The cement industry in the Philippines has been generating a lot of ‘steam’ in the past three months. Some of this has now come to a head in the last few weeks with the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) decision to impose tariffs on imported cement and the Philippine Competition Commission’s (PCC) on-going investigation into alleged-anti-competitive behaviour. Then, there was the unnamed sourced quoted by Bloomberg this week that LafargeHolcim was seriously thinking about selling up in the country.
Resistance to imported cement has been building for a while as local producers and importers have repeatedly clashed in the media. The latest thread of this story started in September 2018 when the DTI started an investigation into imports. A review by the department found that imports grew by 70% year-on-year in 2014, 4391% in 2015, 549% in 2016 and 72% in 2017. However, the market share of imports grew from 0.02% in 2013 to 15% in 2017. This was followed by various organisations taking sides. The Philippine Constructors Association, Laban Konsyumer (a consumer group), the Philippine Cement Importers Association and others came out on the side of the importers, warning of the risk to prices and consumers if duties were implemented.
It didn’t stop the DTI though. It imposed a provisional safeguard duty of US$0.16/bag on imported cement, around 4% of the cost of a 40kg bag. The PCC then said that it was going to consider the new tariff as part of its on-going investigation. Its probe started in 2017 following allegations that the Cement Manufacturers Association of the Philippines (CEMAP), LafargeHolcim Philippines and Republic Cement and Building Materials had violated the Philippines Competition Act by engaging in anti-competitive agreements.
Amid all of this, LafargeHolcim popped up earlier this week with a news story that it was actively trying to find the ‘right’ price for its local subsidiary, Holcim Philippines. The ‘right’ price at the moment being something around US$2.5bn for four integrated plants and associated assets. That’s around US$225/t of production capacity using the total of 8.4Mt/yr in the Global Cement Directory 2019 and considering LafargeHolcim’s 75% share in the subsidiary. This is about what you’d expect, but it is certainly higher than the US$120/t LafargeHolcim has officially accepted for its divestment of its Indonesian operations.
Given the anonymous nature of the sources involved, it’s uncertain whether LafargeHolcim’s alleged intentions to sell in the Philippines is anything more than market scuttlebutt. What is more certain is that Holcim Philippines has had a tough time so far in 2018, reporting a 23% year-on-year drop in earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) to US$64.8m in the first nine months of 2018 from US$83.9m in the same period in 2017. Sales have grown but this has been hit by the fuel, power and distribution costs as well as the depreciation of the Philippine Peso against the US Dollar. It also blamed imports for its problems. However, alongside all of this the company announced in December 2018 that it was spending US$300m towards increasing its production capacity by 30% to 13Mt/yr by 2020. This includes upgrades to its plants at Bulacan and Misamis Oriental with the installation of new kilns, mills and waste heat recovery systems.
The latest victory in the war between producers and importers seems to be on the side of the producers as the government steps in with protection for the industry. The Philippines’ economy is doing well with its gross domestic product (GDP) forecast to rise by 6.5% in 2019 by the World Bank. The trick for the government will be striking the balance between shielding industry from dumping and allowing the construction industry to keep on growing. Rumours about LafargeHolcim selling up are enticing but seem less likely than LafargeHolcim’s decision to exit Indonesia. Leaving would mean abandoning South-East Asia and exiting a country with a growing industry.