South American MDF suppliers overtake the US import market

Chile has recently become the world’s largest foreign MDF supplier to the US

Record-shattering shipments from South America are setting the pace for US medium density fiberboard imports to hit a four-year high in 2022.

Imports from offshore destinations worldwide climbed to 1.57 million cubic meters through August, up 22% from the year-ago volume and on pace to hit the highest annual total since 2017.

For the first time on record, Chile has overtaken Canada as the world’s largest foreign MDF supplier to the US Chilean exports to the US are on pace to post a 10th straight annual hike in 2022.

South America soars

Imports from Chile soared to 497,241 cubic meters, up 33% from last year’s record pace through eight months. At the current pace, Chilean shipments to the US this year will double the 2015 volume.

Hikes in imports from Brazil are even more dramatic. Shipments from that country surged to 249,449 cubic meters through August, more than double the year-ago pace and already overwhelming the record full-year volume of 170,415 cubic meters established in 2021.

South America’s share of the US MDF market has soared in recent years. That region accounted for half of the total US imports from overseas suppliers this year, up from 42% in 2021. South America’s share of the market was 16% in 2017.

Sharp contrast with Europe

European MDF exports, which dominated the US import market as recently as 2017, have faded sharply in recent years. Shipments from the European Union soared to 1.53 million cubic meters in 2017, which represented 81% of total US imports from offshore that year.

Germany was the primary European supplier, shipping 1.22 million cubic meters and contributing heavily to the recent peak in total US imports in 2017. In 2014, Germany and China combined to ship 87% of the record 4.0 million cubic meters the US imported that year from overseas suppliers.

Imports from Europe fell to 326,463 cubic meters through August this year, down 16% from the year-ago pace. Shipments last year declined by nearly two-thirds compared to the 2017 peak.

Deliveries from China jumped 51% through August, rising to 228,721 cubic meters. Less than a decade ago, China was among the world’s largest MDF suppliers to the US. But after peaking at a record 2.4 million cubic meters in 2015, volumes declined sharply over the next five years, falling to 172,276 in 2020 before rebounding modestly in 2021.

The vast majority of US MDF imports are 9 mm panels, commonly used in the furniture industry and a variety of other industrial applications.

Historically strong returns in the US market for thinner MDF have contributed to the surge in offshore imports.

The reported price for 3/8-inch MDF in the West has averaged a record-shattering $746 through early October 2022, overtaking last year’s record average of $576 by a wide margin. The average reported price in the East soared to $726, surpassing last year’s record of $551.

Unlike other facets in the wood products industry, US foreign trade of MDF does not appear to have been heavily influenced by the height of the pandemic in 2019 and 2020.

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