try and improve the utilisation of the logs they process. This might be to cut different types of product or shorter lengths but optimise the recovery of the logs they are allocated. The sawn allocations are going to decline because 40 per cent were burned in the bushfires. In the medium term you are going to see a decline in mills in southern New South Wales and a decline in the volume of logs they have access to as well.”
“This will flow through to loss of jobs. There has to be ways to deal with this including improving the utilisation of logs they already get and saw logs that might have been exported in the past,” he said.
While plans are already in place for the Federal Government to work closely with Australian timber associations moving forward, there is still no sign of timber supply woes letting up,” Mr Halkett said.
“While consumers are still locked down from COVID intermittedly and loans cost next to nothing, renovations will continue. This will not only continue to place a high demand on timber but also a demand for flash bathrooms and new kitchens, which again contributes to the perfect storm.”
“As a trade association it is our job to work with the custom brokers at the ports and with suppliers to try improve supply. For now, I also see some merit in visiting suppliers, including the Russians who are keen on looking in the Australian market, and also importers who will need assistance and support,” he said.
IHG’s timber industry overview
Independent Hardware Group’s (IHG) Category Manager for Structural Timber and Building Supplies, Richard Walker agrees the unprecedented demand for timber was initiated by the 2019/20 bushfires, but the boom then accelerated as a result of government stimulus to support the building industry and shore up the economy during the pandemic.
However, another lesser-known factor that contributed to the timber shortage is when COVID hit, a lot of retailers and wholesalers that were importing into Australia completely stopped placing orders for timber because all forecasts pointed towards the economy completely shutting down, he said.
“As the lockdowns took hold in May last year, nearly every economist predicted that construction would fall off a cliff, which is when importers naturally held back volume orders for pine and LVL. But as we all now know, the industry was soon booming while everyone stayed home and undertook renovations. By the time it became clear that the growth was here to stay, Australian importers were caught short as other global markets offered extraordinary rates for these products,” he said.
“Imported structural timber usually sits at around 20 per cent of Australian timber purchases. This has dropped to below 10 per cent in recent months adding further strain to an already over-stretched local softwood industry. Australia is essentially competing with other countries for imported timber and, in many cases, being thwarted by regions prepared to pay significant premiums. Imports are also being further impacted by shipping delays and port congestions. It is putting a lot of pressure on all parts of the timber supply chain, our members, builders, the local mills and importers.”
“The IHG team have worked hard to secure extra import volume for our members but so has everyone else in the world. Negotiating with timber producers overseas has basically become an auction. Prices in the US tripled and this flowed onto us which meant the market has had three to four price increases from importers over the last 12 months,” Mr Walker said.
IHG’s National Trade Operations Manager, Brett Martin agrees that the on-going price hikes with imports, combined with shipping delays has seen the Australian timber supply wane considerably, while the local mills are running at capacity levels but still struggling to meet demand, particularly after the shutdown of South Australian mills in November last year.
“A forced week-long shut down of the Mt Gambier mills turned into two weeks of lost time, by the time the kilns got going again. This took about 10,000 cubes out of the market. You will never get that volume back. The mills are all running at 100 per cent and their entire output is being swallowed by the local market,” Mr Martin said.
The IHG team have continued to work daily with all of its primary timber suppliers – local and imports – to source product at a fair price on behalf of the members. While at times they have had to be prepared to pay the global rate, Mr Walker says that today’s supply is relatively healthy versus last year and this goes back to maintaining loyalty with suppliers.
“Loyalty and forecasting volume is crucial in these times. Any stores that just chase the cheaper rate will struggle to secure stock. Whereas those stores who stay loyal to key suppliers are certainly looked after. This loyalty also extends to how our members must deal with their customers, placing emphasis on their most loyal builders – big and small – rather than the random builder that is shopping around,” he said.
Australia is not alone in the challenges, with other housing markets around the world also experiencing similar timber shortages according to Mr Martin.
