The “black liquor” tax credit is driving down paper prices, according to NewPage, North America’s largest maker of coated paper.
The company’s average selling price for coated paper probably declined by $40 to $50 per ton in the 2nd Quarter from its 1st Quarter level of $975 per ton, NewPage revealed in a recent financial report. The number of tons sold actually inched up.
“We believe that pricing has declined primarily as a result of producers passing on the benefits of the alternative fuel credit to customers,” the report said.
No, NewPage hasn’t suddenly turned into a naïve bleeding heart that thinks its competitors are generously sharing their new-found riches with customers. The point is that the tax credits give U.S. companies a huge incentive to keep their kraft-pulp mills running full bore and then to turn that pulp into paper, even if it has to be sold at rock-bottom prices.
The credits, originally intended to subsidize non-petroleum motor fuels, are being granted to owners of U.S. kraft pulp mills for using black liquor, a pulp byproduct, as an energy source. Analysts have estimated that the program, scheduled to expire Dec. 31, will hand out $6 billion to $8 billion this year to U.S. pulp mills for doing something that has been common industry practice for decades. (For more on the black-liquor program, see "Pulp Fiction: Eco-Credits for Black Liquor" and "Why U.S. Pulp Mills Are Like NBA Players"
NewPage isn’t exactly complaining about the IRS’s sudden largess. The struggling paper giant is in the process of renegotiating its debt, in some cases paying about 50 cents on the dollar, in a way that Standard & Poor’s has dubbed “tantamount to a default.” So its $67 million in 2nd Quarter black-liquor credits, about 9% of revenue, was certainly welcome, especially because it was the difference between a huge loss and nearly breaking even.
The report suggests NewPage has shifted to making a higher proportion of papers that use a lot of kraft pulp. By most accounts, prices for various grades of coated paper declined by at least $60 per ton, and in some cases $100 or more, during the second quarter.
So NewPage’s decline of only $40-$50 per ton suggests it is making more high-priced, kraft-intensive papers like coated freesheet and less heavy coated-groundwood papers that contain little if any kraft.
There has been some talk of paper prices stabilizing or even rising in the second half of this year. But as long as there's a roughly $200-per-ton subsidy on kraft pulp and plenty of excess capacity, don't expect mills suddenly to become more disciplined about taking downtime rather than chasing deals at low prices.