If you thought the paper industry was going to disappear, think again. Graphic papers are being squeezed by digitization, but the paper and forest-products industry overall has major changes in store and exciting prospects for new growth.
Packaging is growing all over the world, along with tissue papers, and pulp for hygiene products. Although a relatively small market as yet, pulp for textile applications is growing. And a broad search for new applications and uses for wood and its components is taking place in numerous labs and development centers. The paper and forest-products industry is not disappearing—far from it. But it is changing, morphing, and developing. We would argue that the industry is going through the most substantial transformation it has seen in many decades.
The structure of the industry landscape is changing. The changes are not dramatic individually, but the accumulation of changes over the long term has now reached a point where they are making a difference.
Whether companies are well positioned for further growth or still needing to earn the right to grow, they can expect demand to grow for paper and board products over the next decade. The graphic-paper market will continue to face declining demand worldwide, and our research has yet to find credible arguments for a specific floor for future demand. But this decline should be balanced by the increase in demand for packaging—industrial as well as consumer—and tissue products. All in all, demand for fiber-based products is set to increase globally, with some segments growing faster than others.
That picture is not without its uncertainties. One hazy spot in the demand skies might be concerns over how fast demand will grow in China. Expectations of growth from only a few years ago have proved a bit too optimistic, not only in graphic papers but also in tissue papers and packaging. And recently, as a result of turmoil in the market for recycled fiber, Chinese users of corrugated packaging have reduced their consumption, through weight reductions and use of reusable plastic boxes. Given China’s weight in the global paper and board market, even relatively modest changes can have significant impact.
How these demand trends will translate into industry profitability will of course be heavily influenced by the industry’s supply actions. Supply movements are notoriously difficult to forecast more than a few years out, but we believe the following observations are relevant to this discussion.
Fiber has gone through some turbulent times in the past two years, largely to the delight of pulp producers and to the chagrin of users. Hardwood and softwood prices alike have seen steady increases since 2017, due to some slow start-up of capacity (hardwood pulp), limited capacity additions, and a certain measure of industry psychology. In the past two years, prices globally went through what we would term a “fly-up regime,” whereby prices are significantly and unusually higher than the cost of the marginal producer. Such situations, seen from time to time in many other basic-materials industries, are rarely long lived. Indeed, since the beginning of 2019, prices have come down—in China drastically so.
But even with a readjustment of the market, the midterm prospects are likely to be in favor of the producers, with little new capacity until 2021–22 and some softwood capacity that is likely to be converted to other products, such as pulp for textile applications. For softwood particularly, challenges in expanding the forest supply are constraining new supply. Also, the fact that much of the industry’s softwood-production assets are aging and need complete renewal or substantial upgrades could further contribute to scarcity, especially since the scale of the investments required is a potential roadblock to them being made.
Challenges for the next decade
In such an environment, what are the key challenges senior executives will need to address? What are the key battles they will have to fight? The paper and forest-products industry is often labelled a “traditional” industry. Yet given the confluence of technological changes, demographic changes, and resource concerns that we anticipate over the next decade, we believe the industry will have to embrace change that is, in character, as well as pace, vastly different from what we have seen before—and anything but traditional. This will pose significant challenges for CEOs regarding how they manage their companies.
We argue that there are three broad themes that paper and forest-products CEOs will have to address through 2020 and beyond:
Managing short-to-medium-term “grade turbulence”
Finding the next level of cost optimization
Finding value-creating growth roles for forest products in a fundamentally changing business landscape
We believe wood-based products will find new ways to enlarge their footprint in a more sustainable global economy. But the challenges are legion, particularly for finding cost-effective production methods that can withstand competition not only from oil-based materials but also from other biomaterials. Finding the right balance between developing the “new” and safeguarding the “old” will be a crucial undertaking for executives running companies with access to fresh fiber.
Finding growth in adjacent areas. Over the past decade or two we have seen the larger forest-products companies performing a focus adjustment. Most companies have moved from being fairly broad conglomerates present in various forest-products segments to focusing on a few core businesses. To find value-creating growth in the next two decades, we expect companies to start broadening their corporate portfolio again, but broadening it around the core businesses they have been working on, so as to create differentiated customer value propositions. Finding value-creating adjacencies to the core business will be a challenging exercise in creativity and business acumen for executive teams.
We believe the paper and forest-products industry is moving into an interesting decade, one that will see nothing less than a transformation of large parts of the industry. There will be many barriers to overcome and metaphorical cliffs to fall off. But the companies that are able to navigate through successfully can look forward to an industry that has a new sense of purpose and an increasingly vital role to play.