Monday, December 29, 2008
Prices dropping for all grades of paper
Posted by D. Eadward Tree
Deflation has now officially hit the market for publication papers: Prices for everything from newsprint to coated freesheet have declined this month, several sources indicated in the past week.
December prices were down even in the formerly rock-steady market for high-grade supercalendered paper (SCA) paper, according to both Pulp & Paper Week and Deutsche Bank. Mark Wilde of Deutsche Bank put the December drop at $10 to $20 per ton and said SCA prices could continue declining if demand for lightweight coated (LWC) remains weak. Until recently, analysts were predicting that SCA prices would remain steady or even rise during 2009.
"Newsprint prices are slipping," Wilde wrote, with declining costs and the Canadian dollar making mills more willing to accept lower prices rather than shutting down. The Deutsche Bank analyst agreed with Pulp & Paper Week that newsprint dropped about $10 to $15 per metric ton in December, breaking a string of consecutive monthly price increases that had pushed newsprint prices up more than $200, or about 35%, since the summer of 2007.
FOEX reported a slight drop in U.S. newsprint prices last week, while Forestweb reported that newsprint prices are flat. But Forestweb's North American Publishing Papers Index decreased in December because of declining prices for coated papers.
Prices for LWC and other coated-groundwood products dropped $35 to $70 per ton in December and are "coming under increased pressure, wrote Wilde. "With consumption likely to remain weak and the US$ rising (increasing threat from imports), producers will remain at battle stations through 2009," he added. High customer inventories, decreasing catalog circulation, and a weak advertising market for magazines are all dragging down coated groundwood.
The CEO of Abitibi Bowater (aka AbitibiUnderwater) admitted to the Globe and Mail this week that his biggest fear was a collapse of demand in the first half of next year. Despite the bearish news on pricing, shares of the newsprint giant doubled in price during the week (to 52 cents, down from $20.47 at the beginning of the year). AbitibiBowater stock was boosted by news of an apparent sale of some hydroelectric assets, production cuts by competitors, and the company's statement that the current quarter will be more profitable than the previous quarter. All of that boosted hopes that the company will remain solvent despite having $1 billion in debt payments due during the coming year.
Stocks of such other publicly traded paper companies as Verso, Domtar, and Catalyst were generally flat for the week. Wall Street had already accepted that demand and prices will decline. The big question is whether producers will idle enough capacity to prevent paper markets from collapsing.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Paper war breaks out as White Birch undercuts Abitibi's price discipline
By Andrew Ragsly
White Birch Paper broke ranks with other newsprint manufacturers this month by slashing prices to capture market share amid dwindling demand, industry sources and two buysiders told Debtwire.
Privately held White Birch is the second largest producer of newsprint in North America with 18% of total market share. The company is flouting attempts by industry leader AbitibiBowater to enforce price discipline by lowering its going contract rate. Abitibi wants to protect pricing in the face of persistent order declines from ailing newspaper publishers, said the sources.
Specifically White Birch cut a deal with Gannett Company this month to supply newsprint through 2009 well-below November's industry-average price point of USD 770 per ton, said two of the industry sources and one of the buysiders. While at a lower price point, the deal is rumoured to boost the volumes White Birch will supply to Gannett year-over-year, one of the sources said.
The pricing war is hitting AbitibiBowater at a particularly inopportune moment. The company faces USD 919m of maturities over the next year, including a USD 347m Libor+ 800bps term loan due 30 March. Management needs to impress lenders with a bullish cash flow story if it hopes to refinance those obligations, said the buysiders.
Spokespersons for White Birch, AbitibiBowater and Gannett declined to comment.
Abitibi's USD 347m Libor+ 800bps term loan was bid at 75 today, down from 82 on 2 December, according to Markit. Bowater's USD 250m 9% traded at 27 on 3 December, down from 45 on 19 November, according to TRACE. White Birch's USD 100m Libor+ 480bps second-lien term loan was bid at 15 today, down from 33 on 10 November. The company's USD 475m Libor+ 275bps first-lien term loan was bid at 48.25 today, down from 59.12 on 24 November, according to Markit.
"AbitibiBowater, as the number one market share player [with 41%], was always going to hold onto prices as long as they could," said one of the industry sources. "It's finally starting to show up now that smaller players are breaking ranks, but White Birch and other companies had been making their undercutting moves since back around September."
AbitibiBowater bowed to pressure from White Birch last week when it rescinded a USD 20 per-ton price increase, according to three of the industry sources. The Canadian-US behemoth also announced last week the removal of 830,000 tons of newsprint capacity.
West Coast paper producers Catalyst Paper (7.8% market share) and Norpac (5%), have already been pricing at a discount to the AbitibiBowater-dominated East Coast market for the better part of a year. West Coast newsprint prices tracked near USD 700 per ton in November, said the sources. An official from Norpac declined to comment, and Catalyst Paper did not return calls.
The pricing conflict is also spreading into the coated free sheet paper market as Gannett is rumoured to have negotiated a USD 1,060 per ton contract with NewPage, down from November's USD 1,100 per ton price point, said one of the buysiders. A spokesperson for NewPage would not comment on specific contracts with its customers, but maintained the company is "holding price just fine".
Similar to newsprint, the coated paper sector has been under pressure to take out capacity in order to offset demand declines and boost pricing. Coated free sheet and newsprint consumption were both down roughly 15% year-to-date, according to a sellside analyst.
NewPage's USD 800m 10% second-lien notes due 2012 were bid at 40.5 on 5 December, down from 56.5 on 24 November, according to TRACE
Thursday, December 04, 2008
No Pulp Fiction: Engineers See Major Paper Mill Savings With New Rotor Technology
By Brian Lin with files from Erinrose Handy
A partnership between UBC, government and the pulp and paper industry has resulted in the development of three high efficiency pulp screen rotors that produce high quality paper while reducing almost half the energy required.
