Dec 10, 2020 - Economy & Business

The lumber market's wild year

Illustration of lumber 2 x 4 forming an upwards trending line graph
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Lumber prices are shooting up again — extending the commodity’s wildest stretch ever.

Why it matters: The housing market (and home remodeling) has boomed — creating historic demand for lumber that hasn’t let up.

  • This unexpected effect of the coronavirus economy has played out in the futures market since the onset of the pandemic.

What’s they’re saying: "If people bet prices were going to go lower, they were wrong and so now they kind of have to chase the market," says Alex Mead, a lumber consultant at StoneX Group.

  • "The people I work with, they're not lumber producers. They just want to buy lumber on paper because they think it's going to go up," says John Payne, a futures broker at Daniels Trading.

Flashback: Lumber prices soared, hitting their highest level ever in September — a run that far outpaced any seasonal surge the commodity has ever seen.

  • Then there was a "big correction to the downside, but we're still at significantly higher price levels than people are accustomed to," says Greg Kuta, founder of Westline Capital Strategies, which focuses on lumber futures.
  • Now: There’s unseasonably good weather, allowing builders to keep working (and keep up demand for lumber) — bucking the typical slowdown this time of year when prices bottom.

Catch up quick: Lumber producers ramped down when COVID-19 hit — partly because they had to in order to comply with lockdown orders, partly because orders were canceled and demand was expected to plunge.

  • Yes, but: Locked down Americans took on lumber-involved DIY projects. The housing market took off.
  • "There's a shortage of existing homes and new homes. There's all this demand and record low interest rates. You've got all these drivers pushing demand and you still don't have the supply to satisfy demand," Katu says.
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

The fallout: The high prices reflected in the futures market are "passed on directly to consumers, whether you're buying lumber yourself at a big box store or you're buying a new house," Pete Stewart, the founder of lumber analytics firm Forest2Market, tells Axios.

  • The National Association of Home Builders estimated earlier this year the spike in lumber prices increased the price of a single-family home by over $16,000.

A big question: How much longer the consumer will be able to absorb the high prices, before demand slips.

The latest: Lumber (and wood) is the most reported material shortage among commercial contractors — and the problem is getting worse.

  • One in 3 contractors say they don't have enough — up 20 percentage points from last quarter, according to survey results from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index, first provided to Axios.
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