Monday, December 29, 2008

Prices dropping for all grades of paper

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

Paper war breaks out as White Birch undercuts Abitibi's price discipline
By Andrew Ragsly,dwp_uuid=e8477cc4-c820-11db-b0dc-000b5df10621.html

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

Engineers See Major Paper Mill Savings With New Rotor Technology

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.”