As I sit down in my COVID-19 home confinement to summarize the winter and current market conditions, I can’t help but wonder what the future will hold for all of us when this pandemic is finally driven away and ends. It is almost incomprehensible that our lives could change so dramatically and so suddenly.
The deicing business is not a business that generally demands close contact and groups working closely together, so in that sense we are fortunate that we naturally socially distance and are not an industry where we all are piled into a building shoulder to shoulder to go about our daily tasks. The future for deicing has been questioned as the planet’s weather cycles have changed, and those that rely on winter weather have been adversely impacted due to very low demand albeit specific to some regional areas.
As a general statement, our industry in snow and ice control relies on regular snowfall and cold weather in the areas with high population density. The weather has been unseasonably warm for the past few years and while we’ve seen some snow in some areas, for the most part the industry is beaten up with low demand. Dropping a pandemic on top of these conditions only serves to further frustrate and challenge the snow and ice industry.
Road salt in all forms continues to substantially dominate the demand for deicing chemicals. However, environmental awareness of the effects of salt use are beginning influence decision makers that are not restricted by cost constraints. LEED-certified facilities for example have gone over to more environmentally friendly alternatives like acetates where possible.
Salt is the least expensive, most abundant, and reasonably effective deicing compound in most situations, however, with 67 percent chlorides in every pound of salt contributing to the pollution of surface and groundwater, there is a strong desire to find comparably priced alternatives. While premium deicers like magnesium chloride and calcium chloride have replaced the use of salt in some small specific areas where they are affordable, these products are nearly eight times more expensive products are not going to replace salt – only augment it as an additive. Additionally, the drive for bio-renewable and biodegradable products continues to be high on the wish list and clever options are being tested by our customers as well as others. Still, there is no silver bullet to replace inexpensive and effective road salt.
Salt inventories are reasonably strong in most of North America. While specific regions had some winter weather in 2019-2020 and pulled down some regional inventories, we expect the preseason to be fairly anemic with demand only in areas along the Great Lakes and upper mid-west where snowfalls this past winter were closer to normal – albeit still short.
The Northeast US from North Carolina to Maine is a normally strong road salt market with nearly 56 million people and highly concentrated population density. The Northeast United States proximity to the ocean further helps with lots of competition holding prices on bulk salt down as supplies from overseas land in ports and then fill the market needs. As we look at current inventories in the northeast region, they are pretty strong resulting from a virtually non-existent winter. Ocean shipping costs for bulk vessels of salt have plunged at a time when they were expected to rise to offset the impact of IMO2020 low sulfur ruling January 1st compliance for all ships. All of the ship owners did invest substantial amounts in retrofits and new engine systems to meet this new international low sulfur fuel law, however as a result of the COVID19 global slowdown, ocean bulk rates have plunged. We’ve seen some rates drop by over 50 percent from their highs before IMO2020. This glut of capacity at low prices will enable new suppliers to enter the US market with costs that are below the costs of the salt that is sitting in inventory now and may well become a stranded asset. That is concerning many current suppliers in the market with inventory in competitively vulnerable locations. That is the very nature of commodity business and in particular -- salt. Prices go up and down with demand and market condition. With significant cuts in bulk commodity shipments ship owners are scrambling to get any revenue they can which is by price.
I expect winter on the East Coast will start slowly and prices will be down somewhat. All of this can change if conditions take another quantum shift, up or down.
Moving into the Midwest, again many of the same situations on the East Coast apply in the areas where there was little or no snow. The Great Lakes region did see some snow and did have some demand kick on so there will likely be new supplies coming into the upper Midwest, but most of heartland America are sitting on significant inventory and not looking to build that up until some of that starts drawing down.
The US West Coast, as a general rule, doesn’t use road salt and only a few pockets of demand in the Pacific Northwest states use fortified road salt; salt with other additives – if they use it at all.Summarizing road salt best characterized as: “There’s no joy in Mudville.” It will be a long wait for demand to turn back on and pull inventories down first from end users and finally switch on demand at wholesale and manufacturer levels.
Bagged salt continues to be generally plentiful as there was very low retail demand in the population centers. Selling salt to retail is a bit of what is called the cobra effect in retail where unsold inventory is generally returned to the supplier to be held and then sold the following year. The double handling and the cost of re-work for retail bagged product only add to the stranded asset scenario of selling below your cost when demand does come back. It’s a vicious cycle in winters where it doesn’t snow much. Many regional companies provide bagged salt and further service and dilute the market opportunity.
Blended products continue to be heavily promoted. Caveat emptor on blended products and know what you are buying for a premium. Many are now trying to claim natural background contaminants in salt such as magnesium, calcium, and potassium on their labels as if it were an intentionally added benefit which it is not. Always best to demand a certificate of analysis and/or certification of ingredients in descending order of concentration. If that request is not honored, you have to ask why in a day of consumer right to know laws anyone would not disclose ingredients and formulas; it’s not rocket science and the only secret may well be in revealing how much you are over-paying for dyed salt with few deliberately added materials…if any
These products include:
Calcium chloride continues to be very long in inventory and supply. No problems here. There is insufficient domestic US production to cover demand in a high demand year, so imported product must augment supply when domestic supplies are depleted. I don’t see domestic supplies getting depleted unless with have a return to a good old-fashioned winter with sustained cold and precipitation every few days. Cold will drive demand for premium melters as salt stops working at around 15 degrees unless it is encapsulated with a catalyst like calcium chloride.
Like calcium chloride, magnesium chloride inventories are still fairly strong. The only US production of magnesium chloride is in the west and does not generally reach and compete in the population centers of the East Coast. Therefore, imported magnesium chloride fills that demand. There was some disruption to the magnesium chloride supply chain a year ago that continues and will likely not improve until Q4 2020 if then. That means that magnesium chloride inventories in the east will likely deplete quickly if the demand switch is set to high.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I don’t expect prices to go up for next season. Likewise, whether deicer prices will drop is hard to predict. There is a point for the supplier where the better option is to hold the higher cost inventory and wait for the market to correct. That could cause prices to jump if suppliers suddenly stop bidding and selling and temporarily exit the market.