Friday, March 12, 2010

Where Are Coated Prices Headed? Let's Vote On It!

Just when the wheels had fallen off the attempt to raise North American coated-groundwood prices, the wagon started rolling again today.

NewPage announced a $30-per-ton increase on coated-groundwood (CGW) and coated-freesheet (CFS) prices to take effect on Monday. The pricing for most contract customers cannot be changed until April 1, and many have locked in prices through June 30.

Today's announcement came only a couple of days after AbitibiBowater started spreading the word that it was “postponing” its Feb. 25 attempt to raise CGW prices by $60 per ton on April 1. Kruger, which seemed to be the only other mill that jumped on that bandwagon, has also reportedly backed down in recent days.

The North American coated-paper market still suffers from overcapacity that has kept prices low. But thanks to an earthquake, floods, a strike, and a government ruling, an argument can be made for jacking up CFS prices.

Last month’s Chilean earthquake, wet weather in the U.S. South, and other factors have caused prices for kraft pulp -– the main ingredient in CFS -– to skyrocket. Don’t be surprised to see shutdowns soon at CFS mills that rely on purchased pulp. And even integrated mills may be tempted to idle their paper machines so that they can sell their now-valuable pulp to a hungry market.

An anti-dumping decision in the U.S. and a similar case in Europe have also cooled Asian producers on selling low-priced coated sheets in the U.S.

The case is weaker for CGW, a market in which prices had drifted lower early this after seeming to stabilize in the fall. Most CGW products use relatively little, if any, kraft pulp, and Asian producers have not been a factor in North America.

A few years ago, a strike in Finland would have sent U.S. CGW buyers into a panic. But the weak dollar had already chased the Finns away, limiting the impact in North America of a port strike that is strangling the Finnish paper industry.

My guess is that CGW prices will start moving up only after CFS does and only after more CGW capacity is idled.

What’s your bet? On the right you’ll see a chance to vote on where you think the RISI index for 40# coated #5 (at $735 in February) will be on July 1. Warning: I tried a similar crowdsourcing exercise on CGW prices a year ago, and hardly anyone correctly predicted the market crash that came shortly afterward.

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