“There are currently 300 pulp screens in British Columbia’s 20 pulp and paper mills,” says UBC Mechanical Engineering Assoc. Prof. James Olson. “The industry consumes almost 20 per cent of all the electricity produced in the province and pulp screening is an energy intensive operation in that process.”
Pulp screens work somewhat like the spin cycle in a household washing machine by rotating at high speeds and forcing pulp through narrow openings in the screen. Pulp screens in B.C. alone consume 300 Gigawatt Hours per year at an estimated cost of $16 million -- or enough energy to light up 15,000 homes.
Olson and fellow UBC engineers Carl Ollivier-Gooch and Mark Martinez, along with industrial partners at Montreal-based Advanced Fiber Technologies Inc., took inspiration from aerospace technology and designed a family of uniquely shaped, hydrodynamic rotors that significantly reduce drag and operate at much lower speeds and power, while increasing the capacity and efficiency of the screen.
The technology was patented and licensed to Advanced Fiber Technologies and 100 new rotors were installed in 30 mills across Canada.
“The trial results were beyond everyone’s expectations -- reducing electricity consumption by 52 per cent compared to current state-of-the-art rotors,” says Olson. “If all pulp screens used in B.C. mills were converted to the new rotor technology, an estimated $8 million could be saved each year. Adopted nation-wide, the industry could save $20 million a year.”
While the cost savings would increase the industry’s competitiveness against new paper producers such as China, the reduced energy usage also translates into lower greenhouse emissions. The new technology could also cement Canada’s leadership in pulp equipment manufacturing and further diversify a sector that currently logs $53 billion in sales and $44 billion in exports per year.
As a result of the success in the mill trials, the research team has won BC Hydro’s New Technology of the Year Award (2007), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)’s Synergy Award for Partnership and Innovation (2007), and the British Columbia Innovations Council’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award (2008).
The work has also led to a $2.2 million investment from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and a partnership with 11 industry partners including BC Hydro and most of the paper mills in B.C.
“There’s a gap between electricity supply and demand in B.C. and we need to do more to conserve power,” says Lisa Coltart, BC Hydro’s director of Power Smart. “We’re excited to contribute to research that will provide substantial energy savings while making the province a world leader in the field.”
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Right or wrong, Kimberly mill closed
The Kimberly mill owned by NewPage is shut down. Another pillar of the building that was holding the Fox Valley paper industry has been removed. I hope all options were explored before the shutdown order was given. I hope the shutdown is temporary.
Current information: It's my understanding that the shut-down mill will be kept "alive" at a minimum subsistence level of heat and maintenance crew so things do not fall apart. It seems like an OK approach but could be risky to the valuable equipment that the mill possesses. If the mill is not reopened for business soon, there is one more important "thing" the company will lose, and that is its talented work force. So whatever the long-range plan may be, the owners should start the mill soon and keep the talent-pool from breaking up. It will be difficult to put the teams together soon.
Another major impact of delay will be the loss of Kimberly mill's devoted customers. Once gone, it will be hard and time-consuming to recreate trust and get them back.
Needed evaluations: It is true that if the business is not making money, it will fail. I am sure the mill owners have done an exhaustive job of saving the mill but could not do so because of economic reasons. NewPage must have considered: restarting the mill (most economical option); employee buyout; government intervention to level the import-export playing field and selling to a new buyer, etc.
The restart consideration must have involved cutting costs of raw material, energy and labor; purchase of pulp from Wisconsin paper companies with overcapacity. They must have also fully debated how to save 500 families from devastation.
Most U.S. paper companies are blaming foreign competition, especially from China, as the core cause for our failure. I do not think it makes sense. My calculations, based on per capita consumption and total U.S. production figures, show that there should be a shortage (not a glut) of paper and paperboard in the United States.
Could there be other reasons such as stock analyst's expectations of unusually higher returns on investment? If true, we are at fault.
Closing of Kimberly mill: Shocking for some, OK with others, but devastating for those who lost their jobs. I think if the current trend continues, the U.S. may be in danger of becoming a "consumer-goods hostage." We must decrease dependency for essential goods from foreign countries. To compete, we must modernize our paper mills, increase productivity, and invest in research and development and invent new-efficient processes and value-added products for our markets, worldwide.
If I were a sarcastic person, I would write that what if the mill is closed and 600 people lost their jobs, at least we have PCB-free Fox River (we think we have) at a cost of more than $350 million.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Paper Companies to Cut Thousands of Jobs
A combined 3,300 positions eliminated at UPM, Stora Enso.
By Jason Fell
It appears that UPM Kymmene, the world's largest producer of magazine paper, is following through on its plans for consolidation. The company said it plans to cut 1,600 jobs between 2009 and 2010 as part of a reorganization.
Also as part of the reorganization, UPM is considering the closure of a number of its mills in Finland, the company said in a statement. The changes come as a result of rising costs and a crowded industry.
"UPM's employees have succeeded in increasing the internal efficiency to a new level but unfortunately cost pressures have multiplied," president and CEO Jussi Pesonen said. "The situation is striking particularly in Finland, where wood prices have increased to such a high level that profitable operation of all our units is no longer possible. With today's market outlook and the recent cost development, UPM's paper and pulp production in Finland can not continue in its current form and extent."
If UPM does in fact close the mills, the company says it will book a write-off of about $240 million in fixed assets for the fourth quarter, make a provision for the reduction in the number of employees and for other closure costs of about $42 million.
The reorganization would save UPM nearly $98 million annually and would have a positive impact on EBITDA, the company said.
UPM reported first half revenue was about $7.03 billion, down about 5 percent from $7.43 billion during the first half of 2007. Net profit for the half was $132.27 million, up from a net loss of $291 million during the same period last year.
