Breaking the cycle of cement overcapacity?

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Announcements from two very different countries serve to highlight the global cement sector’s on-going and seemingly intractable overcapacity issues this week.

First up, India, the world’s largest democracy and second-largest cement market, will reportedly struggle to exceed 70% capacity utilisation in the forthcoming 2020-2021 fiscal year, according to the credit ratings agencies ICRA, India Ratings and Crisil. In the same week, however, we have heard that UltraTech Cement will launch a 3.5Mt/yr capacity expansion at its Bhogasamudam plant in Andhra Pradesh, while ACC committed to launching a 2.5Mt/yr plant in Chandrapur, Maharashtra early last week. In February 2020 Deccan Cements firmed up plans to expand its Mahankaligudem plant in Telengana and JSW wants to turn its Bilakalagudur plant into a 6Mt/yr beast. Back in January 2020. Shree Cement launched ambitious plans to spend US$1.3bn on upgrades in the period to 2023. With Indian capacity estimated to hit 500Mt/yr by the close of 2020, what do all of these producers know that ICRA et al don’t?

Second on the list is centrally-planned Vietnam, the world’s third-largest producer, having produced 96.5Mt of cement in 2019. Here, long-standing excessive capacity is looking increasingly ridiculous following a massive collapse in export sales in January and February 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak. This, of course, continues to affect cement producers and users alike.

Just today, Nguyen Quang Cung, chairman of the Vietnam Cement Association (VNCA) said that demand is expected to remain high throughout 2020 as a whole. The Ministry of Construction (MoC) currently stands by its autumn 2019 forecast that Vietnam will produce a whopping 103Mt of cement this year. It expects domestic consumption to be around 70Mt, with exports of 33Mt. A 2.5Mt/yr plant in Tân Thắng Commune in the central province of Nghệ, and a 4.6Mt/yr plant in Bỉm Sơn Commune, Thanh Hóa, will come online in 2020, further adding to the country’s capacity. Exports were touted as the saviour of the sector back in January 2020. This assertion may now have to be revisited.

The drivers behind the overcapacity are different in each country. Indian producers have a long history of capacity addition in order to maintain or improve their market share. Standing still is tantamount to walking (or even running) backwards, so the biggest producers (and those that want to become big producers) tend to go ‘over the top’ with their expansion aims. Market forces eventually catch up with the smaller players, which find themselves bought up or shut down. This has the seemingly inevitable effect of maintaining low capacity utilisation rates.

In Vietnam, the overcapacity is due to central targets, which, as noted previously, are an entirely alien concept for cement producers across much of the rest of the world. As Vietnam’s obsession with high cement production has developed, it has become hooked on exports, entering a void recently vacated by Chinese exports. It often sells at scarcely-believable prices and now, with the introduction of the coronavirus into the mix, even these seem to be too high. After all, Vietnam’s cement association cannot ‘set targets’ for cement demand in other countries.

So… how to reduce capacity? There are two examples, again from different types of market. China has, of course, reduced its overcapacity massively to eliminate outdated capacity and improve the country’s environmental performance. This has been possible due to orders from the top of government. The other example can be found in Europe, where the EU Emissions Trading Scheme has finally found its teeth, with the oldest and least efficient plants now feeling the financial bite of their CO2 emissions.

It remains to be seen whether the collapse of the export market will force the Vietnamese cement sector to rationalise its inventory. From a market-based mindset it is clear that it should follow China’s lead. India, meanwhile, has a massive overcapacity that market forces seem slow (or indeed unable) to clear. The EU route may be more applicable here, but one might expect resistance from cement producers. Also, the development and demographic differences between India and Europe are stark, indicating that there may be a need, at some point in the future, for 500Mt/yr of capacity. The Indian majors are counting on this and laying the groundwork for a step-change in the future. Indeed, in a few years, 500Mt/yr may look vanishingly small if demand increases rapidly. What are the chances of that?

Last modified on 11 March 2020


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