Paper manufactured overseas is comparatively inexpensive and readily available, but what's its long-term potential for commercial printers here in the United States?
BY ERIK CAGLE
Like Beanie Babies and baseball cards, foreign paper has become too much of a good thing.
The respective markets all reached a saturation point, but when it comes to paper, you won't hear any printers complaining about the situation. Collectors may bemoan the dwindling value of Rainbow the Unicorn or a 1984 Fleer Update Kirby Puckett, but it's not likely the decline in price for Phoeno Star No. 2 is going to make a commercial printer throw a mug of coffee against the wall.
Foreign paper is inexpensive and readily available. It is also partly to blame for depressed paper prices in the United States.
"There's no question (foreign paper) was the cause of the weak market in the second half of the year," states Brian Kullman, paper supply chain strategist for R.R. Donnelley & Sons. "The print market was quite strong and printer/publisher inventories were reasonable."
The Asian economic woes and overcapacity may have played pivotal roles in the U.S. market. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics quoted by Pulp & Paper Week, U.S. imports of coated and uncoated free sheet and groundwood were up 12 percent, while exports in the four categories were down an average of 6 percent.
There was a big increase in imports last year for both groundwood and free sheet papers, and it was a response by European and Asian manufacturers to the softness in Asia.
"If you look at relative price levels in Europe and North America, in their local markets, the price levels for groundwood papers are similar now, whereas they were 15 percent higher in North America last summer," Kullman points out. "Once the prices reach relative parity in the two markets, then the additional freight expense becomes more of a deterrent to shipping European paper here."
Still, Kullman points out that North America will never become self-sufficient when it comes to coated groundwood, thus, at least sustaining the import levels for that category.
Cheap and Available
According to Andrew Paparozzi, chief economist for the National Association of Printers and Lithographers (NAPL), paper is just one of many commodities that are finding their way into North America.
"Certainly, with the weakness in the international economy, we're seeing a whole lot of imports of everything, including paper," he says. "As with the economy at large, we're seeing very modest inflation. In fact, pretty much for all commodities—which paper is—we're not seeing inflation, but deflation, in large part because much of the world economies where these commodities are produced are depressed. To put it simply, America is kind of the market of last resort, the demand of last resort."
Paparozzi also points out that the increase in foreign paper supply is coming at a time when the source of demand—North American printers—are seeing growth rates that are slower than recent years.
The Asian economy has created some interested spectators, including Cadmus Communications Chairman, President and CEO
C. Stephenson Gillispie. "The paper market continues to be influenced by an influx of foreign paper being diverted from the Asian markets," he says. "We plan is to keep an eye on this activity. A turnaround in the Asian economies will have a direct impact on the supply of paper available to the United States and Europe. If the demand suddenly increases in Asia, we will experience subsequent increases in paper prices here."
For those printers who use foreign paper, price and performance are two of the most critical factors that pass the grade. Diane Peters, who purchases paper for Southfield, MI-based Grand River Printing & Imaging, notes that her company—which predominantly purchases domestic paper—can save money buying foreign paper in certain grades, particularly coated free sheet.
On the down side, Peters notes that certain foreign grades, particularly in the lighter weights, do not have very good opacity.
"Overall, we're very pleased with the quality of the foreign paper we've been purchasing. We get a brighter sheet and the opacity's good on it," Peters remarks. "The only possible drawback is the paper is not as stiff; it's a little limper. For us, in most cases, it's not an issue. I find it's a good value."
Rich Skinner purchases paper for Westland Printers, of Burtonsville, MD. Westland has used such foreign grades as Phoenix Imperial, Phoeno Star, Matrix and Garda.
The disappointments that have stemmed from using foreign grades have always been rectified, according to Skinner. "A few of the papers with which we had problems in the past have been redone, and they're better," he says.
Phoeno Star is one of Skinner's favorites. "Phoeno's been great," he says. "It's not as bulky as Vintage, because there's not as much fiber used in the paper. The people in our pressroom really like the sheet—it runs well."
There are a number of factors that can be used to determine whether any grade of paper, foreign or domestic, is worth purchasing. Logistical considerations come into question for foreign grades, but some feel quality is an issue as well.
Bruce Janis, president of MSPGA: Management Science for the Publishing and Graphic Arts, outlined a list of factors that are critical in deciding whether purchasing foreign paper is beneficial, including: deliverability, quality, the chance of stockout, payment terms, storage fees and delivery schedule.
"Quality and delivery are both issues," Janis remarks. "How much faith do you want to put in Korean or Russian paper at this point? The paper merchant is the one who should have [quality] under control."
Donnelley's Kullman warns that delivery security needs to be viewed by the purchaser. He feels that, under different market conditions, transactions could become cost-prohibitive.
"Delivery security takes two forms," he explains. "One issue is: 'Will they get the paper in time for the specific event that I want to bring in paper for?' The companion issue is: 'Will they be here under different market conditions?'
"What will happen, with a strong market, is that a lot of European paper will just stay in Europe. You won't be able to get it at any price," Kullman continues. "Some European manufacturers will retreat back. Clearly, the United States is not the most profitable market for European companies to sell in if they have a choice, because they're carrying about $60 a ton in real round numbers of extra transport and logistics costs that they don't have when they're selling closer to home."
While Kullman believes that most foreign paper is equal in quality to domestic product, he does point out that many of the foreign companies do not have a sustained market presence in North America.
They're more opportunistic in their selling here," Kullman notes. "Since we're trying to build more in the way of partnerships with mills, we can't build a partnership with a supplier that is going to be here one season and gone another."