Could Knauf corner the market in gypsum for cement plants?

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Germany’s Knauf announced this week that it is set to buy North American wallboard producer USG. The news is relevant for the cement industry because both companies are prominent gypsum producers. They are leading gypsum wallboard producers, with assets around the world, including gypsum mines. Although their focus is on wallboard a significant proportion of raw gypsum ends up being used in cement production. Hence, the takeover of a major North American producer by a European one deserves attention.

First a little background on the deal between Knauf and USG. The takeover has been a particularly acrimonious one at times, with both parties throwing strong language at each other and, although it has avoided being a hostile takeover, at times it seemed close. The deal became public in March 2018 when USG publicly said that it had rejected a bid of US$5.9bn from Knauf. It described the offer at the time as ‘wholly inadequate.’ Knauf then fought back by sending a letter to USG’s shareholders urging them to vote against director nominees at the next annual general meeting. Knauf owns 10.5% of USG’s shares. Then, in April 2018, Warren Buffett, the chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, USG’s largest shareholder with a 31% stake, swung behind Knauf’s scheme. At this point it was revealed that Buffett had facilitated the initial talks between USG and Knauf. He even described the investment in USG as ‘disappointing.’ Buffett’s public move against USG in April 2018 signalled the death knell to USG’s independence. The US$7bn deal between Knauf and USG was agreed and announced on 11 June 2018. The transaction is expected to complete in early 2019.

USG operates 12 mines or quarries in North America. It also has other assets around the world including three gypsum mines in Oman, Thailand and Australia respectively that it runs in conjunction with its USG Boral joint venture in the Middle East and Asia. By contrast Knauf held over 60 quarries in 2014 with a focus on Europe.

The interesting implications from the merger may arise from what Knauf plans to do in certain regions. North America for example saw a reduction in raw mined gypsum production since the financial crash in 2008 as building markets suffered. Rising levels of synthetic gypsum production from coal power plants partly compensated for this. Buying USG gives Knauf a truly global base of natural gypsum production with which it can supply both itself and any cement customers. Knauf has a real shot of cornering the market in raw gypsum production provided it can keep the price low enough to stop enough rival mines being opened. Knauf might decide, as the construction market continues to recover in the US, to bring in the extra gypsum from elsewhere if it proved cost effective. Hooking up USG-Boral gypsum resources in Asia with Knauf’s might have implications for cement producing countries that lack sufficient gypsum supplies such as India. Oman is building itself up as the major gypsum exporter to Asia and USG-Boral is a part of it, with major gypsum resources in the country.

In terms of the cement industry it seems likely that there will be no immediate shakeup of gypsum supply. Long term supply contracts with either USG or Knauf should remain as they were and will stransfer to the new enlarged company. Knauf’s main market for gypsum is to use it to make wallboard but gypsum use for cement is a significant market as well. The ‘fun’ starts when or if Knauf starts to reorganise its supply chains. As its focus is on the wallboard business there may be implications thereafter for cement users. And since Knauf’s only major competitor at scale is Saint-Gobain, the market has just shrunk.

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