“The reality is, no market was sufficiently prepared for a building boom as dramatic or sudden as we have seen. Manufacturers are simply doing what is best for their business – chasing the highest sell price. The product triples in price and they divert the containers to the market that’s willing to pay that premium. Thankfully the escalating imported prices have come off recently but we are still dealing with the doubling of shipping costs. A container that usually costs US$2500 is now US$9000 so there is just no relief for our market.”
“Looking to Europe, all the mills have already presold everything right up until October. At the current inflated rates I do not think we will see a lot of relief until the US lumber number gets closer to AUD$600. It needs to be there for some time and we need a see more normalised housing demand. All economic forecasts point towards the fact that there will not be a likely smoothing of housing starts in Australia until around 2023,” Mr Martin said.
Concerns with timber supply are being combatted by IHG head office who, throughout the last twelve months, have continually focused on working with each of its trade members. These members are, in turn, maintaining close relationships with their loyal customers, according to Mr Martin.
“There is a lot of stress in the market because the product is just not coming through and this stress is coming from the bottom up. It is tough knocking back orders in a sales environment where you are always challenged to bring in new business. As a group we are more proactive than ever in managing our relationships in the marketplace – between suppliers, members and builders. We have put programs in place that improve member’s processes around forecasting supply and managing price rises, while working closely with our supplier network to make sure we get our fair share. This means challenging the norm as timber supply is core to our business,” Mr Martin said.
“IHG deals with many large trade suppliers and I think we are holding our own in regards to supply. It has not been all smooth sailing but our close relationships with the supply network certainly assists in securing product for our members. Even things such as paying suppliers on time rather than demanding extended terms goes a long way toward them maintaining equity in their business to source product for us. We have members that cross over stock between stores. So if one has a surplus of one size, they will do a swap. Large stores are also helping the smaller stores, a great example of our hub and spoke model within the network,” Mr Martin said.
When looking to engineered wood products to combat supply, it seems these products are currently in a more critical state than structured pine frame, according to Mr Walker. This is because 80 per cent of pine framing is produced locally while 20 per cent is imported. However, this situation is the opposite with LVL which is about 85 per cent imported, he said.
“LVLs are produced in Europe and the US with a small component from Asia. New Zealand product sat around 50 per cent higher than Australia during the pandemic so New Zealand manufacturers suggested they just keep it there and sell it for a lot more than if they send it to Australia.”
“Australia is usually the first one to drop off because of our low pricing. However, because local prices have lifted, we now look more attractive. In saying this we do need to future proof ourselves so we are not reliant on a couple of suppliers and spread it out a bit more,” Mr Walker said.
When looking at other timber alternatives, such as steel, it is not just a matter of changing a building site to steel framing – the builder also needs to think about the plumbers, electricians and plasterers who all need to adapt when using a different product, Mr Walker said.
“When Australia had a timber shortage in 2017 – not to this scale – the market started to look to steel. There were some carpenters on board because they needed the alternative but as soon as supply was rectified, they defaulted very quickly back to timber, because carpenters want to go back to using the tools they are skilled in and work with timber,” he said.
“Even though steel companies are in the position to take advantage of the situation, like any new ventures this takes time to start up. Steel represents between five and 15 per cent of the house frame market but even if it doubled overnight, we still have a void of about 30 to 40 per cent. If we find another five to 10 per cent in steel it is not going to fix the problem,” Mr Walker said.
Throughout the challenges, IHG has focused on solutions for its members and remained transparent in its communication to ensure everyone is educated on the situation. This includes a regular newsletter called ‘Timber Market Wrap’ which they distribute to their store network.
The communication details strategies IHG has in place to source supply on behalf of members as well as tips on helping the store team adapt and manage customer relationships, Mr Martin said.
