Lumber prices will fall back to pre-pandemic levels within a year amid considerable volatility, investment chief says

Worker loading lumber
  • The price of lumber futures has fallen to its lowest level since November 2020, erasing this year’s dizzying gains.
  • An investment chief says the price of the commodity could reach its pre-pandemic level in the next 12 months.
  • He added, however, that the price trends will vary by geography.
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Prices for lumber futures have descended to levels not seen since November 2020, erasing this year’s dizzying gains amid a cooling demand for the red-hot commodity.

Lumber prices fell for the 10th consecutive week to trade at $536 per thousand board feet – 67% lower from their May 7 peak of $1,670 per thousand board feet. Around a year ago, the commodity was hovering just above $400.

Despite weeks of decline, there is likely room to fall further, said Stuart Katz, CIO at wealth management firm Robert Stephens. He said the price of the commodity could reach its pre-pandemic level in the next 12 months, but whether prices remain at that level is the real question.

“This is a dynamic economy,” he said. He added that in order to predict the price of lumber, one must make a number of assumptions about the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy and the ability of home builders to pass along price increases or take margin compressions.

“You can’t lean on history when you turn off and then reopen the largest economy on the face of the earth,” Katz said. “No one has the crystal ball, so you need to look at the key fundamentals which provide push and pull pressures on, ultimately, the equilibrium of the price.”

One thing he is certain of is that the price trends will vary by geography.

“There may be regional aspects of this,” Katz said. “There’s an aggregate lumber price but because of some of the secular trends in home building and multifamily units … I could see there being local geographic tensions and price that would maybe make it more elevated than if you went to broad headline price.”

Katz said the Sunbelt states could continue to see heightened lumber prices as people move to the region from other parts of the US and drive up demand for housing.

Lumber prices at the start of the year surged, triggered by factors including concerns about an overheating housing market and millennials reaching home-buying age. But the main culprit behind its astronomical rally was the pandemic.

“I think it’s difficult to imagine a set of facts to support lumber prices going in excess of $1,600 per thousand for feet in the absence of the circumstances of the COVID crisis,” he said.

For some experts, the lumber phenomenon was a long time coming, especially given the chronic shortage of affordable homes for sale in the US.

Still, lumber wasn’t the only commodity that rallied this year despite the heightened interest. Many others from oil to copper also gained due in large part to distorted supply chains.

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Lumber prices are on pace to plunge 45% in June after a record-breaking rally driven by homebuilding demand

A lumber yard

The price of lumber futures is on pace to plunge 45% in June for one of the largest monthly drops ever, as the hot commodity comes off a record-breaking rally.

Lumber prices have been on a rapid decline since their May 7 peak of $1,670 per thousand board feet.

As of June 30, the price of lumber has slipped around 45% to $721 per thousand board feet- and is now on track to have its worst month since 1978. Exactly a year ago, lumber futures closed at $435.

“I would not be surprised at all if we see the price continue to trail lower than $600 or below toward the year-end,” Mace McCain, president and managing director at Frost Investment Advisors, told Insider. “We will continue to see supply come on board but we will not see demand continue to grow.”

McCain added that this level will be more sustainable for the wood industry and will make housing more affordable.

While it is difficult to point to one specific reason why the price of lumber futures has pulled back, some experts attribute it to the economic reopening, which has caused more people to spend less time at home.

To begin with, the price skyrocketed at the start of the pandemic when restrictions forced Americans to shelter at home, prompting many to either build new houses or renovate existing ones.

Read more: ‘If lumber crashes, stocks might be next’: An award-winning portfolio manager who’s tracked lumber prices for years breaks down why futures hitting a record high of $1,600 is an ominous sign – and shares what investors can do ahead of the eventual crash

Chip Setzer, director of trading and growth for Mickey Group, a commodity trading platform, agreed that this range is what he would consider a fair valuation as well.

He has told Insider in the past that the sweet spot would be $600-$900 as this range gives sawmill operators, truck drivers, and other players in the industry more cushion for capital upgrades and operational improvements.

Setzer did express concern that while the prices are much more reasonable now due in part to a more functional supply chain, the industry simply cannot afford another disruption.

“I have strong concerns that we will have interruptions, which will have adverse effects on supply,” he told Insider.

Setzer mentioned the recent wildfires in British Columbia, where the US gets part of its lumber supply, as well as the upcoming hurricanes in Texas and Virginia.

