Three years ago, ProSales' "The Future of Wood" investigation assessed prospects for solid-sawn and engineered lumber–the products that dealers sold most. This award-winning collection of articles reported on how technology, economic forces, the green movement, builder preferences, and even bugs were likely to affect lumber's production and popularity. But the future never quite turns out as forecast. This month, assistant editor Brendan Rimetz explores two major developments that got little to no coverage three years ago, and editor Craig Webb updates on exciting new area. Imagine increasing your sales to a customer by 39 times in just two years. If you're a U.S. timber company, that's a reality. In 2009's first quarter, American firms shipped 21.7 million cubic meters worth of logs to China. This spring, they sent 841.6 million cubic meters. With growth like that comes both opportunity and trouble for America's wood-products community.
Some see China's sudden hunger as a stimulant to a lagging timber industry that will put people to work and generate much-needed revenues. But others fear the benefits will be limited primarily to logging companies as opposed to sawmills, and that reducing the supply of logs could lead to shortages of lumber in the United States once the housing market revives.
China's robust demand stems from the millions of people who have flocked to cities for jobs. "The top 30 home builders in China build 4 million to 5 million units per year," wrote Paul Jannke, lumber principal for Forest Economic Advisors, in a November 2010 article. "But that is only part of the construction that will be needed. Estimates of urbanization range from 10 million people per year to 35 million people per year over the next decade."
Wayne Song, president of Futuresoft Technologies, a company with Chinese and North American operations, says the Chinese government plans to put up 36 million affordable apartment units between 2011 and 2015 and another 36 million single-family homes. In contrast, Hanley Wood Market Intelligence, a sister company to ProSales, predicts there will be only 4.6 million housing starts in the United States during that same period.
Western-style houses are rare in Asia, while concrete apartment buildings are the norm. Consequently, much of the wood and lumber exported to China is used to build forms for pouring concrete as well as for interior uses, such as doors, flooring, and furniture.
"China's timber supply deficit, already as large as Canada's total timber harvest, is forecast to expand by another 55% by 2015," says Robert Flynn, director of international timber at RISI, a timber research group.
Historically, Russia supplied most of the logs that China brings in. During 2007, for instance, it accounted for 92% of China's log imports, according to RISI. But then a combination of new Russian tariffs and the U.S. homebuilding crash caused North America's timber companies to look across the Pacific. By 2010, the Russian share of China's log exports had shrunk to 54%, while the U.S. share had risen to 10.6% from 0.4% in 2007 and the Canadian share climbed to 4.8% from 0.4%.