Jack Miller is founder and Principal Consultant at Market-Intell LLC, offering Need to Know™ market intelligence in paper, print and packaging. Previously, he was senior consultant, North America, with Pira International.
Known as the Paper Guru, Jack is the former director of Market Intelligence with Domtar, where he also held positions as regional sales manager, territory sales manager and product manager. He has presented at On Demand, RISI’s Global Outlook, PRIMIR, SustainCom World and at various IntertechPira conferences. Jack has written for Printing Impressions, Canadian Printer, Paper 360, PaperTree Letter and Package Printing, along with publishing a monthly e-newsletter, MarketIntellibits.
He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from The College of the Holy Cross and has done graduate studies in Statistics and Finance.
Over the past month or so, there’s been a lot of discussion about coated paper prices. It began with Verso’s announcement in early April of a May 1 increase of $1.50 to $3.00 per cwt. for its coated paper, and then most coated mills followed suit and announced increases to be effective in May or June.
Naturally, there was the question of why these increases were justified. Demand? Clearly not. Cost? Debatable.
Before we get into the demand and cost issues, let’s remember that it’s supply and demand— not cost, and not demand alone—that determine prices in the short run.
So why are prices up? Well, first, let’s check if they are really up?
Coated sheet prices in May are right about where they were a year ago, but freesheet rolls are down about $2 per cwt. and coated mechanical prices are down a bit less. To some extent, the mills are trying to recover these losses.
Mills announce increases. Then, sometimes they are implemented, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are implemented, but evaporate because of competitive pressures over the next month or two.
Mills don’t announce price decreases. I can remember announcing three increases in a year, yet prices in December were exactly where they had been at the start of the year.
Why do the mills announce price increases and not implement them? Often, mills seek the increase because of a lack of profitability. One might say the move is cost driven, even if costs haven’t changed much in the past month or two.
Then why don’t they implement the increase? Supply and demand—because supply exceeds demand, competitors hungry for orders will take orders at a lower price. This proves once again the lack of a direct relationship between cost and price in the short run.
You might ask, “If the mills are unprofitable, why are they selling below cost?” Printers should understand the thinking—high fixed cost, and the belief that an order that covers some of the fixed cost is better than no order at all. (See my earlier blog on the fallacy of incremental volume.)
Does cost matter at all? Of course. Eventually, mills that are losing money close, and supply is reduced. When supply and demand are in balance, mills can raise prices.
So then, what is happening now? Pulp and Paper Week reports that coated freesheet demand through March was down 10 percent compared to last year, while coated mechanical demand was down 8.3 percent. Imports were down as well, and operating rates were reasonable at 90 to 91 percent, but this is typically not high enough to support increases.
What about the cost side? Pulp prices are up from January, down from a year ago, and way up from 2009.
More to the point, however, mill profitability is down from last year, and many mills are not covering their costs. In the first quarter of 2012:
Will the current round of price increases hold? If the mills reduce supply because of cost pressures and balance supply and demand, then the increases will hold. History suggests that if the increases do hold, they may well evaporate over the next few months.
Longer term, however, the mills cannot keep losing money forever and, inevitably, supply will be reduced and prices will move up.
Printers face the same problem. Printers need to raise prices, but competitive pressures make this very difficult. Despite a great deal of rationalization, overcapacity remains the reality. Meanwhile, printers should stay close to their merchants, and also to their mills, to get the best possible insight into where prices are headed.
And consider: paper might be a commodity, but print doesn’t have to be.