Lumber Prices Remain at Record Levels Despite Recent Declines
Industry insiders project lumber prices could remain elevated or go even higher in 2022.
The lumber run wasn't kind to homebuilders and do-it-yourselfers. At one point in May, lumber was up over 300%, meaning for a builder to frame one new home they'd have to spend what prior to the pandemic would be enough for four.
But buyers' misfortune was the timber industry's big payday. The combined net profits of the five largest publicly traded North American lumber producers (Canfor in British Columbia; Interfor in British Columbia; Resolute Forest Products in Montreal; West Fraser Timber in British Columbia; and Seattle-based Weyerhaeuser) jumped a staggering 2,218% between the second quarter of 2020 ($160 million) and the same quarter in 2021 ($3.7 billion).
Those historic earnings, of course, came before the lumber bubble burst in epic fashion this summer as DIYers finally got fed up with sky-high prices. Between mid-May to mid-August, the cash market lumber price crashed from an all-time high of $1,515 per thousand board feet to $389 per thousand board feet.
What did plummeting lumber prices do to sawmill profits? The party ended. For the third quarter of 2021—the period covering the collapse in lumber prices—the combined profits of the five largest publicly traded sawmills are down 69% to $1.1 billion. The biggest drop was posted by Interfor (which saw its third quarter profit fall 85% from the previous quarter), followed by West Fraser Timber (down 76%), Canfor (down 72%), Resolute Forest Products (down 70%), and Weyerhaeuser (down 53%). Given it's a subsidiary of privately held Koch Industries and isn't required to report earnings, we aren't sure what hit Atlanta-based lumber titan Georgia-Pacific took.
The good news for lumber producers: The latest round of profits is still fairly strong. Indeed, the aggregated earnings of those five producers in the third quarter of 2021 are up 34% from the same quarter in 2020.
While lumber prices have come back down to earth, they're still historically high. Since August, prices have shot up to $575 per thousand board feet. That's well above the normal $350 to $500 price range they floated in prior to the pandemic. The reason? While DIYers have cut back, homebuilding has stayed relatively strong. The historically tight housing market—which saw home prices jump a record 19.9% between August 2020 and August 2021—has kept demand high for new construction, which, of course, requires lots of framing lumber.
Where are lumber prices headed in 2022? Many industry insiders tell Fortune prices could remain elevated—or go even higher next year. But there are two wild cards. For starters, if supply chain issues and shortages don't let up soon it could slow down homebuilding next year. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Commerce plan to double duties on Canadian softwood lumber next year is already shaking up the market.
"The industry is digesting some new developments, such as additional cutbacks in harvesting in British Columbia, and an expected doubling of duties later this month on Canadian mills’ exports to the U.S... The former is another longer-term supply-side worry, while the latter represents a near-term oversupply concern, as Canadian mills rush shipments into the U.S. market ahead of the duty increase," Shawn Church, editor at Fastmarkets Random Lengths, told Fortune.