Job Cuts at Stora Enso
Stora Enso Oyj, another Finland-based paper producer, also announced plans for a reorganization which it said would eliminate 1,700 positions.
As part of the reorganization, Stora Enso said it will close a paper machine in Germany that produces 140,000 tons of coated magazine paper per year.
The company said it plans to invest $190 million to improve efficiency and that estimated annual operating profit would improve by about $200 by the end of 2010 as a result of the reorganization.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Review: Paper Trails
by Mandy Haggith
Mary Wakefield discovers the true cost of paper
It's unusual to come across a book that manages to be both very boring and very interesting at the same time. It happens sometimes with people - old relatives, for instance, and their meticulous recollections of doodlebugs and powdered egg - but only rarely with books.
So Paper Trails, one woman's mission to uncover the evils of the global paper industry, contains an extra unintentional conundrum: is it fascinating or dead.
Is it amazing that an average Brit uses over 440lbs of paper a year? That the world consumes just under a million tons a day, which if it were laid out in A4 sheets would wrap around the equator 1,500 times? That a third of all forms become out of date before they're distributed? Or is it tedious? I'm in two minds.
Perhaps this curious boring/exciting thing is a quality inherent in paper itself. After all, paper can be some of the dullest stuff on earth: the crumpled trouble-makers found inside jammed copiers, graph paper, cash-machine receipts, junk mail.
Or it can be terrifically exciting. Nothing since has ever compared to the teen allure of hunky-dory paper: thick, ridged, purple, yellow, red, ready for writing on in silver pen. Then there's greaseproof paper, that harbinger of deliciousness, and clever little Rizlas, and brown paper packages tied up with string.
And oddly, Mandy Haggith, the author, is herself subject to the same boring/interesting schizophrenia.
She says in chapter one that she once made a big pile of all the paper a person uses in a year, and exhibited it in her local town hall so that her pals could repent of their wasteful ways. How dull is that?
"It made my neighbours gasp," says Mandy. I suspect they were yawning. Then she confesses to a "weakness" for hand-made paper. Hand-made paper is loathsome. No one writes jokes on hand-made paper and sometimes there are flowers pressed into its fibres. Why not spiders? Much better. More appealing to kids.
On the upside, Haggith's journey has the comic nobility of a heartfelt crusade.
Paper Trails documents her paper-chase round the world, following her subject from birth to death: from logging (often illegal) through to pulping, paper-making, paper-wasting, paper-recycling; tree-huggers chasing tree muggers.
And it's not all stats and lectures; there are touching passages whenever Mandy meets up with a handsome barefoot environmentalists and her prose blossoms: "The broadleaf trees were in full autumn colours, vine leaves shouting red up aspen trunks crowned with fluttering gold coinage."
The paper industry also turns out to be full of fabulous baddies, straight from the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel.
In Indonesia, Mandy meets nasty loggers, all smokers and scowlers who employ bouncers trained by US marines to warn our girl detective off. They flout regulations, make off with irreplaceable trees, and plant in their stead the alien acacia which sucks the water from the land and poisons the soil.
In Russia Mandy tackles the aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska, who owns a paper mill on the edge of beautiful lake Baikal. Baikal contains 20 per cent of the world's liquid drinking water (see, that's interesting, isn't it?) but the plant has been accused of polluting it, which is very aggravating for the Nerpa, the world's only earless, fresh-water seals.
Still, on the plus side, Haggith has a very satisfying pop at Vanity Fair. "Their Green Issue was full of puff-pieces on the environmental credentials of American celebrities, yet not even printed on recycled paper".
The paper industry is accused of buying up ancient trees, home to monkeys and moths, and turning them into pulp on pub toilet floors. Isn't the 21st century great?
But then just when you're ready to join Mandy's gang and to ignore all the brain-numbing passages of eco-bore, she'll introduce you to one of her friends: "In an era of increasing competition and growing concern about corporate responsibility," says Ginger Cassidy from ForestEthics, "companies must demonstrate their values and protect their brand by implementing better environmental policies."
Now that's a real waste of paper.
Norske Skog sees newsprint price hikes
By Camilla Knudsen and John Acher
OSLO/HELSINKI (Reuters) - Norwegian papermaker Norske Skog (NSG.OL: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) sees European newsprint prices increasing in 2009 by more than rising costs, giving some margin improvement, the company's chief executive said on Wednesday.
The paper industry has struggled to climb out of a six-year slump, dogged by overcapacity, soft demand and prices and rising costs of raw material and energy which have kept earnings poor. European producers have also suffered from a weak dollar that has put them at a disadvantage to North American rivals.
Newsprint, the paper newspapers are printed on, has been one of the hardest hit segments, partly because of the shift over the last decade to electronic publishing from print media.
Norske Skog sees a tighter balance in the European newsprint market due partly to capacity closures, but also aided by price increases in North America and steep price rises in Asia, Chief Executive Christian Rynning-Toennesen said.
"We believe in price increases in European newsprint next year," Rynning-Toennesen told the Reuters Paper Summit, calling it "highly likely." Newsprint prices are set in annual negotiations with customers, talks that will begin this autumn.
He declined to say by how much he expected prices to rise but said: "There's an unusually strong combination of price increases in the other major markets in the world plus a tightening of the market balance in Europe."
Norske Skog is the world's No. 2 newsprint producer. Other producers agreed that newsprint prices are headed up in Europe.
BIG PRICE HIKES
"We are speaking of a substantial price increase," Swedish papermaker Holmen Chief Executive Magnus Hall told the summit.
Costs are rising, though there has been some easing off in the rise in energy prices and recovered paper prices have flattened out, Rynning-Toennesen said. "I still expect cost pressure throughout the rest of this year," he said.
