Fernando A González and Cemex took to the virtual airways this week with Cemex Day 2021. The investors’ update comprised the usual greatest hits package explaining how well everything is going: earnings growth and leverage levels about to hit desired targets, selective investments and divestments on the way, new production capacity round the corner and punchy sustainability goals turning up earlier than expected. Or at least that’s the way that chief executive officer González and the team told it.
To be fair to Cemex, it seems to be in a good place right now. It weathered 2020 well and now its first quarter results in 2021 compared to the same period in 2019, before coronavirus hit, are looking rosy with cement sales volumes growth of 9%. How much of that is attributable to pent up demand from 2020 remains to be seen though. Its strategy of focusing on markets in North America and Europe appears to have paid off in recent years with its competitors copying it as they have retreated from riskier climes and concentrated on core territories. Its obsession with righting the ratio between its debts and earnings is closer than ever to being realised, with a 4.07x net leverage ratio in 2020 and a target of 3x or lower planned for 2023. That last target is crucial both materially and psychologically for the company as it starts to put it back in the same financial field as its Western multinational competitors and opens up new investment opportunities.
From a production angle, the big news from the event was a 10Mt/yr cement production expansion project between now and 2023. This wasn’t quite as promising as it sounded, as just under half of this was attributed to legacy projects in Mexico, Colombia and the Philippines and some of the new projects had already been announced, but it does bookmark a move from divesting plants to upgrading and building new ones.
The new projects comprise an additional 5.7Mt/yr capacity from on-going debottlenecking, new integrated plants, new grinding plants and reopening idle or mothballed plants. During the event José Antonio González, the Executive Vice President of Strategic Planning & Business Development broke it down into 3.5Mt in Mexico, consisting of 1.5Mt additional grinding capacity at the integrated Tepeaca plant, a 0.5Mt/yr expansion at the integrated Huichapan plant and 1.5Mt/yr from bringing both idled lines back into production at the CPN Hermosilla plant in Senora to support the US market. That last one notably was partly announced in February 2021. In Europe and the US the group plans to add 1.2Mt/yr including expanding grinding capacity at two plants in Europe with details to be announced later. Finally, the company plans to add 1Mt/yr of additional capacity in South American including restarting an idled 0.5Mt/yr kiln at a plant in the Dominican Republic and building a new 0.5Mt/yr grinding mill in Guatemala.
Cemex has also stepped up its target reduction in CO2 emissions to below 475kg CO2/t of cementitious material, an approximately 40% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 1990 levels, by 2030. The previous target for 2030 of 520 kg CO2 has been brought forward to 2025. This compares to LafargeHolcim’s similar target of 475kg CO2/t by 2030, HeidelbergCement’s target of 500kg CO2/t by 2030 and CRH’s target of 530kg CO2/t by 2030. The group is planning to spend US$60m/yr on its decarbonisation projects. This compares to a spend of around US$140m/yr on its 10Mt/yr cement production capacity expansion drive over the next three years. Or to put it another way, the group is spending more on growing than sustainability.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good public relations for Cemex this week with the news in the Colombian press that one of its former executives is set to be investigated by the authorities over his alleged involvement in the ongoing Maceo cement plant corruption case. The background to this one is that in 2016 Cemex fired several senior staff members, and the local subsidiary’s chief executive resigned, in relation to the building of a new integrated plant at Maceo. This followed an internal audit and investigation into payments worth around US$20m made to a non-governmental third party in connection with the acquisition of the land, mining rights and benefits of the tax free zone for the project. Legal proceedings followed in Colombia and the US. Many large companies have legacy problems to deal with. Just take LafargeHolcim’s continued connection to Lafarge Syria’s conduct in the early 2010s. At the time of writing the Maceo plant is still yet to start operation and is likely to be one of the ongoing projects mentioned above.
Cemex’s second quarter results are due to arrive towards the end of July 2021 but the group is presenting an upbeat image. Sales are up, debts are down, divestments are out and expansions are in. Confidence is important for a multinational trying to convince the rating agencies to give it back its investment grade, so whether this is strictly true or not it certainly knows how to talk the talk. One question going forward at least is how strictly Cemex will want to stick to its core markets if the good times really have returned?