Focus on Australia

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A couple of news stories from Australia this week give us a reason to look at the country’s cement industry. All the main producers have now released their preliminary reports for the second half of 2016, with the exception of LafargeHolcim, one of the joint owners of Cement Australia. Essentially, the picture is mixed from two of the three main producers - Adelaide Brighton and Boral - with falling sales revenues but growing sales in the east. In mid-2016 the Australian Industry Group Construction Outlook survey predicted that the infrastructure, commercial and residential sectors would start to recover in the second half of 2016 leading to an upturn in 2017, although falling mining and heavy engineering construction was expected to continue to contrast in 2016.

The local market is split in clinker production terms with most of the producers (relatively) concentrated in the south and east of the country. Cement Australia leads in cement production capacity with 2.8Mt/yr or 42% of the country's production base from two integrated plants. Adelaide Brighton then comes next with 2.3Mt/yr or 35% from three plants and Boral follows with 1.5Mt/yr from one plant since the closure of clinker production at its Waum Ponds Plant in Victoria in 2012. The cement grinding plant situation is more varied with Adelaide Brighton's Northern Cement plant in the Northern Territory and BGC Cement plant in Western Australia amongst the country's 12 units, according to Global Cement Directory 2017 data. This total also includes a few slag cement grinding plants such as the Australian Steel Mill Services' plant and the Cement Australia-Ecocem plant that are both in Port Kembla.

Adelaide Brighton reported that its sales volumes of cement were down in 2016 due to major declines in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Here, volumes had fallen by around 20% year-on-year. Unfortunately, a revival in southern and eastern Australia in the second half of the year wasn’t enough to stem the tide of poor sales. Power supply issues in Southern Australia also caused disruptions at both the company’s own plants and at those of its customers, leading to reduced sales. The cement producer also said that its import volumes had fallen by 2Mt due to lower sales in Western Australia and the Northern Territory and that import costs had increased due to a drop in the value of the Australian Dollar. Adelaide Brighton's reliance on imports is interesting given that this week Semen Padang, a subsidiary of Semen Indonesia, announced that it had started exporting cement to Australia.

Meanwhile, Boral Australia said that its cement revenue had fallen by 3% year-on-year to US$95.3m for its first half to 31 December 2016. However, cement sales volumes grew by 3% driven by higher direct sales. It also noted that competition and energy costs had increased in the period. HeidelbergCement, the other joint owner of Cement Australia, along with LafargeHolcim, said that its operations in Australia had delivered solid development due to strong residential construction demand and strong demand on the East Coast that compensated for a weaker mining sector. LafargeHolcim confirmed this in its half-year report adding that road infrastructure projects had also helped. It also noted that benefits to its adjusted operating earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) had been accrued through energy savings and lower clinker import costs.

LafargeHolcim's financial results for 2016 are due later this week on 2 March 2017. Potentially they have big implications for the Australian cement market given the rumours that were swirling around a year ago about a potential divestment. Although the signs so far suggest that its subsidiary Cement Australia did okay in 2016, pressure elsewhere in the group might prompt a sale of its share. We discussed this issue in December 2015 but since then Adelaide Brighton publicly said it was working on an acquisition plan, including strategy on how to cope with any potential competition issues. All eyes will be on LafargeHolcim later in the week.

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