"In European newsprint, it is likely that we will see price increases bigger than cost increases so that there is some margin improvement," Rynning-Toennesen said.
Magazine paper prices are up and can go further, he said.
Norske Skog has implemented 5 to 7 percent price rises from the second quarter into the third quarter on new contracts, he said. "And we still think there is room to increase prices of magazine paper further from where they are now," he said.
The demand picture in newsprint remains soft in the mature markets of Europe and North America.
"It's already quite obvious that the price increases we see in the United States are because of the (capacity) closures that have been done there because the market for newsprint in the U.S. is declining," he said.
Newsprint demand in Europe is down by 2 percent in the year to date from the same period last year, he said.
"In the U.S. it is obviously continuing down -- it was 8 percent down in the last 8 months in the last 12 months -- whereas we still see very solid growth in Asia outside of Japan, which means particularly high growth in China and India."
"We believe in a slowly downward trend in European newsprint consumption, a steeper decline in U.S. consumption also for the rest of the year, and continued good growth in Asia and South America," he said.
(Reporting by Terje Solsvik, Camilla Knudsen, Sakari Suoninen and John Acher; Editing by David Cowell)
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Death Watch in a Mill Town
High oil prices may be the final blow for a legendary paper plant
By Alex Kingsbury
MILLINOCKET, MAINE-The name Millinocket comes from the Abenaki Indian expression for the "many islands," a fitting description of the region near the geographic center of th e state. It was the thousands of acres of timberland and the rivers, on which logs could be floated, that attracted the paper makers a century ago. But mention Millinocket in New England, and it's never clear if you're speaking about the town itself or its old industrial anchor, the Katahdin paper mill, once the world's largest paper producing facility. In fact, there was a time when most phone books on the East Coast came from the Millinocket mill.
The mill no longer holds that title, but its No. 11 machine still spins out more than a thousand miles of paper a day in rolls wider than a two-lane road, mostly for glossy circulars and magazines (including in the past U.S. News). That's more than enough to paper a highway from Boston to Chicago. It has been a mild summer and a relatively good one for making paper, with orders for the high-quality "supercalendared" stock flowing in. But the mill and the town are facing a hard winter. The abrupt jump in fuel oil prices has made paper production dauntingly expensive, perhaps too expensive to keep the mill going, while the soaring cost of home heating oil has made living here equally challenging for anxious millworkers and other residents.
Sitting in a conference room in the mill's ivy-covered, brick administrative building, located at one end of the town's main street, mill manager Serge Sorokin outlines the problem on a whiteboard. "This is what oil prices means for Millinocket," he says, writing with a red felt marker. "We use about 400,000 barrels of fuel oil per year, and 18 months ago, we bought it at around $40 per barrel." He writes the numbers on the board. "Now, the price per barrel is $110." Sorokin, who studied paper engineering at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, does the arithmetic and underlines the corporate bottom line: The annual cost of making paper went up here by $28 million.
But the bottom line that matters most here is that the mill could close within weeks, unless the company, Maine's governor, and its congressional delegation are able to find funding to help keep No. 11 rolling. Already, paper orders have dropped off because of the possible closing, and there is talk that skittish national retailers dropped plans to occupy some of the vacant space in the town's commercial strip. The company scraped together enough orders to keep the mill running through the end of August.
A sister mill in East Millinocket long ago supplemented its oil boiler with a biomass burner, which uses treetops and boughs as fuel. Normally, those cuttings are left on the ground when the timber is cleared. Not only does the sister mill still churn out phone-book paper, but it also produces more power from the biomass boiler than it can use, pumping some of the energy back into the power grid. For years, there's been talk of similarly adapting the Katahdin mill, but installation and retrofitting the existing equipment would cost millions of dollars and take time. "Biomass is an attractive option, but it's hard to see how we can get there from here," says Bill Manzer, a senior vice president at the Toronto-based Fraser Paper, which operates both facilities.
Social costs. Michael Michaud's first job in 1973 was driving a truck for the East Millinocket Mill. His father worked there for 40 years, his grandfather for 45. Now a Democratic congressman for Maine's Second District, he is working to find emergency funding to help keep the Katahdin mill open, to provide home heating oil assistance to low-income residents, and to help with the often overlooked social costs that come with layoffs. "When these things happen, there's an increase in alcohol and drug use, domestic violence, a loss of retirement savings, and higher healthcare costs that often get overlooked by people in Washington who may see more drilling for domestic oil as the catch-all solution," he says. Since he left the mill to run for Congress in 2002 (after serving part time in the state Legislature), he's still on the books as an employee on unpaid leave. "You want to be optimistic and give people hope," he says, "but it can't be false hope either."
Budgets are tight in Augusta, the state capital, and in Washington. While the congressional delegation will probably get the low-income assistance, it's unlikely it will be able to do much to rescue the mill. Besides, some argue that it's not the government's responsibility to bail out companies that, when prices were low, didn't modernize their machinery and diversify their energy sources. In the meantime, paper production shifted from American timberland to Asia.
Sadly, as goes the mill, so goes Millinocket, a company town built almost entirely by the Great Northern Paper Co. at the turn of the 20th century. Historically, it was hard to separate the two. At one point, for instance, a man named George W. Stearns was at once Great Northern's land agent, head of the town selectmen, the county judge, and the superintendent of schools. The town named the high school after him when it was completed in 1923, which was fitting because the mill donated a quarter of the construction costs.
For the better part of a century, Great Northern owned most of the land in northern Maine, much of which is still unincorporated. That kept out other employers, an unwritten company policy that held down labor costs but is now coming back to haunt the town. Even after decades of downsizing, the Katahdin mill, where employment has fallen from about 4,500 in the mid-1980s to around 200 today, is the second-largest employer, behind the regional hospital. Tourism now provides some jobs because the Appalachian Trail terminates atop Mount Katahdin, just a few miles outside town. In the winter, snowmobiling brings in the tourists, though high gas prices are likely to cut their numbers.
