How European exports have become the lumber success story of 2023 so far

We look at this year’s European lumber export rise within the US, which caused notable shifts in the global market

Our key findings

  • European shipments to the US hit 292 million board feet (mmbf) in January this year, by far the highest single-month total on record.
  • US imports from Canada declined to 2.808 billion board feet (bbf). This decline created space for European exports to prosper.
  • The sustained influx of European lumber led to decline of Southern Yellow Pine domestic prices, in all three producing zones.
  • Europe’s share of the total Chinese import market has increased this year to 26%, compared to 20% through April a year ago.

A record pace in European softwood lumber exports to the US through April spearheaded a worldwide expansion in overseas shipments from the continent that may be unprecedented.

US imports from the European Union soared to 772 million board feet through the first four months of 2023, according to statistics from the US Foreign Agricultural Service. That’s up 28% from last year’s pace, when shipments for the full year climbed to a record 2.03 billion board feet, surpassing the previous high set in 2005.

The record pace, however, is somewhat skewed. The chart shows that European shipments to the US hit 292 mmbf in January, by far the highest single-month total on record. The pace cooled in February and April shipments lagged the last two years.

European lumber exports filled the void left by Canada

We can conclude that this development is partly down to the reduction of lumber available to the US market through the first quarter of 2023, as it edged lower from the same period of 2022. This was driven by a decline in Canadian shipments.

US imports from Canada declined to 2.808 bbf compared to the like period a year ago. That level is the lowest since 2014.

This decline created space for European exports to prosper. Non-Canadian imports to the US surged 26.1% to 753 million board feet (mmbf), led by shipments from Germany and Sweden.

Despite an 8.9% decline in western US production, total US output ticked up 0.1% from the like period of 2022. This was due to a 2.7% increase in Southern Pine (SYP) production from the first quarter of last year. Southern Pine production is up 8.4% through the first quarter from the same period in 2022.

The influx has impacted US Southern Pine prices

The sustained influx of European lumber has inevitably had an impact on domestic prices. The unusually abundant availability of European Spruce and Canadian Western S-P-F contributed heavily to a triple-digit plunge in reported prices of Southern Pine #2 2×4 this year.

Random loads of SYP #2 2×4 peaked in April at averages ranging from $543 on the eastside, $514 on the westside, and $498 in the central zone. Averages in all three producing zones have plummeted $105 to $114 through mid-June.

1-inch boards and narrower widths of 2-inch dimension account for much of the volume the US imports from Europe. Southern Pine dimension lumber traders have frequently noted heavy build-ups of European Spruce at ports along the East Coast and in Houston.

European mills have shipped Spruce to the US for decades and, historically, the volumes are too minimal compared to US production to alter price trends significantly. However, some veteran SYP traders have noted they cannot remember the last time European Spruce figured so prominently in the supply-demand equation across the South.

European lumber exports expand into east Asia

This year’s surge in European exports is not limited to the US. China appears just as remarkable as the trends in the US Statistics from Trade Data Monitor show European mills shipped 1.57 million cubic meters, or 665 mmbf, to China through April.

That volume represents a 44% jump compared to shipments through the first four months of 2022. Further, Europe’s share of the total Chinese import market has increased this year to 26% compared to 20% through April a year ago.

Europe’s expansion in the Chinese market has come amid fierce competition from Russia, North America, and other suppliers around the globe. Russia in particular has targeted China as a critical destination for its softwood lumber imports ever since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

An ailing construction sector and other economic headwinds in China have weighed on overall demand in that country for imported lumber. Some observers note that those trends make the growth in European shipments to China even more remarkable.

Data from Global Trade Atlas shows that some larger European exporting nations sharply increased shipments in the first quarter to other common Pacific Rim destinations such at Taiwan and India. Other European exporters have expanded deliveries into parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

European economic headwinds drove global expansion

Some veteran traders based in Europe have noted they cannot remember the region expanding its exports to overseas destinations to the degree evident so far in 2023. Tepid demand within the European Union is likely a contributing factor.

Global Trade Atlas data through March indicates most of Europe’s largest producers have reduced exports within Europe sharply in 2023 compared to 2022. Difficult economic conditions in many European countries have undermined demand. As a result, producers have leaned more heavily on overseas markets to compensate for weak domestic sales.

Germany was the primary driver with shipments to the US soaring to 348 mmbf, up 55% from the 2022 first-quarter pace. Imports from Romania surged 83%, shipments from Finland more than doubled, reaching nearly 20 mmbf.

The historic European lumber export run appears to be ending

European supply finally seems to be pulling back after a historic run, however. Shipments of European spruce lumber to the US market are finally weakening, contributing to tightening of the broader lumber market.

Anecdotal data suggests truckload deliveries from ports to inland distributors and end-users is slowing notably, indicating the accumulation of inventory in places like Port Canaveral and Houston is starting to normalize. The trade data also shows that flows into ports have come off dramatically from January 2023’s peak.

The inertia of shifting production runs from dimensions specified for the North American market is obviously very real, as we have observed over the last 12 months, resulting in a major overshoot of European supply, but it seems that European production is finally pivoting away from the US.

Europe’s industrial economy remains weak, but that should change in the coming quarters. The reconstruction effort in Ukraine – which current estimates put at being in the hundreds of billions of dollars – should also stimulate European wood demand in construction.

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