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Brazilian truckers go on strike; what impact for pulp?

by Pierre Bach May 31, 2018

For over a week now, the Brazilian economy has been disrupted by a truckers strike that has paralysed roads and led to extreme port congestion. The pulp industry has suffered accordingly, as the flow of raw materials to pulp mills has ground to a halt, obliging many to curtail production or reduce their operating rate.

The strike started on 21st May, as a protest against sharply rising fuel prices. Specifically, diesel prices in Brazil have almost doubled since 2016 on the back of rising oil prices coupled with a depreciating Brazilian real. The strike has brought much of Brazil to a standstill, with the country hugely dependent on trucking to transport goods; according to Bloomberg, more than 60% of Brazilian products are transported on roads. Accordingly, hospitals are running out of medical supplies, supermarket shelves are empty and petrol stations and airports are running out of fuel.

Although initiated by trade unions, the strike has garnered the support of many independent workers which has made government negotiations more complicated. As a result, although the government has declared the end of the strike on several occasions over the last few days, protests continue across the country with many drivers ignoring a series of concessions which have been made. These concessions include the state subsidizing a 12 percent drop in the price of diesel, a reduction in road tolls and the offer of more work through an increase in government contracts.

Industry contacts are cautiously optimistic that these concessions should appease the majority of the unions and that the strike will slowly draw to a conclusion in the days ahead. However, the threat of strike action by refinery workers highlights how other aggrieved groups may be encouraged to follow the lead of the truckers, thereby inflicting more pain to the economy. The reality is that further disruption is possible across multiple industries during the months ahead, with many hoping a period of greater stability will follow after the presidential elections are held in October.

Note that even if the strike is resolved today/tomorrow, it will take many days for order backlogs to be cleared and normal trucking operations to resume. The port congestion will take longer to clear, potentially lasting more than a month, in particular for container traffic.

The strike has depleted the supply of raw materials for many pulp mills, obliging many to curtail production or run at a reduced operating rate. Supply shortages appears to be most acute for chemicals, although the inventory of other raw materials are also critically low.  Note that where mills continue to run but at a reduced rate, operational costs are significantly higher as these mills are likely burning oil to supplement any shortfall in black liquor supply. Some mills are using this enforced downtime to carry out maintenance, but only where the required equipment is already on site. 

We have surveyed producers and quantified the impact on operating rates and production volumes under different resolution scenarios - the full analysis is available for our existing subscribers.

For pulp buyers, the lead time to service international pulp markets means that June volumes should be little impacted, at least during the first half of the month. The impact of the strike will be most acute around the end of June into July, when the pulp produced today would ordinarily reach the market. The scale of the port congestion will cause dramatic disruption to supply through July and maybe August, even if the pulp industry is running efficiently again.

It is too early to determine the impact the strike will have on prices. The focus of major suppliers through June is to ensure continuity of supply to their contractual customers at unchanged prices.

However, the unexpected loss of such significant volume will likely play on price negotiations through the summer, and will ensure a tighter supply and demand balance than would have otherwise been the case. Note that Brazilian hardwood market pulp capacity totals 17.6Mt this year, accounting for 47% of the world’s short fibre market pulp supply and 27% of total bleached chemical market pulp supply.

Unexpected supply disruptions of this scale are not without precedent; last year the unforeseen closure of the new line at CMPC Guaiba resulted in the loss of approximately 0.7Mt of output, whilst in February 2010 an earthquake in Chile disrupted around 8% of global BCP capacity. Whilst the current disruption in Brazil may not last as long as either of these two events, the larger scale of the Brazilian industry could allow for a more intense impact in the market.

After the Chilean earthquake prices soared to record highs despite a strengthening US dollar which facilitated a decline in most other commodity prices. There are similarities today, as the timing of this disruption coincides with a strong rebound in the US dollar through the year-to-date.

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