“There is a lot of angst in the industry given the impacts on livelihood caused by delays in the building cycle, and the store teams and trade account managers in the field are copping a lot of this frustration from customers. In one of our communications we drafted an open letter to builders which our members were encouraged to place on their letterhead and distribute to customers, and in turn, builders to pass onto their clients to help educate the end user on the truth around supply.”
“The message focused on four things – customers being open to using different lengths and products; working with us on longer lead times; being cognisant of price rises to factor into future quotes; and being respectful of our store contacts. The message was made really clear that timber shortages and subsequent price hikes were a global issue and that took much of the pressure off the store and the builder. It was really well received,” he said.
The communication is also about separating fact from fiction, says Mr Walker.
“There are a lot of myths being put out there. The truth is local mills are running at 100 per cent and they cannot produce any more product. The good news about prices lifting is these mills can make a buck and reinvest and use some of their poor-quality logs, that do not meet structural grades, to produce engineered products that we can use in Australia in the future. This would ultimately mean that we could produce more product in the long term.
Decking and flooring
IHG’s decking and flooring category has achieved a 15 per cent growth on last year in terms of volume in stores, according to Mr Walker, who pointed out that the increased volume is a direct result of lockdown-driven DIY projects as Australians upgrade their indoor and outdoor living spaces in record numbers.
“A lot of our decking product comes out of Malaysia and Indonesia, with Merbau now representing over half of the volume of decking sold in Australia. When sourcing product our members act as a group, sharing container loads between stores and doing everything they can to make themselves attractive to the supplier to get a better rate,” Mr Walker said.
“What tends to happen throughout the year is that when the market starts to deflate, the Australian species becomes a bit more attractive, like spotted gum, iron bark and silver top. They become more popular because it is price driven and the end user can save a few bucks. There is also a lot of trends towards composite decking now – including innovative products that are fire resistant and do not need coatings. This is what will drive the future,” he said.
After starting his career in timber flooring 25 years ago, Mr Walker reminisced how initially he only sold Australian timber flooring during that time – there were no manufactured, or engineered or composite products on the market at the time.
“It is so different now with half of the volume of flooring in engineered products particularly around European or American Oak. You can get very wide board which is the trend and you can choose any colour that you want. The engineered products are more stable while the solid timber moves around a lot because it tends to absorb water,” he said.
Mr Martin also pointed out that the magic of the deal in decking and flooring is that IHG can bring together members as a collective.
“Our strategy is to buy as a group and sell as an independent. That is our philosophy. You have to bring the benefit of the volumes to the supplier, because they pick up efficiencies as well and share the savings. It is a win win.”
“You have to consider the effects of installing solid timber or manufactured products and if you can take time away from the cost of the installation you can also take away the cost of the floor. Even though the flooring is dearer initially, it works out cheaper because of the reduced time installing it.”
For now, IHG will continue to not only source timber supplies but also sell high end and innovative product solutions to meet the demands of a booming market.
One example of this innovation is coming from Johnson Brothers Mitre 10 in Mona Vale, outside of Sydney, where the member recently started their own business around pre-oiling timber. They are working alongside Cabot’s on the initiative which uses a simplistic machine that ensures when a deck goes down it is oiled on all four sides. This product is now being distributed across the network.
In the meantime, it is about remaining diverse, maintaining loyalty in its supplier relationships and continuing to work closely with every IHG member on opportunities that keeps them price competitive and adds value to their local builders.
Global supply pressure to continue
While it is apparent that the pandemic, shipping delays and the 2019/20 bushfires are all attributing to the current timber crisis, a boom in the American home market also means that supplies normally imported into Australia from Europe are instead being diverted to the US, creating even more issues to the current shortage. MGA TMA National Membership Manager Marie-Claire McKiernan says unprecedented demand in the global market will still affect Australia for some time.
“There is a backlog of orders to be filled and the sheer volume of construction projects that are in the pipeline will keep the demand high for a long period. Generally there is a balance in Australia of projects on the go. Some states are not as busy as others meaning that supplies can be re-directed but at present, MGA TMA members say all states are booming,” Ms McKiernan said.
