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Printing Process Inputs -- Consumables: A Mixed Bag

January 2009 By Mark Smith
Technology Editor
IT’S STRIKING what a difference a year has made in the outlook for paper and ink. Both are being buffeted by economic and market forces.

Paper companies started 2008 by continuing their string of price increases, but ended the year scrambling to make production cuts fast enough to bring supplies in line with sinking demand. Throughout the year, they also had to contend with the snowballing of interest in chain-of-custody certified stocks.

Everyone felt the pain of the rapid run-up in oil prices, but the airlines were possibly the only industry to be more impacted by the spike in cost than ink manufacturers. Several took the unusual step of sending out press releases to announce ink price increases or surcharges, therein making the case that they are at the mercy of their raw material suppliers.

December was the biggest turning point in paper prices, says Joshua Zaret, senior equity analyst with responsibility for the paper and forest products sector at Longbow Research in New York. There previously had been some slippage in the price increases that paper companies had instituted throughout the year, but prices were down for every grade of coated and uncoated paper last month, he notes.

“We can clearly say that 2009 is not looking good (for paper companies). It’s going to be a period of over supply, in part, due to the dramatic decline in demand,” Zaret advises. “What we are seeing is an unprecedented amount of downtime being taken, and the question is, ‘Is that enough?’ Most people expect price levels to continue declining for now.”

Zaret believes prices will not drop as much as they have in previous economic downturns because of paper companies having adopted the supply-side management business philosophy. “The caveat is that the dollar remains relatively weak, since imports coming (into the U.S. market) in a big way would throw things off,” he adds.

Today, paper companies are taking downtime in an attempt to manage inventories, rather than trying to continue to run mills at as close to 100 percent capacity as possible to lower their total costs, the analyst explains. Papermaking is such a capital-intensive business, that in previous downturns, companies would maintain production to spread out their fixed overhead and, thereby, create sharp increases in inventories that lead to severe price declines.

Paper import levels can rise or fall fairly rapidly in response to changes in the value of the U.S. dollar, absent any trade barriers, Zaret says. This makes the exchange rate key to the industry’s health. “At the current dollar level, I’m not looking for a huge increase in paper imports,” he adds.

Looking at the paper market from the buyer’s perspective, Alex Brown, founder of Printmark Corp., an East Montpelier, VT-based consultancy to magazine publishers that specializes in manufacturing and distribution, has come to a similar conclusion regarding the outlook for 2009. “Prices will go down, but I don’t think they are going to plunge,” she says.

Little Demand for Supply

Economic conditions would seem to argue for bigger declines than the ones paper buyers will see because of the counterbalancing force of mills taking downtime, Brown explains. “Mills are going to take downtime rather than try to use lower prices to spur continued cash flow.”

The simple fact is that demand isn’t there, she notes. Lower paper prices cannot bring magazine publishers and catalogers back to life, and there are economic and market forces putting pressure on demand that paper prices can’t offset, she says. “I am especially concerned about the potential loss of titles.”

There are complexities to the question of what the outlook for paper demand will be from the magazines and catalogs that do continue to be printed, the industry consultant continues. “To me, the interesting factor is where those companies will fall along the spectrum of invest or economize.”

In response to the current business climate, the two poles of the options available to publishers and catalogers are to treat their printed products as luxury items and invest in them to maximize sales, or cut every expense possible simply to survive, Brown says. “Everybody will fall somewhere along that spectrum, and you can’t say that one strategy is better than the other.”

Consumers would rather see a magazine ad than hear a commercial on the radio, watch a TV spot or see a banner ad online, she asserts. “People have an amazing level of engagement with magazines.” Treating print as a luxury means possibly taking advantage of the price declines to upgrade the paper used, or at least sticking with the current grade.

Downgrading a publication’s trim size, paper basis weight and quality are all on the table in the economizing model, and Brown doesn’t believe publishers and catalogers have already pushed the limits of the cuts they’re willing to make.

“It would be rare for there still not to be something else one could nip off,” Brown says. “Another pattern of economizing is to really increase your ad percentage and stop publishing as many pages. That lever can probably be pushed quite a long way with most magazines.”

Sustainability is a distinct paper characteristic in the selection equation. Brown believes there is enough interest in and momentum behind using chain-of-custody certified paper that the economy won’t get bad enough for it to be viewed as a luxury item, which companies decide they no longer can afford.

The economy is no less a factor in the outlook for printing inks; it just happens that 2008 saw wild swings in oil prices that overshadowed all other concerns.

According to data from the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM), raw materials now account for almost 60 percent of an ink manufacturer’s operating expenses. If they are tracked back far enough, most of those materials (pigments, resins, solvents, etc.) are derived from petroleum, says John Daugherty, NAPIM’s technical director. That’s true even for water-based, UV and gravure ink systems, he adds.

With the price of a barrel of oil exceeding $140 at one point in 2008, but dropping to under $40 by the end of the year, it’s anyone’s guess what the price range will be in 2009. Israel launching a new campaign against Hamas only added to the uncertainty.

Petro Products Still Tops

One thing that doesn’t seem to be in the offing for inks is any significant shift away from petroleum-derived raw materials for cost, supply or sustainability reasons. The requirements of printing processes, heatset web offset in particular, work against replacing petroleum as a materials source, explains George Fuchs, NAPIM’s manager of environmental affairs and information systems. He notes that the American Soybean Association (ASA) even recognized that fact by stipulating a heatset ink could be designated as soy ink with only 7 percent soybean oil content.

While the efforts of the ASA predated the sustainability movement, soy inks have become equated with the greening of print. Daugherty says this development has been frustrating for NAPIM because it is too narrow a view. Soy is one option, but it has some limitations.

“Our perspective on sustainability is that it’s much broader than just the use of bio-derived renewable materials,” Fuchs adds. “It has to do with health and safety in the workplace, reduction of air emissions, cutting the use of toxic materials—a whole host of other issues that the ink industry has been addressing for years.

“There’s also the issue of the environmental impact of farming and questions about using farming to provide industrial materials as opposed to food,” Fuchs says.

Nonetheless, NAPIM created an Environmental Impact Task Force to explore the issue of bio-derived renewable materials and came up with a list of more than 60 types of such materials already being used in the formulation of inks. It is now developing a labeling process and standard methodology for providing bio-derived content information to ink buyers.

Plate manufacturers are in a similar position to ink companies in that a major portion of their costs are tied to the outlook for aluminum prices, which have been rising in the last couple of years. Ultimately, though, the business outlook for everyone will come back to the economy. PI



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