US struggles with foreign trade of hardwood lumber in 2023

US foreign trade of hardwood lumber has declined sharply in 2023. Exporters have struggled to compete on price against alternative species in most offshore markets this year. Meanwhile, fading demand in the US has impeded imports, traders say.

Hardwood lumber exports to offshore destinations fell to 1.56 million cubic meters through August, down 21% from the first eight months of 2022. At the current pace, exports will decline to the lowest volume since 2011, according to statistics from the US Foreign Agricultural Service.

Volatility appears to be the hardwood import trend in recent years

Imports plunged 32% through August to 241,436 cubic meters. The steep decline so far in 2023 maintains a roller coaster of trends evident in recent years. Shipments jumped 29% in 2018 compared to the previous year, then plummeted during the pandemic years, falling to a multi-year low in 2021 before rebounding strongly last year.

Exports to China, by far the largest overseas market for US hardwoods, slipped to 696,063 cubic meters through August, trailing the year-ago eight-month volume by 10%. Shipments to China are on pace to decline for a third consecutive year after peaking in 2020 at 1.25 million cubic meters.

Sales to other Pacific Rim destinations fell at a steeper rate compared to the decline in China. Shipments to Vietnam decreased 23% to 224,743 cubic meters. Exports to smaller markets in the region such as Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, and Malaysia plunged between 44% and 54%.

The downward trend was equally evident in Europe. Exports to the United Kingdom, historically the largest European market for US hardwoods, plunged 37% to 71,357 cubic meters. Deliveries to Germany and Italy fell 49% and 43%, respectively. Shipments to Spain slipped 18%.

Portugal and United Arab Emirates represent some positives for offshore markets

Portugal was among the steadiest offshore markets this year, with shipments about on par with the 2022 pace. Exports to the United Arab Emirates jumped 29%, one of the few destinations to post an increase.

Red Oak exports offshore declined 18% through August to 463,416 cubic meters. Red Oak is by far the most commonly exported US hardwood species. Shipments to China fell 20% to 234,980 cubic meters, representing 62% of total Red Oak deliveries to offshore destinations.

A 16% gain in Red Oak exports to Mexico mitigated the decidedly downward trend evident in shipments of most other species to that country. Total exports to Mexico fell 19% amid steep declines in Other Temperate, Maple, Western Red Alder, Yellow Poplar, and other species.

White Oak exports plummeted 36% through August, falling to 288,899 cubic meters. Shipments to almost all destinations fell sharply. Japan was an exception, where deliveries increased 12%.

Yellow Poplar exports declined 21% to 198,566 cubic meters. Shipments to Vietnam, the most common destination for that species, fell 23%. A 12% increase in exports to China ran counter to the downward trend evident worldwide.

Declining use of hardwoods in the US furniture industry contributed to the lack of domestic demand for imports. Many manufacturers use more panel products in lieu of hardwoods, traders noted.

Imports from Brazil and Germany, the two largest offshore suppliers, fell 47% and 30%, respectively. Shipments from Brazil are primarily Tropical hardwoods while imports from Germany are almost entirely Beech.

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