Lafarge and Holcim merger
The year has been dominated by one story: the merger of the two largest European-based cement producers, Lafarge and Holcim. The implications are massive. At a stroke the new company can dispose of less profitable units, clear debts and benefit from new mega-economies of scale. As Europe emerges from the recession, LafargeHolcim will be ready. Worldwide it is a rebuff to the consolidating Chinese cement producers who are poised, if they wish, to emerge from China and dominate international markets. The process has appeared surprisingly smooth so far with considerable forward planning. This week the European Commission has approved the proposed merger.
Lafarge CEO Bruno Lafont described the deal as 'a merger of equals'. What he didn't say is that the merger will leave LafargeHolcim with no equal. However, one question remains. Once the merger is complete will the new company be profitable?
China heads abroad
State planners in Hebei Province revealed plans to move excess cement production capacity outside of China in their usual sparse style. The quiet tone of the announcement failed to match its intentions to move 30Mt of capacity abroad by 2023. It is the next step after becoming the world's biggest cement producer, capturing swathes of the equipment market and consolidating its many local producers. How Chinese cement producers will fare in the wider global market remains to be seen. Yet while its economy remains strong the gobbling up of European utilities by Chinese companies suggests that, if all else fails, money talks.
Coal for India
If you can't fire-up your kiln you can't make clinker. With Indian cement producers reporting falling profits in 2014 the squabbling over coal allocation in the country summed up some of the input cost and infrastructure problems facing the country's cement industry. The coal blocks are due to be auctioned off from January 2015. Meanwhile analysts predict that Indian cement demand is unlikely to grow until 2016.
Sub-Saharan scares and skirmishes
The creation of Lafarge Africa means that three producers are now in a skirmish in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lafarge, Dangote and PPC. All three companies are present in multiple countries and expanding fast. This week, for example, PPC announced proposed merger plans with AfriSam. Given the low cement consumption per capita in this region the benefits of getting in early are immense. Unfortunately, there are many speed bumps along this road to development. One is the on-going Ebola epidemic. Left unchecked it could cause untold economic damage.
ASEAN set to open up
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is set to drop import tariffs in 2015 as it establishes a common market. Already in preparation cement producers have started to change their strategies, thinking regionally instead of nationally. Holcim Philippines, for example, announced in February 2014 that it was considering delaying building a new plant as it analysed the situation. The region, including high-growth countries like Indonesia and Thailand, could see its cement industry go into overdrive. However, the benefits may not be uniform as countries like the Philippines may lose out.
The US, fracking and falling oil prices
Of the western economies recovering from the 2007 recession, the US cement industry has rebounded the fastest, due in part to fracking which has brought down the cost of energy. The Brent Crude price hit a low of US$60 per barrel this week and this has consequences for everybody in the cement industry as fuel procurement strategies adapt.
For starters, cement producers gain a fuel bill cut as the cost of fuels fall. Producers in Egypt who have been frenziedly converting kilns from gas to coal may suddenly find their margins improve. Low energy prices also take away financial motivation to co-process alternative fuels in cement kilns. Finally, what of the giant infrastructure projects in Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) like Saudi Arabia? Take away the petrodollars propping up these builds and cement demand may evaporate.
For more a more detailed look at trends in the cement industry check out the Global Cement Top 100 Report.
Global Cement Weekly will return on 7 January 2015. Enjoy the festive break!