The Malaysian Competition Commission took the rather ominous step this week of saying it was taking extra care to watch the cement industry. Ouch! It said that had taken note of recent price rises by both cement and concrete producers and that it was working with the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs as it met with the sector. It also said it was well aware of the recent merger between YTL and Lafarge, “...which had led to the market being more concentrated at the upstream and downstream level.”
The background here is that at least one unnamed cement producer announced a price hike of 40% in mid-June 2019. End-users panicked and the local press took up the story. The Cement and Concrete Association of Malaysia then defended price rises in general, when it was asked for comment, due to all sorts of mounting input costs. Although, to be fair, to the association the Malaysian Competition Commission acknowledged the price pressures the industry was under due to input costs in a report it issued in 2017.
Back in the present, the government became involved and Saifuddin Nasution Ismai, the head of the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry, calmed the situation down by saying that producers had agreed not to raise their prices after all and that any future planned price adjustments would be ‘discussed’ with the authorities first. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng then followed this up with calls for an investigation into prices in Sarawak state in Eastern Malaysia. In response, Suhadi Sulaiman, the chief executive officer (CEO) of CMS Cement, batted this straight back by blaming industry mergers in Peninsular Malaysia and saying the company had no plans ‘anytime soon’ to raise its prices.
As the Malaysian Competition Commission kindly pointed out, this entire furore took place about a month on from the competition of LafargeHolcim’s divestment of its local subsidiary to YTL. The commission agreed to the acquisition of Lafarge Malaysia by YTL knowing that it was giving YTL ownership of over half of the country’s production capacity. With this in mind it is unsurprising that the commission might have wanted to look tough in the face of even a whiff of market impropriety, whether it was real or not.
The problem, as the Malaysian Competition Commission alluded to in its statement, is that the local industry suffers from production overcapacity. On top of this local demand has been contracting since 2015. The country has 11 integrated cement plants with a production capacity of 27.1Mt/yr, according to Global Cement Directory 2019 data. Production hit a high of 24.7Mt in 2015 and then fell year-on-year to 18.8Mt in 2017. Data from the Cement and Concrete Association of Malaysia painted a worse picture taking into account both integrated and grinding capacity reporting an estimated production capacity utilisation rate of just 59% in 2016. Lafarge Malaysia reported a loss before tax of US$97.7m at the end of 2018 as well as declining revenue. Shortly thereafter it announced it was leaving the country, as well as neighbouring Singapore.
In theory the buyout by YTL should have been one step closer to solving Malaysia’s overcapacity woes as either it gained synergies through merging the companies or shut down some of its plants. Certainly, the system appears to be working at some level, as the proposed 40% price rise hasn’t happened. Yet, if the government is reacting to voters rather than the market it could prolong the capacity-demand gap indefinitely. Under these conditions LafargeHolcim’s decision to exit South-East Asia may prove prescient.