“Local producers are currently processing as much pine as they can. We believe there will be a new pine mill opening in South Australia but that is some time away. In Victoria, the State Government could look at releasing further forest coups. This way our mills could add additional capacity which would assist the F17 hardwood market.”
“While the demand is high and there is less timber available, price will also remain high. We at MGA TMA anticipate that prices will come down when demand decreases. However, while production is at 100 per cent, pricing will remain at current levels. We have no choice but to pay what producers are charging. Our local producers cannot do any more than they already are. We simply have to wait for demand to slow and projects to get back on schedule, including build times getting back to normal timing rather than being pushed out by two months or more – which is what is currently happening,” she said.
Without being able to guarantee when timber frame deliveries will be available, some MGA TMA members have recommended customers look to steel framing as an alternative. However, with the price of iron ore also increasing, the price of steel is now going up which will again have a financial impact on the builder and the end consumer, according to
“As the price of iron ore increases so too does the price of steel, so this will also have a financial impact on the builder or the end consumer. I believe there is also a real risk that once a builder moves to steel framing, they may not return to timber,” she said.
Looking to the timber flooring and decking space, light timbers continue to trend well, according to Ms McKiernan, who said Blackbutt and American Oak currently remain very popular.
“Consumers are choosing timber flooring over other floor alternatives because they want the natural feel. Timber is authentic and durable. The spending on home renovation continues to stay strong and the MGA TMA members expect this to remain the case in our local market until Australians can travel internationally again,” Ms McKiernan said.
Timber suppliers look to Federal Government for crisis solutions
Rising house prices, people returning from overseas during COVID, along with the HomeBuilder stimulus have encouraged consumers to bring their building or renovation plans forward, according to Timber Trade Industrial Association (TTIA) Chief Executive Officer, Brian Beecroft. But resources remain low, particularly with the 2019/20 bushfires devastating up to 50 per cent of the resource in large swathes of the Tumut/Tumbarumba region as well as the South Coast of New South Wales and East Gippsland, he said.
“This resource will take 25 to 30 years to mature for harvesting again. There were already growing supply issues before the fires but the events of 2019/20 made the situation worse. In terms of the demand, it is always present and it is global,” he said.
“The construction boom is happening globally because many other countries have used construction as a stimulus throughout the pandemic. It is for this reason that some countries are willing to pay a premium for imported timber. European supplies are being directed to countries like the US where timber prices have doubled. This has particularly affected supply locally because imports are estimated to make up approximately 25 per cent of the demand for timber in Australia.”
“The crisis has seen prices already rising by 15 per cent in some cases, but this has not decreased demand. The price increases will slow but not dramatically because the pent-up demand in the renovation and construction sector is likely to continue for at least 12 months,” he said.
Solutions to the timber shortage could potentially begin in Canberra, according to Mr Beecroft, who said State and Federal Governments need to be placed under more pressure to support the timber industry and provide better access to resources.
“Discussions have already taken place with the Federal Government regarding the need to streamline the port’s processes, increase efficiency and reduce costs both at the point of entry as well as freight charges. I expect that this will assist the supply issue slowly as shipping returns to some form of post COVID normality,” he said.
“This crisis has also highlighted a need for Australia to be self-sufficient in its timber supply. This could mean more plantations in the long term but also more access to sustainable native forests in the short term,” Mr Beecroft said.
Better scheduling of the Federal Government’s HomeBuilder program will also combat demand, according to Mr Beecroft, who said extensions will reduce financial and commercial pressure on home builders and the construction/timber supply chain.
“It also assists in better scheduling the work over a more reasonable period and hopefully avoid a boom bust cycle and housing industry collapse. It will ease the pressure on the shortage of building materials and the availability of trades and skilled labour,” he said.
