The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) took on direct implications for the international cement industry this week when an Italian vendor infected with the virus visited Lafarge Africa in Ogun state, Nigeria. The cement producer said that it had ‘immediately’ started contact tracing and started isolation, quarantine and disinfection protocols. This included initiating medical protocols at its Ewekoro integrated plant, although local press reported the unit’s production lines were still open. Around 100 people were thought to have had contact with the man.
Global Cement has been covering the epidemic since early February 2020 when the virus’ effect on the construction industry in China started to become evident. First, an industry event CementTech was postponed, financial analysts started forecasting negative financial consequences for producers and plants started going into coronavirus-related maintenance or suspension cycles. Then at least one plant started to dispose of clinical waste and now China National Building Material Group (CNBM) is considering how to restart operations at scale. Also, this week Hong Kong construction companies reportedly laid off 50,00 builders due to a lack of cement due to the on-going production suspension in China.
The major cement companies have identified that their first business risk from coronavirus comes from simply not having the staff to make building materials. LafargeHolcim’s chief executive officer Jan Jenisch summed up the group’s action in its annual financial results for 2020 this week when he said, “We are taking all necessary measures to protect the health of our employees and their families.” Other major cement producers that Global Cement has contacted have placed travel restrictions for staff and reduced access to production facilities.
The next risk for cement companies comes from a drop in economic activity. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) forecasts a global 0.5% year-on-year fall in real gross domestic product (GDP) growth to 2.4%, with China and India suffering the worst declines in GDP growth at around 1%. The global figure is the worst since the -0.1% rate reported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2009. The OECD blamed the disease control measures in China, as well as the direct disruption to global supply chains, weaker final demand for imported goods and services and regional declines in international tourism and business travel. This forecast is contingent on the epidemic peaking in China in the first quarter of 2020 and new cases of the virus in other countries being sporadic and contained. So far the latter does not seem to have happened and the OECD’s ‘domino’ scenario predicts a GDP reduction of 1.5%. All of this is likely to drag on construction activity and demand for cement and concrete for some time to come.
Moving to cement markets and production, demand is likely to be slowed as countries implement various levels of isolation and quarantine leading to reduced residential demand for buildings directly and as workforces are restricted. Business and infrastructure projects may follow as economies slow and governments refocus spending respectively.
The UK government, for example, is basing its coronavirus action plan on an outbreak lasting four to six months. This could potentially happen in many countries throughout 2020. This has the potential to create a rolling effect of disruption as different nations are hit. Assuming China has passed the peak of its local epidemic then its producers are likely to report reduced income in the first quarter of 2020. The effect may even be reduced somewhat due to the existing winter peak shifting measures, whereby production is shut down to reduce pollution. Elsewhere, cement companies in the northern hemisphere may see their busy summer months affected if the virus spreads. The effect on balance sheets may be visible with indebted companies and/or those with more exposure to affected areas disproportionately affected. The wildcard here is whether coronavirus transmits as easily in warmer weather as it does in the cooler winter months. In this case there may be a difference, generally speaking, between the global north and south. Exceptions to watch could be cooler southern places such as New Zealand, Argentina and Chile. Shortages, as mentioned above in Taiwan, potentially should be short term, owing to global overcapacity of cement production, as end users find supplies from elsewhere.
The cement industry is also likely to encounter disruption to its supply chains. Major construction projects in South Asia are already reporting delays as Chinese workers have failed to return following quarantine restrictions after the Chinese New Year celebrations. As other countries suffer uncontrolled outbreaks then similar travel restrictions may follow. Global Cement has yet to see any examples of materials in the cement industry supply chain being affected. On the production side, raw mineral supply tends to be local but fuels, like coal, often travel further. Fuel markets may prove erratic as larger consumers cut back and suppliers like the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) react by restricting production.
On the maintenance side cement plants need a wide array of parts such as refractories, motors, lubricants, gears, wear parts for mills, ball bearings and so forth. Some of these may have more complicated supply chain routes than they used to have 30 years ago. On the supplier side any new or upgrade plant project is vulnerable if necessary parts are delayed by a production halt, logistics delayed and/or staff are prevented from visiting work sites. Chinese suppliers’ reliance on using their own workers, for example, might well be a hindrance here until (or if) international quarantine rules are normalised. Other suppliers’ weak points in their supply chains may become exposed in turn. This would benefit suppliers with sufficiently robust chains.
Chinese reductions in NO2 emissions in relation to the coronavirus industrial shutdown have been noted in the press. A wider global effect could well be seen too. This could potentially pose problems to CO2 emissions trading schemes around the world as CO2 prices fall and carbon credits abound. This might also have deleterious effects on carbon capture and storage (CCS) development if it becomes redundant due to low CO2 pricing. In the longer-term this might undesirable, as by the time the CO2 prices pick up again we will be that much nearer to the 2050 sustainability deadlines.
COVID-19 is a new pandemic in all but name with major secondary outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Italy growing fast and cases being reported in many other countries. The bad news though is that individual countries and international bodies have to decide how to balance the economic damage disease control will cause, versus the effects of letting the disease run unchecked. Yet as more information emerges on how to tackle coronavirus, the good news is that most people will experience flu-like symptoms and nothing more. Chinese action shows that it can be controlled through public health measures while a vaccine is being developed.
Until then, frequent handwashing is a ‘given’ and many people and organisations are running risk calculations on aspects of what they do. It may seem flippant but even basic human interaction such as the handshake needs to be reconsidered for the time being.