Those of us in the industry in the United States and Europe have been struggling for some time. This is not a secret. In fact, along about 2002, I was saying the "lost decade" was now 12 years old.
In the past year, we have seen better pricing and better profitability in many segments of the industry. Some of those whose products tend to focus on homebuilding in the United States are currently taking a beating (you might want to take a look at LPX in the Rear View section of this issue, for instance), but overall things are not too bad.
It appears we may be at an inflection point in the industry, a long term inflection point.
There are two reasons for this.
First, as economic conditions continue to improve, one can see a real need for more products in many grades world wide. Consider—in 1990, the beginning of the lost decade, the world population was roughly 5.2 billion people. Now, it is roughly 6.6 billion. If per capita consumption of pulp and paper products had not grown in that time period, the growth due to more people alone would be 25%--a huge number. Yet we know that, for instance in China, per capita consumption has nearly quintupled in this same period. Beyond, this, one can safely say that outside Europe, North America and Japan, per capita consumption is still but a tiny fraction of that experienced in these three areas. There is a world awaiting modern pulp and paper products.
The second area for optimism is technology. We have learned much about manufacturing pulp and paper in the last 100 years or so. Yet, it appears to me that our knowledge is still in its infancy. From the microscopic to the macroscopic, we are just beginning to understand the wonderful qualities of cellulose fibers. Likewise, our knowledge of additives, inks and other such materials vital to a successful industry is in only the early stages of understanding.
Certainly, some grades are dying—this will always happen. The poster child these days is, of course, newsprint. But at the same time, look at what International Paper is doing—they are hitching their wagon to uncoated freesheet, a commodity grade if there ever was one, and shedding nearly everything else. They must believe they can make money with this ubiquitous product.
For an even more historic and interesting anecdote, one need go back to only the fifties, when Procter & Gamble bought a little Michigan tissue company called Charmin. Naysayers at the time said this decision would sink P & G—the pulp and paper industry was only marginally profitable (who was interested in toilet tissue?) and consumed prodigious amounts of capital. P & G was, again naysayers speaking, "too small to take on the capital burdens of a pulp and paper manufacturer. This will be the end of P & G."
So, what is wrong with the industry (besides its apparent inability to be consistently profitable over the past decade or so)? I think it is attitude. As a so-called mature industry, the pulp and paper industry's ranks have a senior generation filled with nostalgic pessimists. And we are not even the first to be this way—look at the steel industry for a leading example.
Nostalgic pessimists feel that an industry that does not exist in the same form as the one that existed when they were in the early days of their career is one that is dead. Perhaps it is a lack of creativity, but nostalgic pessimists can not see the future, for they spend all their time looking at the past. They do not see world wide opportunity, they only see that the mill they used to be a part of in (fill in the town) is no longer there.
The only thing wrong with the pulp and paper industry is attitude.
Reader thinks Roger Stone got a bargain, we differ.