Looking to the timber flooring and decking market, timber flooring now represents 25 per cent of the flooring market with this figure continually increasing, he said.
“This strong market demand reiterates that hardwood flooring is the preferred flooring. It is more energy efficient than other surfaces, is a sustainable resource and finally it is extremely long lasting. Consumers will increasingly opt for timber flooring over vinyl and carpet as a premium product and feature of their home or business,” Mr Beecroft said.
“More recently there has also been a trend this year towards lighter, blonde to light brown looking timber to maximise the feeling of light and space in homes. The lighter colours are more versatile to numerous decorating themes including the beach rustic or modern style. Parquet flooring is proving popular as a unique feature look, particularly the herringbone style which connects planks at an angle and give the room a more spacious appearance.”
“Local and recycled timber is also popular with people looking for an environmentally friendly option. People are building larger decks than before for enhanced outdoor space and living. A variety of colours on a deck and rounded corners and circular areas are more commonplace. Decks are no longer just square,” he said.
With so much demand for timber and timber flooring, Mr Beecroft says there are no signs of demand slowing down for at least 12 months, with the only constraint being supply.
Supply reduces in timber coatings
Despite all of the timber woes, it is not just timber that is being affected by supply issues with coatings and adhesives also significantly effected due to the crisis, according to Randy Flierman of the Australian Timber Flooring Association (ATFA).
“This is particularly the case with resin binders, pigments and fillers, additives and solvents used to produce coatings. Elastomers for adhesive production are also in short supply. These products are all mainly produced in Western Europe where factory fires and extreme weather conditions have heavily affected production,” he said.
“Manufacturers are reticent to go outside reliable chemical producers, hence slowing production and increasing demand – thus heightened pricing. Likewise, due to COVID still being very active in Europe, manufacturing at full capacity is still some way off,” Mr Flierman said.
There may still be a little price pain to come in this segment also because equipment production is not exempt either, with a reported 50 per cent increase in steel prices also seeing equipment costs go up. Availability of copper for engine parts is also slowing production of sanding machines, he said.
“In the mean-time contractors can continue to secure deals with their supplier and they will reward loyalty. If you have builders as regular customers, keep them informed as they can be less forgiving if you are flagging increases. While we understand that undercutting is always an issue, everyone needs to pass on the costs to the end consumer – that means you need to increase prices as well. It is hard to do, however, your livelihood needs to come first,” Mr Flierman said.
At the moment, the COVID-inspired renovation boom continues as overseas travel stays at a stand-still.
“Pre-COVID $65 billion was being spent by Australians on international travel annually (Financial Review) and $6.2 billion by New Zealanders annually (Infometrics). While this money is being redirected to spending in a number of ways – new cars, big screen TVs, electronics, etc. – building and renovation is capturing more than its share. The point here, consumers can afford a small increase,” Mr Flierman said.
Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA)
A recent statement by the Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA) reiterated that Australian builders are experiencing significant delays in sourcing structural timber and building products. With 25 per cent of Australia’s housing timber normally coming from overseas, this has disguised the fact that Australia simply does not produce enough timber in this country to supply its growing needs, according to an AFPA spokesperson.
“More recently imports have collapsed as global timber prices have skyrocketed in other countries (timber prices have soared by more than 400 per cent in the US) and shipping has been heavily constrained.”
“Australia’s softwood ‘pine’ plantation estate, which supplies most of Australia’s housing timber, has not increased in almost a decade and has failed to keep pace with Australia’s timber needs. Compounding the shortage and need for urgent action, about 10 per cent of Australia’s one-million-hectare softwood estate was lost during the 2019-20 summer bushfires,” he said.
The current timber shortage demonstrates to Australian policy makers that Australia needs to develop a sovereign capability and that cyclical timber shortages will become more frequent and acute if State and Federal Governments do not use policy levers to drive more softwood (pine) plantings to meet future demand, the AFPA spokesperson said.