Like the mill, the town is showing its age. Under union rules, those with the least seniority (generally the youngest employees) were the first to lose their jobs. And many didn't hang around, instead taking their families to the coast or the southern part of the state, where the jobs picture was better. In 1990, the average age in town was 37. Now, officials say, it's around 50. The old George W. Stearns High School, meanwhile, long ago was converted into an assisted living facility.
"Future is bleak." Sitting in the cafe on Penobscot Avenue, a retired, second-generation millworker looks dubiously at his salad, poking it with a fork, and gripes. "Millinocket is turning into a retirement community," he says, glancing over at a group of young hikers scarfing down hamburgers before tackling the mountain. Then he whispers, "Don't you quote me sayin' it, though. This is a small town, and we stick together." Across town, the owners of Kim's Market on Medway Road shuttered their doors in July after a decade of serving sandwiches and beer to locals, but they don't want to say much either. In his downtown office, town manager Eugene Conlogue is less reticent. "The future is bleak for a community that only ages," he says.
Property values, for instance, have fallen as the mill's workforce has shrunk. Today, out-of-state residents own some of the town's Victorian-style homes and use them as vacation cabins. They often don't cut the grass or clean the clutter, and they don't send their kids to the local schools. For residents, this will be a particularly hard winter. A typical home along Penobscot Avenue burns about 800 gallons of fuel oil during a heating season. At current prices, that will come to $3,200 this winter, up from $1,700 a year ago. While that alone is a mighty hit to the family pocketbook, factor in high gasoline and food prices, and the impact can be devastating.
For the town, shuttering the mill would be catastrophic. The closure would cost the town some $2.5 million in taxes from the company that the community sorely needs, not to mention the scores of families who may leave town. Congressman Michaud remembers earlier hard times, soon after he first began working at the mill during the energy crisis in 1979. The mills were in danger then, too, because of rising oil prices, but managed to survive. As a result of that energy crisis, the East Millinocket mill put in the biomass boiler. If anything is to be saved from the Great Northern project, it will take the same Yankee ingenuity that a century ago harnessed waterways of the land of many islands to feed the paper mills.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
The New Hampshire working forest is in crisis
By TOM THOMSON
I HAVE OWNED forestland since 1956. When I was 11, my father encouraged me and my two older brothers to purchase a woodlot in our home town of Orford. We did, and we still own it and manage it as a sustainable forest today. Since then, my wife, Sheila, and I have purchased 2,800 acres of forestland. We have a couple of logging operations going on nearly every year.
As one who has been active within the forest community, I believe there is a crisis in New Hampshire's working forest. When I talk about the working forest community, I am thinking about the forest landowners, tree farmers, maple producers, loggers, truckers, foresters, chip and saw mills, wood-to-energy plants and all the employees, as well as all those businesses that support our forest industry, such as the equipment manufacturers, sales and part suppliers, banks and fuel suppliers.
The state Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) shows annual revenue of $1.2 billion just in the forest products industry. This number more than doubles when you factor in the dollar impact our forests have on recreation, hunting and fishing, tourism and other positive benefits to our state. This is one of the many reasons New Hampshire was just ranked as the most livable state in America.
Let's review some facts: In 2006-07 the Fraser pulp mill in Berlin closed forever. Three months ago, the Wausau paper mill in Groveton closed, and a few weeks ago cutbacks were announced at the Fraser paper mill in Gorham. Hundreds of mill workers lost their jobs. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. The men and women working in the forest, supplying the nearly 1.3 million tons of wood fiber to these mills, have also taken a hit. Some try to hang on; others are gone. With fewer loggers working, there are fewer logs available, which has put an additional strain on our saw mills, and if that isn't enough, the so-called environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service and have all but stopped logging in the White Mountain National Forest, which many of our mills count on.
We have lost important low-grade markets and now we are losing our infrastructure. What's happening is not unlike what happened to the New Hampshire shoe industry decades ago, except the collapse of our forest industry and its connection to the many forest benefits would have a much greater impact on our state's economy.
Everyone in the forest food chain is being squeezed to the point of no return. As a forest landowner, I checked my stumpage values of more than 25 years ago and found that I received almost twice as much for hardwood pulp at that time than I do today. Loggers and truckers, mills and anyone else using diesel fuel at $4.25 per gallon (and climbing almost daily) are being crushed by these huge fuel bills, along with higher insurance, labor and equipment costs, with likely no chance of passing on these costs. This, along with ever-increasing state rules and regulations and added or higher fees, is having a crushing impact on our business and owning forestland.
Many who have been in this business all their lives say they have never seen things this bad. Others say in the past you could just work longer hours and seven days a week to make ends meet; but that won't work this time around.
We know the wood fiber is there. Forest landowners are unwilling to give their wood away; all we need is to have markets that pay everyone in the forest food chain their fair share, and you will see plenty of wood available.
We all have been hit hard by the energy crisis, but this crisis brings great opportunities for our state and the forest community by using low-grade forest products (our natural renewable resource) in a sustainable manner to produce a significant percentage of our energy needs here in New Hampshire, provide thousands of jobs and keep our energy dollars here at home. I call on Gov. John Lynch and all other elected or appointed state officials to become fully engaged in this important issue. We have reached a crisis in New Hampshire's working forest. We need to act now or our timber industry -- New Hampshire's oldest, largest continuous industry -- will be gone.
