Once again the winter weather was bad in Europe. Once again the major European cement producers reported a fall in sales. So what has changed between the first quarters of 2012 and 2013?
Lafarge's cement sales volumes in Western Europe for the first quarter of 2013 fell by 24% year-on-year, compared to an 11% drop in 2012. Holcim's decline in volumes stabilised, compared to a 13.2% drop in 2012. HeidelbergCement's volume decline increased slightly, from a drop of 8% in 2012 to one of 10% in 2013. Cemex didn't release sales volumes figures for cement but overall net sales in its Northern Europe region fell by 13% in 2013 compared to 11% in 2012. Italcementi's cement sales volumes maintained a steady decline in both the first quarters of 2012 and 2013 at about 19%.
Even with the reduced number of working days for the quarter in 2013 taken into account, things are not looking good. Generally the results fit the prediction made by the UK Mineral Products Association (in the UK at least) that construction activity remains subdued in 2013 so far.
Profitability measures for the European divisions of the big producers, such as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA), reinforce the gloomy outlook, suggesting that most of the cost cutting exercises aren't having much effect on investor balance sheets quite yet. Lafarge's EBITDA in Western Europe fell by 94% to Euro5m. HeidelbergCement's loss before interest and taxes (EBIT) increased to Euro91m. Cemex's operating EBITDA fell from US$55m in 2012 to a loss of US$17m in 2013. Italcementi's EBITDA decreased to Euro12.8m.
Only Holcim reversed this trend, growing its EBITDA by 43% to Euro23.5m. The Holcim Leadership Journey appears to be working. Although the sale of a 25% stake in Cement Australia certainly helped.
Elsewhere, we have an additional story at add to last week's focus on Iraq, with the announcement that Mondi has opened an industrial bags plant in Iraq. It's based in Sulaimaniyah in northern Iraq near to the new Sinoma-Lafarge project that we reported on.
Finally, the news that the Competition Commission of India has been asked to investigate a complaint against a Chinese waste heat recovery vendor raises tensions between the world's largest two cement producers. The story echoes similar trends in the gypsum wallboard business in April 2013 where a selective anti-dumping duty was imposed on imports from China, Indonesia, Thailand and the UAE. Watch this space.