Update: The Justice Department announced on Dec. 31 that the Catalyst deal will satisfy its antitrust concerns about the Verso-NewPage deal. Both the Catalyst deal and the Verso-NewPage deal were completed on Jan. 7.
Today's announcement that Catalyst Paper will buy two NewPage coated-paper mills apparently means that the merger of NewPage and Verso Paper will move forward.
Catalyst revealed that it will purchase NewPage's Rumford, Maine and Biron, Wisconsin mills for $74 million -- more than quintupling the Canadian company's capacity for making coated paper. One condition of the sale is that Verso-NewPage deal be consummated.
That merger has been delayed by federal antitrust officials, who were apparently concerned that, by owning half of North America's capacity to make coated paper, a combined Verso-NewPage would have too much market power and be able to drive up prices. NewPage's sale of the two mills, coupled with Verso's decision to close its Bucksport, Maine mill, were presumably a condition of gaining the U.S. Justice Department's approval for the merger.
Catalyst would only pay about $85 per ton of capacity to make paper that typically sells for at least $850 per ton. That looks like a fire-sale price, except that the continent's demand for coated paper is half of what it was barely a decade ago. And except that we've seen this movie before, and the ending wasn't pretty.
Justice allowed the 2007 merger of newsprint giants Abitibi and Bowater to go forward only after Abitibi unloaded one of its gems, a 100%-recycled mill in Snowflake, Arizona, to Catalyst for a bargain price. But a few years later, Snowflake hit a perfect storm -- Chinese buyers driving up the price of West Coast recycled paper, black liquor tax credits subsidizing competitors using virgin pulp, and the collapse of the U.S. newspaper industry -- and was shut down.
Both AbitibiBowater (now called Resolute Forest Products) and Catalyst ended up going through bankruptcy reorganization and emerged as smaller but healthier companies.
Catalyst makes mostly newsprint and uncoated papers in western Canada, but does have a single machine making coated groundwood paper.With the purchase announced today, Catalyst would pick up four machines that make coated freesheet as well as coated groundwood paper, plus some market-pulp capacity.