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French hardwood market under pressure: auctions lack buyers, prices are falling

Publisher Publisher WILLWOOD | DATE 2020.07.24

At the moment, we must face the facts, there are few reasons to rejoice in the French hardwood market. At the first public sales after Covid-19, the unsold volumes are close to 50% and the best price bids do not exceed 10 euros/m3 for beech, oak and just 5 euros/m3 for softwoods.

For beech, the auctions that follow one after another resemble each other in mediocrity. Volumes without buyers average 50% of the volumes offered and in certain regions prices are down by up to 25% in one year.  "We are indeed observing demand and significantly lower prices," confirms Jean-Baptiste Schwebel, a wood manager at the National Forests Office (ONF) in Bourgogne Franche-Comté.

Debarked beech logs are difficult to sell at 50 euros/m3, while for standing beech prices are around 30 euros/m3. Professionals (a few rare sawyers, especially operators and traders), take no risk, operate in just-in-time and spot purchases. It is therefore an almost dullness which currently characterizes the French beech markets.

For oak, the first half of 2020 concludes with a certainty: the decline which started in 2019 is advancing. After having resisted well at the start of the year, the market is now feeling the effects of the pandemic-economic crisis. “Indeed, we saw a sharp slowdown in trade this spring. " Daclin Didier, a buyer of the Chêne de l’Est sawmill, explains that the fall in exports to Asia due to rising ocean freight costs and falling sales of Chinese goods in the US (flooring, door frames ...), necessarily contributes to this situation.

Even the prices of staves has been under stress since the start of Covid-19. Jean-Luc Sylvain, president of the Federation of French Cooperers, anticipates a decrease in barrel sales in the USA from 15 to 20% on an annual basis. The outlook is consequently uncertain. Lockdowns during the pandemic and less tourist activity leaded to less consumption of wine.  

At the moment, an increase in stave stocks can be noticed, with a surplus of 15% to 20% and a concomitant fall in purchases with prices falling by at least 10% over a year. Across France, on average for all qualities, oak prices have declined at an annual rate of at least 10%, or more, depending on the region (see table below). 

On the other hand, the ash brings some satisfaction to the foresters with attractive assortments. Despite the transport difficulties, an interesting flow of business continues with Vietnam. The most beautiful lots can still be negotiated at more than 100 euros / m3 at the port of the truck and unsold volumes appear relatively low (20% on average at public sales).

Finally, the good surprise comes from the poplar which does not seem to be suffering from the current slump. With the exception of the qualities for packaging which are stagnating, demand for the other assortments is very satisfactory. The ONF confirms this information and estimates that the average price increase reaches 5% year-on-year.

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