“If the forest is on fire we can’t get logs,” he said. “That will change the tables.”

Apart from supply chain issues, Brad McMillan, CIO at Commonwealth Financial Network, said the wild price fluctuations could also be due to market distortions, where a “real lumber shortage” turned into “something much worse.”

He said this, then, resulted in higher prices, which caused more panic buying, until some sort of limit was “reached.” At this point, which seems to be now, the price will head down, he said.

Earlier in 2021, lumber prices surged, triggered by a confluence of factors – a pandemic, concerns of an overheating housing market, and millennials reaching home-buying age. On top of this, there was already a shortage of lumber supply before the pandemic even began.

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Lumber continues to skid below $900 with the commodity in free-fall from May highs

Saw mill.
Pieces of lumber are cut to size, to be used to assemble trusses for homes at Wasatch Truss on May 12, 2021 in Spanish Fork, Utah.

Lumber futures fell as much as 3% Wednesday to $859.8 per thousand board feet, extending the fall beneath $900 as the commodity’s rally continues to cool off.

Lumber prices surged throughout the pandemic as homebuilding boomed and supply tightened. Now, prices are trading nearly 50% below their May 10 peak of $1,711 per thousand board feet.

Over the past 12 months, however, lumber is still up over 107%.

Expanding supply is partly to blame for lumber’s recent downturn. US lumber production has jumped 5% over the past 12 months with another increase of 5% on the way, according to Domain Timber Advisors LLC, a subsidiary of Domain Capital Group, per Bloomberg.

Lumber’s soaring prices were one of the first indicators to many investors that inflation could be increasing too quickly as the economy climbed out of the pandemic. Now, lumber’s decline is signaling to some that inflation will prove to be temporary after all, as the US Federal Reserve has been insisting. Fed chief Jerome Powell reiterated this view in his press conference last week, and again at Tuesday’s congressional testimony.

“The thought is that prices like that, that have moved up really quickly because of shortages and bottlenecks and the like, they should stop going up. And at some point, they, in some cases, should actually go down. And we did see that in the case of lumber,” Powell said.

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Lumber prices fall for an 8th straight day, deepening a roughly 30% pullback

lumber and building materials store

Lumber prices fell for an eighth straight day on Wednesday, deepening a roughly 30% pullback in the commodity.

Specifically, lumber futures fell roughly 5% to $1,201 per thousand board feet on the day.

Despite the pullback, lumber futures are still up 224% since May 19 of last year, and retailers like Home Depot have made it clear demand remains strong.

Home Depot’s chief financial officer Richard McPhail said in a Tuesday interview with Bloomberg that lumber sales are comparable to “a storm environment where literally as soon as you bring it in, it’s selling.”

“We’re really just focused on making sure we stay in stock and making sure we have the appropriate level of staff to serve our customers. The market will go where it goes,” McPhail added.

On Home Depot’s post-earnings conference call, Edward Decker, the executive vice president of merchandising, said the company had seen a “record-setting quarter for lumber prices.”

“At the end of the first quarter of last year, a sheet of 7/16 OSB [oriented strand board] was approximately $9.55. As we exited the first quarter this year, that same sheet of OSB more than quadrupled in price to $39.76,” Decker said.

Lumber prices have increased so much that CBS Denver reported thieves have taken to stealing the commodity from construction sites.

And KUTV Utah reported builders are looking for alternative materials to get around the rising costs of lumber, with some even turning to Bamboo.

US home construction also fell 9.5% in April, according to US Census Bureau data, as homebuilders struggled with rising commodity prices in lumber, copper, and steel.

Still, lumber prices are falling in the past week due to the end of a “de facto short squeeze” on the commodity, according to Stinson Dean, the owner of Deacon Lumber Company.

Brian Leonard, an analyst for RCM Alternatives in Chicago, also noted lumber futures are being driven down by “computerized trading and other platforms not related to the physical product, so it may end up going lower than the real market need to go,” per Bloomberg.

“The mills know there’s a lot more buying than needs to happen,” he added.

Lumber stocks like Weyerhauser and West Fraser Timber fell as much as 4.58% and 5.77%, respectively, on Wednesday in lock-step with declining lumber future prices.

Read more: ‘If lumber crashes, stocks might be next’: An award-winning portfolio manager who’s tracked lumber prices for years breaks down why futures hitting a record high of $1,600 is an ominous sign – and shares what investors can do ahead of the eventual crash

Read the original article on Business Insider