The Lumber Experience

July 07, 2021 | Jessica Noviskis, CFA, Associate Director of Alternatives

Line chart showing lumber price level in teal. Chart subtitle: Lumber prices have sharply corrected from the early May peak. Chart description: Y-axis shows USD per Thousand Board Feet, a range of $0-$1,800. X-axis shows time, from July 2017 to present, in increments of two months. Up to about August 2020, prices hovered between $300 and $700, but increased dramatically through last autumn and into 2021. Prices peaked in May at over $1600 but have since corrected to about $790. Chart source: Bloomberg as of July 2, 2021.

“The lumber experience,” as coined by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, has become the poster child for transient inflation. After a brief pullback during the early days of COVID, lumber prices moved up sharply in 2020 to an unprecedented peak in May 2021. In the two months since, prices have been cut in half to roughly $790 per thousand board feet. While still nearly double pre-pandemic levels, the move is clearly meaningful.

Lumber embodies the different moving pieces of the inflation debate, impacted by easy monetary policy, fiscal stimulus, pandemic-related supply chain issues, and evolving consumer preferences spurred by COVID. Lumber, like other commodities, is priced based on the balance between supply and demand. The lumber market had initially braced for a COVID-related housing pullback that never came. Instead, increasing housing and renovation demand, fueled by record-low interest rates, extra cash, and newfound time at home, combined with restricted supply amid pandemic-related shutdowns led to a more than 250% increase in prices. Then, supply and demand adjusted. Sawmills ramped production and consumers put off purchases. Homebuilding permits fell to a seven-month low. This change in behavior is counter to conditions typical of runaway inflation and should help ease the worst of those concerns.

While it is unlikely lumber falls back to pre-pandemic levels given the severe housing shortage in the U.S., the correction, along with that in other commodities like copper, soybeans, and corn, does help the Fed navigate the thin line between fostering economic growth and managing inflation. In June, the Fed indicated we could see rate hikes start in 2023, up from previous expectations of 2024, though some analysts think this will be pulled forward again into 2022. The path of rates is important to markets — as we saw with the rate increases in 2018 and the rise in the 10-year earlier this year — and we will continue to look to leading indicators, like lumber prices in this case, to help inform our outlook and client recommendations.

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The opinions expressed herein are those of Marquette Associates, Inc. (“Marquette”), and are subject to change without notice. This material is not financial advice or an offer to purchase or sell any product. Marquette reserves the right to modify its current investment strategies and techniques based on changing market dynamics or client needs.

Jessica Noviskis, CFA
Associate Director of Alternatives

Get to Know Jessica

The opinions expressed herein are those of Marquette Associates, Inc. (“Marquette”), and are subject to change without notice. This material is not financial advice or an offer to purchase or sell any product. Marquette reserves the right to modify its current investment strategies and techniques based on changing market dynamics or client needs.

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