Tom Thomson operates the Thomson Family Tree Farm in Orford.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
As AbitibiBowater, North America's Largest Newsprint Producer, Fights To Avoid Becoming Another Bear Stearns, Norway's Norske Skog Announces More Cutbacks, US Newspaper Groups Brag At Huge Newsprint Usage Declines, And China Ramps up Newsprint Production and Exports
BY Philip M. Stone
The merger of Abitibi and Bowater last October was supposed to form North America's largest newsprint producer that could, with the cost savings a merger between two such giants should produce, finally get the upper hand on production and pricing. Instead its shares are down nearly 70% so far this year, off 15% alone on Monday because the markets don't think its recently announced $1.4 billion refinancing plan will fly.
Meanwhile North American newspaper groups are boasting to their shareholders about the cost savings they are making by using less newsprint.Gannett, the largest US newspaper publisher, reported newsprint expense declined 25.3% in Q4, 2007, due to usage prices that were 8% down, and almost 19 percent lower volume. At the New York Times Company newsprint expense for Q4 declined 30.3% with 16% coming from lower consumption and 14.3% from lower prices. Newsprint costs are thought to consume around 20% of a newspaper's costs.
Those savings did not come by accident. Newspapers have been very busy in the past few years cutting the width of newsprint from 15 inches down to 12 (38cm down to 31cms), converting to lighter weight paper, confining to the web financial tables that used to consume three or four pages daily, reducing the news hole, cutting back on distribution areas, dropping most bulks sales, not to mention the classified advertising debacle that has seen many metropolitan newspapers that used to run two or more sections daily of classifieds now down to just running a few pages. Add all of that up and no wonder newsprint consumption is down by double-digit percentage numbers.
AbitibiBowater has been busy since its October merger shutting down mills and reducing the workforce -- in February it sold a newsprint mill in Arizona and it's selling timberlands in the US and Canada as it attempts to pay off debt. In its first quarter as a merged company it reported a $250 million loss, with analysts basically saying all of its attempts to cut costs still have not caught up to the 12% decline in December newsprint usage over the year before.
And on the other side of the Atlantic, Norske Skog, Europe's largest newsprint producer and second globally to AbitibiBowater, says it has been hit by rising energy costs and lower newsprint demand. It announced last week it was cutting capacity by 7% -- shut 450,000 tonnes of newsprint production at three mills in Norway, the Czech Republic and South Korea -- as the company works on reducing its $3 billion (€2 billion) debt mountain. Its shares have sunk some 80% in the past year and are now selling at 20% of book value. It has quit paying dividends.
And the outlook for newsprint consumption in Western Europe, like in North America is not looking good. Europe is the leader in the free newspaper industry and one might have thought all of those free newspapers would have pushed up European consumption, but those free newspapers are only responsible for about a 5% uplift, according to the Pulp and Paper Products Council. One reason for that is that while there may be a lot of free newspapers, they are printed in mostly small A5 size (230cm x 320 cm - 9 inches x 12.5 inches). And making matters somewhat worse there is a "survival of the fittest" war going on with the weak free newspapers dropping by the wayside.
"Newsprint demand in Western Europe has held up due to growing consumption by free newspapers,"according to Emanuele Bona, European Vice President for the Pulp and Paper Products Council, but he sees storm warnings ahead. "The other key drivers of demand have been falling -- circulations of paid-for titles, pagination, and advertising spending on newspapers have all been weakening."
In his view Europe won't see any consumption increase this year, but he doesn't expect to see the decline that North America has been experiencing although there are storm warnings out there. "Now that the contribution of free newspapers to newsprint demand seems to be waning, as most markets become saturated, we don't expect to see any overall growth in consumption in Western Europe," Bona explained. But he warned, "The weakening economic environment will have a further negative influence on the circulation, pagination and ad pages.
"However, we don't expect Western Europe to show the sharp decline in newsprint demand that we have seen in North America (demand fell over 10% last year, and 33% or 4.3 million tonnes since 2000), but we can certainly anticipate the beginning of a structural decline on this side of the Atlantic as well," he said.
AbitibiBowater is trying to dig itself out its hole not just by reducing production but also by raising newsprint prices - a $60 a ton increase for Q1 seems to be holding bringing prices to around $620 a tonne and the company has announced a similar increase to be phased in during Q2. On the other hand, US newspaper newsprint consumption is expected to decline within a 9%-12% range this year.
The declining dollar is giving AbitibiBowater export opportunities - looking mostly to South American markets but also to India and Europe where prices are higher -- just what Norske Skog needs! "We intend to increase our newsprint export shipments in 2008 by nearly 10%," according to AbitibiBowater Chief Executive David Paterson.
Not to be discounted in all of this is China's announcement that its newsprint production - using new energy-efficient mills plus recycled raw materials - has risen 5.7% so far this year to 689,000 tons. There had been thoughts that China would find it worthwhile exporting to the US West Coast giving North American producers price competition they would not welcome, but the declining dollar probably has probably put an end to that and so the Chinese are looking more and more at India. The bulk of India's newsprint imports now come from North America.
It seems that few weeks go by without the announcement of another Indian newspaper launch. Domestic Indian newsprint consumption is currently thought to be around 2 million tonnes, but that is expected to grow in a year by about 20% as plans are announced for new publications as well as increasing pagination and the number of editions of current newspapers. Currently about half of the demand is met domestically - but not preferred for color printing on quality issues -- and in a country known for high import taxes, newsprint gets away with just a 5% duty.
Increased demand has led to higher prices and a spokesperson for one Indian publication said that whereas in Q4, 2007 the price was around $675 a tonne it is now running around $750 - $760 a tonne. Those types of prices make it profitable, for North Americans to export. According to Resource Information Systems, US East coast prices, ready for shipment, have risen from $608 a tonne to $710, and is expected to rise to $770 by Q3. The thought in India is that before this year is out prices will reach around $850. No wonder that is the world's newsprint export market of choice!
