Cement import shortcuts

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Cement imports were one of the themes in this week’s news, with stories on the topic from South Africa and Ukraine. The former concerned the latest chapter in that industry’s saga on slowing down imports. The International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC) has started a review on tariffs imposed on cement from Pakistan that were introduced in 2015.

Local producers in South Africa have experienced mixed fortunes since 2015, such as PPC and AfriSam’s failed merger attempt or the introduction of a local carbon tax, and were starting to complain again about imports even before the effects of coronavirus in 2020. This led the Concrete Institute to lobby ITAC in 2019 about rising imports from other nations, principally Vietnam and China.

Back in 2013 cement imports from Pakistan to South Africa were 1.1Mt. This represented the vast majority of all imports to the country. Tariffs of 14 – 77% were imposed on Pakistan-based exporters in mid-2015, initially for six months, but this was then extended. Roughly a year later in mid-to-late 2016, Sephaku Holdings said that imports of cement had ‘significantly’ declined on a year-on-year basis, particularly from Pakistan. By the end of June 2016 approximately 0.16Mt had been imported compared to 0.5Mt in the previous period. However, it noted that 75% of the volume was from China. Since then imports started to creep up. Cement imports reportedly rose by 84% year-on-year in 2018 and then by 11% in 2019. Data from construction industry data company Industry Insight suggests that Vietnam accounted for 70% or 0.47Mt of the 0.68Mt of cement imported into South Africa in the first nine months of 2020. The remaining 30% or 0.20Mt came from Pakistan. In this kind of environment it seems unlikely that ITAC will do anything other than extend tariffs.

Meanwhile in the northern hemisphere, in Ukraine this week a court in Kiev dismissed a challenge by the Belarusian Cement Company to remove cement import tariffs from Russia, Belarus and Moldova that were introduced in mid-2019 for five years. Notably, a law firm representing Dyckerhoff Cement Ukraine, HeidelbergCement Ukraine, Ivano-Frankivsk Ukraine and CRH subsidiary Podilsky Cement commented favourably upon the court’s decision to uphold tariffs. These producers form UKRCEMENT, the association of cement producers of Ukraine. However, the association doesn’t include Russia-based Eurocement, which operates Ukraine’s largest cement plant at Balakleya. Relations have been poor between Russia and Ukraine since a war between the countries that started in 2014. So any trade tariffs implemented upon Russia and/or Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members will inevitably carry the whiff of geopolitics. Yet, in Ukraine’s defence, it also started an anti-dumping investigation into cement imports from Turkey in September 2020. Nationalism may be relevant but let’s not discount hard-nosed economics just yet.

Turkey’s involvement in Ukraine leads to last week’s presentation at Global Cement Live by Sylvie Doutres, DSG Consultants on cement and clinker trade in and out of the Mediterranean region. Readers can watch the presentation here but the headline story here was the trend of reducing exports away from southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, to greater exports from North African countries and Turkey over the last decade. Turkey particularly has pushed its share of exports even more in 2020 despite (or perhaps because of) a tough domestic market. The general trend here away from southern Europe has been blamed on European Union-based (EU) producers becoming less competitive often against newer plants in nearby countries.

Battles between producers and government tariff policies are a perennial feature of any market in commodities such as cement. The ebb and flow of import and export markets cover many factors including production costs, distribution networks, tariff structures and more. Distinctive features of cement trading, for example, are the high cost of transporting heavy building materials over land and the world’s chronic cement production overcapacity. In the EU’s case one reason that often gets blamed is the emissions trading system (EU ETS) and the mounting cost it is imposing upon cement production. For example, today’s story that Holcim España wants to convert its integrated Jerez plant into a grinding unit has been blamed on falling exports and a reduction in ETS credits. It is noteworthy then that the EU ETS rate breached the Euro30/t level in December 2020. This may be good news for the sustainability lobby but the exodus of exports away from Southern Europe tells its own story. What form the EU ETS carbon border adjustment mechanism takes as part of the EU Green Deal will be watched closely by producers both inside and outside the EU.

Global Cement Live continues on 21 January 2021 with Kevin Rudd, Independent Cement Consultants, presenting 'Independent or third party factory acceptance testing of major cement plant equipment and critical spare parts and the challenges of Covid’

Last modified on 20 January 2021

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