North American softwood lumber exports to China rebounded in second quarter of this year

Prior to this year, Chinese imports had fallen steadily for more than a decade but now the market appears to be shifting

Chinese softwood lumber imports gained momentum in the second quarter after reversing a steep years-long decline earlier in 2023. China’s shipments from foreign suppliers climbed to 5.05 million cubic meters in the second quarter, up 20% from the same three months in 2022 and the highest total since the third quarter of 2021 (see chart).

Imports through the first half reached 9.47 million cubic meters, up 15% from the 2022 pace. Prior to this year, Chinese imports had fallen steadily for more than a decade. Shipments fell 10% in 2022 and plunged 23% in 2021 compared to 2020, according to statistics from Trade Data Monitor.

Europe and Russia were the primary drivers pushing Chinese imports up 9% in the first quarter, while North American suppliers continued to lose market share. However, shipments from the US and Canada rebounded in the second quarter after fading sharply from January through March and posted modest first-half gains as a result.

Chin continues to be main target for Russian lumber exports

Imports from Russia reached 5.90 million cubic meters in the first half, up 6% from the year-ago pace. China remains a primary target for Russian exports because many other countries have imposed trade sanctions on Russian products in response to the Ukraine War. China is traditionally Russia’s largest foreign market for softwood lumber and has not imposed war-related trade sanctions.

European exports to China jumped 42% through the first half compared to a year ago, reaching 2.14 million cubic meters. China and the US are the primary destinations amid Europe’s rapid expansion in overseas shipments this year.

Russia and Europe combined accounted for 85% of total Chinese imports through the first half, unchanged from the market share through the first six months of 2022.

Canadian exports reached 732,345 cubic meters in the first half, up 3% from the year-ago pace. Canadian shipments were heavy to Western spruce pine fir. Chinese imports from the US increased 33% to 80,795 cubic meters. North America’s share of the Chinese import market slipped from 9% to 8.5% through the first half of last year.

Radiata Pine imports also posted steep percentage increases. Shipments from New Zealand more than doubled, reaching 104,979 cubic meters. Deliveries from Chile surged 45% to 218,045 cubic meters.

Chinese recovery fulfills predictions

The first-half recovery in total Chinese imports supported predictions from many analysts that demand would strengthen later in 2023 as the country’s ailing real estate sector regained its stride.

However, anecdotal evidence in recent weeks suggests the recovery in China’s real estate sector has hit headwinds after briefly regaining momentum.

Government measures to bolster real estate development and investment have not been as effective as many analysts had previously hoped, some traders noted.

Many traders have described a slower pace in recent months, creating doubt that the upward trend in Chinese imports is sustainable through the end of 2023. Further, traders note that, despite the second-quarter gains, US and Canadian suppliers still face an uphill battle to maintain market share amid competition from Russia and Europe.

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