Arabian Cement Company had some choice words for a contractor this week when it blamed it in a bourse statement for a delay for a new mill at its Rabigh plant. The project has been pushed back to the third quarter of 2018 from the fourth quarter of 2017. The second phase of the plan, to build a new clinker production line, has also been placed under review.
The contractor may have given Arabian Cement an excuse to put a question mark over its new line, but the market reality has been stark. Also this week, Saudi Cement Company reported that its net profit had fallen by 51.5% year-on-year, to US$92.3m in the first nine months of 2017 compared to US$190.4m in the previous period. It blamed falling sales.
Graph 1: Cement sales (Mt) by quarter in Saudi Arabia, 2015 to September 2017. Source: Yamama Cement.
As Graph 1 shows, cement sales volumes in Saudi Arabia have been dropping since 2015. Sales fell by 5.3% year-on-year to 10.5Mt in the third quarter of 2017 from 10.9Mt in the same period in 2016. Year to date figures show a worse trend with a drop of 17.4% to 35.2Mt in the first nine months of 2017 compared to 42.7Mt in the same period in 2016. This decline has accelerated compared to a decrease of 5.4% from 45.1Mt in 2015 for the first three quarters.
Analyst Al Rajhi Capital provided some context to this situation in its September 2017 report on the August 2017 sales figures. It reported particularly steep declines in cement sales volumes of over 35% for Northern Cement, Najran cement and Hail Cement for the first eight months of the year. However, some producers - including City, Qassim, Yanbu and Al Safwa - did manage modest gains. Overall though the financial services company did not expect any pickup for the second half of 2017.
Last time this column covered the kingdom’s cement industry in early 2016 it asked when the government was going to relieve the export ban. Cement production was high, inventory was pilling up and infrastructure spending was falling. The ban was subsequently lifted but commentators worried that it would be too restrictive to have much effect due to tariffs and volume restrictions. A steady stream of cement producers has applied for export licences since then, but exports have not alleviated the situation. With inventory remaining high for the producers, current export policy failing to help and the local construction market subdued, it is unlikely that anything is going to change soon for the local cement industry. In fact it may even get worse if the government decides to revise its energy price policy later in 2017 or in early 2018, adding to the input cost burden of the producers.
Talk of market consolidation in this kind of market environment seems inevitable. This is exactly what happened earlier in the month when Jihad Al Rashid, the head of the Saudi National Committee for Cement Companies, said to local press that the local market only needed four large cement producers rather than the 17 companies it has at present. The question at this stage seems to be when, rather than if, will this process start.