In India the higher prices are a bigger problem than elsewhere because wages are relatively low, so newsprint is responsible for up to half of a newspaper's costs, even more perhaps for smaller newspapers. The big guys will survive, but will the smaller newspapers?
Globally, according to RSI, demand at the beginning of 2007 was around 38.3 million tonnes, and the supply was some 2.2 million tonnes in surplus. That's why the paper companies have been busy shutting down mills and by now most of that spare capacity is gone - thus the climate for price increases.
The question now is whether AbitibiBowater, having done what is necessary to stay in business, now will have the finances to stick around and reap the rewards.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Weathering a Stormy Paper Market Forecast
By Alex Brown
What's behind the market's drastic changes, what to expect next, and how you can deal with higher prices and tight supply.
There's no sugarcoating it:
The paper market is bleak for buyers. The problems lie in both price and availability, and the forecast for 2008 has almost no bright spots. So, several questions have emerged: How did we get here? What can you do to cope with this new reality? What trends may affect paper purchasing this year and beyond?
First, it's easy to be puzzled by how the paper market changed so abruptly and intensely. Paper buyers have seen the dark clouds massing over the mills for years, but little has come of it. Why is it actually raining now?
In the last five years, we've seen several mill closures. Tembec and UPM closed mills, and other mills shut down individual machines. The net effect was a drop of at least 20 percent of North American coated-paper capacity. As the first of these closures occurred, paper availability might have tightened a bit, but there always seemed to be another ready source of supply.
Now the industry has finally carried its capacity reduction to a point that supply is constrained both here and in Europe. It moved in what looked like baby steps, but, in the end, a real distance was crossed. Depending on the specific stock, demand is now very close to or in excess of supply.
Let us consider the paper industry's perspective for a moment. If you've watched the market through several cycles, you've probably noticed that the mills seem to have forgotten a little section of "Economics 101"-namely, commodities prices can rise when demand exceeds supply. So why, you might have wondered, didn't mills limit capacity sooner?
We'll leave out some of the variables, but there are two key reasons why shutting down machines hasn't been a shortcut to profitability. First, the enormous capital costs of papermaking mean mills become profitable only when capacity utilization is extremely high. Roughly speaking, a mill might start turning a profit when it's producing about 95 percent or more of all the paper it could possibly make. Notice the limited upside, as well as the long, brutal road to profitability. The gap between losing money and making money is very, very narrow.
The second reason mills tend not to adjust capacity tightly to demand is that there are two levels of competition for the U.S.-paper dollar. Domestic mills battle each other, and then they balance foreign paper sources with all the extra complications of currency exchange.
For the last several decades, whenever demand edged sharply above U.S. capacity, European and Canadian mills were a handy safety valve. Asian and South American sources have also entered the mix. For much of this time, the dollar's currency strength has made exporters keen to court the large market in this country.
However, we've all but lost this safety valve against supply/demand tension now that the exchange rate with both the euro and the Canadian dollar is so poor. A Finnish mill would very much prefer to sell paper to Germans, in euros, than to Americans.
Then again, what exactly is a "Finnish mill" these days? The paper industry is consolidating into international entities. But that doesn't provide any relief under our current conditions. In fact, the consolidation is not merely a compression of sources, but a new style of ownership.
Five paper companies-NewPage (which has acquired Stora Enso North America), Verso, Catalyst, Pine Bluff and West Linn-are now owned by private-equity concerns. Add up the volume these mills represent, and you'll find that private equity controls 62 percent of the coated groundwood market in North America, and 57 percent of the coated freesheet.
These companies play by new management rules. They want return on investment, they want it promptly, and, presumably, they want to sell the underlying assets as soon as they're sufficiently buffed up to make the sale worthwhile.
To some degree, even paper buyers could benefit from the new management style. Perhaps an industry that's struggled for so long to scratch toward decent margins can and should be shaken up. But it's fair to say that the new trends in management, which may spill over to other, publicly traded mills, are not designed to ease the buyer's sufferings. If a price increase can be supported, a price increase will be made.
So that's how we got here: reduced supply, the falling dollar and private-equity ownership. These conditions justified price increases, and mills have shown the fortitude to demand them.
Are the mills happy yet? Not really. Despite the 2007 round of price hikes, increases in the direct costs of papermaking have munched up much of the revenue. Fuel oil, which affects both papermaking and shipping, is the main villain, but raw materials' prices have also been increasing. In short, if the market can support further price increases, they're on the way. Look for bumps in April and, perhaps, July.
What's the Buyer To Do?
The paper buyer is left without many tactics. In broad terms, the only force that can mitigate the current paper price increases is a drop in demand still greater than the so-so to negative growth we've been seeing in the magazine and catalog markets. So, this is good news/bad news time: If your pages and counts drop still more, maybe the mills will ease off, but then your pages and counts will have dropped. If you're growing or holding your own, it may be difficult to get paper, but you'll be growing. If a lot of us are growing, prices are going to keep rising.
Let's break out the emergency flotation devices, then. To fight the impact of price increases, you can reduce basis weight, trim size, paper grade or, of course, pages and copies.
Cutting basis weight will work just fine, provided your new weight is available. Because we're struggling with both price increases and supply shortages, check the practicality of your new spec before announcing to the publisher that changing from 38 pound to 35 pound saves 8 percent. Be sure that the mill makes the weight you want, as plenty of them have basis-weight preferences.
A trim-size cut means the art staff and ad-traffic team must update templates and revise the specs in media kits. There's some work and cost to be considered right there, and it's only worth spending if you have your printer's cooperation. Switching to short cutoff presses, for example, only works if there is capacity. Publications that use a wide, 9-inch luxury format can make the change by ordering a new roll width, but if that distinctive trim size is key to audience and advertiser appeal, consider this carefully.
