Lumber prices are near their peak and likely will begin dropping "fairly sharply" in May or June, a veteran timber economist predicted today.

Paul Jannke, a principal of Forest Economic Advisors, said the three key factors that powered the recent runup in prices--modest rises in consumption, low inventories at dealers, and wet weather--all are short-term phenomena. The North American timber industry's latent production capacity "far outstrips any rise in the level of demand for the next few years," he said in a webinar sponsored by Citi Investment Research & Analysis.

"In May, perhaps June, we're going to see prices come off, and come off fairly sharply," he continued.

After years in which lumber prices were as low as just about anyone can remember, they have shot up in the past 12 months, particularly since January. Random Lengths' framing lumber composite price as of April 23 stood at $365 per 1,000 board feet, up 72% from a year ago, while its structural panels composite price was 91% higher at $463 per 1,000 square feet.

Jannke, who has spent 15 years studying timber markets, agreed that the rise in consumption lately has boosted demand. But what's more important, he said, were the extreme low levels that building material dealers and suppliers have been carrying lately. Those parties reduced their stocks by roughly 4 billion board feet, he said, so just replenishing their stocks in anticipation of the spring building season would have caused an upsurge in calls to mills.

In addition, wet weather in the South and the usual fallow period that comes with the North's spring thaw meant that timber companies couldn't go into the woods when demand began to rise, Jannke said. But now the timberlands are drying out, so that factor will evaporate, and buying this summer will be done with an eye toward construction projects starting around September, when construction activity begins to taper.

Adding to these factors is the tremendous latent capacity in the industry, Jannke said. He noted that mills that ran two to three shifts per day during the housing construction boom are down to just one shift a day, if they're open at all. It takes months to open a mothballed mill, he said, and six months to open a mill that was totally shut.

At the same time, reduced consumption has meant harvests trail the growth rates on North American timberlands. In fact, Jannke noted, nearly a full year's worth of harvest will be deferred between 2008 and 2012.

"The fiber's available," he said. "That's another factor why prices in 2011 are likely to be ... within a 5% range of where we are this year."

Looking deeper into this decade, Jannke noted there's sustainable demand for up to 1.7 million new units of housing in the United States this year; last year's starts rate was not even one-third that level. The industry isn't tooled up yet to supply the lumber needed for such volumes, but by mid-decade it should be. However, it might come from different places than it did a decade previously.

British Columbia, which supplies 20% to 25% of the lumber used in North America annually, suffered peak annual damage from the Mountain Pine Beetle in the middle of the last decade. Given that beetle-kill wood can be turned into lumber for up to about 10 years afterward, British Columbia's productivity likely will drop by about 3 billion board feet starting around 2015, he said. Meanwhile, other factors have already led to reduced production from Eastern Canada, which also supplies just over 20% of North American. lumber demand.

As a result of those drops, there will be increased demand for lumber from the U.S. Pacific Northwest and the South, Jannke predicted. For both regions, "We're going to see very solid pricing in the middle of the decade," he said.