Changing paper grade can save a great deal, as long as it doesn't require throwing the baby out with the bath water by harming your publication's stature. If you're already on a #5 grade, the next train leaving the station is supercalendared stock. This paper performs quite differently, and you'll need your printer's commitment to make it work. Brace yourself for an increase in ink costs, as the more porous surface absorbs more. Finally, any grade change may cause you supply problems when adjusting your allocation.
Despite the caveats, all three of these adjustments can be smart techniques for controlling costs today. Make sure they suit your product and your audience, and get your printer and paper supplier to help carry them to fruition.
The other key concern is guarding your ongoing paper supply. It's safe to say that mills have taken on a go-ahead-make-my-day demeanor-if you fight too hard for better prices and terms, the mill doesn't mind an excuse to cut your allocation. Tread cautiously.
As business practices become increasingly hard-nosed, it's almost quaint to imagine that business relationships still matter. Private-equity owners are ready to be just as cutthroat as you are, so good, old relationships don't count for as much as they used to. But with the magnitude of supply cuts now and in the immediate future, a good connection with a mill or broker is one of the few shelters in this storm. You might even want to pick up the tab for lunch.
The dollar is almost certainly going to continue its swoon, so don't look for much help from Europe. Asia, however, appears to be another matter. The currency problem is just as nasty against the yuan, but China and Indonesia have shown a strong interest in cracking our mighty market.
Will shipping Chinese paper across an ocean and half a continent fix things? Not so fast. The price of pulp is higher in Asia, where fiber sources include imported pulp. Asian mills began introducing their wares at startlingly low prices, but have steadily edged upward and no longer look like a bargain. The currency exchange problem and the threat of a future tariff all suggest that Asian papers will not radically alter our paper landscape.
Our ace in the hole, it's sad to say, is a continued drop in demand that forces mills to choose between cutting still more capacity and selling at prices more favorable to buyers. Needless to say, a drop in demand comes along with lots of other depressing baggage, including the sight of publishers falling by the wayside. But those who remain strong may be able to reap benefits. In other words, the publishing market may experience its own shakeout, courtesy of rising paper prices-and let's not forget the hike in distribution costs that completes the one-two punch.
The major question is not how much mills may raise prices, but how gradually. If private-equity thinking leads the way, we may see a steep curve upward, sharp enough to kick some buyers out of the market, or constrain growth. The resulting drop in demand could kick right back at the mills. If mills take it slowly, they might end up with both profits and customers.
Prepare for more increases this year, inventory your specifications to see if you can change what you buy, and pay attention to your supplier relationships to keep the paper flowing. These are challenging times, but smart paper buyers will survive them.
Alex Brown is a consultant to magazine publishers specializing in manufacturing and magazine management. She founded her consulting company, Printmark, in 1984, and is a frequent speaker at industry events.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
NewPage Announces Integration Restructuring Plans
MIAMISBURG, Ohio, Jan. 16 /PRNewswire/ -- NewPage Corporation announced today key steps being taken to integrate NewPage and the former Stora Enso North America (SENA) facilities and services.
The specific restructuring actions are as follows:
Permanently close the No. 11 paper machine in Rumford, Maine, which produces coated freesheet and groundwood papers for magazines and catalogs, by the end of February 2008. Approximately 60 employees will be affected by the shutdown.
Permanently close the pulp mill and two paper machines, Nos. 43 and 44, in Niagara, Wisconsin, by the end of April 2008. The Niagara machines produce 230,000 tons of lightweight coated groundwood papers used in magazines and catalogs. Approximately 319 employees will be affected by the shutdown.
Permanently close the No. 95 paper machine in Kimberly, Wisconsin, by the end of May 2008. The Kimberly mill produces coated freesheet papers for publication printing, and specialty papers for pressure- sensitive or glue-applied labels. Approximately 125 employees will be affected.
Permanently close the Chillicothe, Ohio, converting facility by the end of November 2008 after some of the converting machines and volume are transferred to existing facilities in Luke, Maryland, and Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Approximately 160 employees will be affected.
Products produced on the closed machines will be transitioned to more efficient paper machines within the company's integrated mill system. "In addition to the changes to these operations and their employees, we are also informing personnel in all areas of the company such as sales, finance and other support functions of the longer term plans for their departments," added Suwyn. NewPage is taking appropriate actions to assist the affected employees with new opportunities or benefits packages.
"These actions come from an extensive integration plan developed by a group of nearly 50 people from both companies and represent all the significant actions we expect to take to combine the two operations. We do not anticipate any further steps related to the integration," said Willett. "Right now the market is strong and we do not anticipate taking any market- related downtime which would be separate from these actions."
"NewPage is combining its business with SENA with the vision of becoming the best printing paper company in North America," said Mark A. Suwyn, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of NewPage. "These restructuring decisions will create the platform essential to become one company, remain competitive in the marketplace, serve our customers more efficiently and reach $265 million of synergies we have committed to achieve. Despite the permanent closures being announced today, we are merging the operations in a manner that will actually increase our 2008 North American production by 3-8% compared to the combined production in 2007."
"At NewPage, we remain committed to our customers and we will continue to offer a broad portfolio of printing papers such as coated freesheet, lightweight coated groundwood, supercalendered paper and specialty products to meet a wide variety of needs," said Rick Willett, president and chief operating officer. "We believe our customers will benefit from our closing slower, lower volume, less strategic machines and moving affected grades to machines that can manufacture them most efficiently, yielding a higher quality, more consistent product. Closing one of our converting facilities and transitioning sheeting operations will result in better geographical distribution, more capacity for sheets, faster turnaround and delivery times for custom sizes, and a wider range of sheet sizes."