picture of pulp tonnage

Elie Rosenberg is a value investor based out of Dallas, Texas. He is the founder and editor of Value Slant

Following up on theNBSK market overview, let’s take a look at some individual NBSK pulp companies. The two publicly traded NBSK pure plays are Mercer International (MERC) and Canfor Pulp Products (CFX on the TSE and CFPUF on the pink sheets). Fibrek (FBK on the TSE) has about half of its sales from NBSK, but it is now more of a special situation following the recent Abitibi buyout offer. While clearly the future price of NBSK (which I discussed in the market overview) is what matters most for these stocks, it is worth taking a look at the individual companies.

Company Overviews

Mercer operates three pulp mills:

  • Rosenthal- Germany, 330,000 metric tons production capacity
  • Stendal- Germany, 645,000 mt capacity
  • Celgar- British Columbia, Canada, 520,000 mt capacity

They have a 74.9% stake in Stendal and fully own the other two. The mills have a combined annual production capacity of 1.5 million metric tons, making Mercer the second largest (and largest publicly traded) producer of NBSK market pulp.

Canfor Pulp Products owns 49.8% of the operating subsidiary Canfor Pulp Limited Partnership (CPLP), with the other 50.2% being owned by Canfor Corporation (CFP). Canfor Pulp was spun out of CFP in 2006. CPLP owns three NBSK mills in British Columbia, Canada with a combined capacity of 1.1 million mt, making them the third largest producer of NBSK market pulp. One of the mills also processes 140,000 mt of kraft paper (15% of revenues).


(Note all currency figures in reporting units- MERC in Euros and CFX in Canadian Dollars- unless otherwise noted.)

Both Mercer and Canfor have high capacity utilization regardless of market pricing levels:  They are both on the lower end of the production cost curve so it makes sense for them to keep running even as marginal producers take downtime during periods of lower NBSK pricing. (Canfor did take some downtime for capital projects with depressed market prices at the end of 2008.) NBSK market pricing is the primary determinant of revenues, and realized pricing is typically about 85% of list price.

Aside from market pricing for the commodity there are two other issues to consider- exchange rates and energy revenues.

Exchange rates can have a large impact on MERC and CFX revenues. NBSK prices are quoted in US dollars, while MERC operates primarily in euros and CFX in Canadian dollars. So any change in exchange rates flows straight to the bottom line, with both companies benefiting from a stronger US dollar. Canfor estimates that a 1 cent change in the exchange rate of US to Canadian dollars has the same impact ($6 million in EBITDA) as a $10 (US) change in the price per ton of NBSK. If the recent strength of the USD against the EUR and CAD holds, it will offset about half of the recent price declines in NBSK.

The pulp production process generates large amounts of biofuels as byproducts. These fuels can be used as internal power for the mills as well as sold externally. In the last several years MERC has invested in expanding its external energy sales. They are aiming to generate 700,000 megawatt hours in external sales and are close to that run rate in the most recent quarter. That should generate about €55-60 million in revenue, which has little incremental operating expense. The energy revenues are key to offsetting some of the volatility in NBSK pricing and effectively lowering the cash operating cost of the mills.

Canfor is a bit farther behind in terms of energy sales, having only $5.4 million in energy revenues in 2010. Canfor is increasing their biofuel generation as part of the “Green Transformation Project” largely funded by the Canadian government,  Energy sales will be several million dollars higher in 2011. Management is aiming to grow energy revenues to $50 million, but that is at least several years off.


The major operating expense for pulp makers is wood fiber, which is the raw material used to make pulp. Fiber makes up 40-50% of variable costs. British Columbia has an abundant supply of wood fiber, and has seen an uptick in harvesting levels in the last few years due to the pine beetle infestation. However, balancing the abundant supply is the reduced sawmill activity with the downturn in the construction markets. Pulp producers have not been able to source their fiber needs from residual sawmill wood chips alone and have had to use more expensive whole logs. In Germany, Mercer has also faced competition for wood chips from producers of various biofuels who are heavily subsidized by European governments. Mercer’s fiber costs per ton of pulp have reason 33% since 2006.

Mercer possesses the most modern asset base in the industry as well as some of the largest scale mills in Stendal and Celgar (chart from September 2011 Mercer presentation):

The young mill age helps to lower maintenance capex and higher uptime while the large mill size gives MERC economies of scale. From a mill operations standpoint, MERC should be on the lower end of the industry cost curve. Canfor also has some of the larger and most cost competitive mills in the industry albeit older ones.

This chart compares MERC EBITDA margins with Canfor EBITDA margins in their pulp segment (with corporate level costs allocated by percentage of total revenue): We see that Canfor has typically had higher margins, mainly due to the larger headwinds Mercer has faced with wood fibers.

Capital Structure and Allocation


Mercer has 733 million euros of debt and 287 million of equity (including 132 million in cash). However, there are several points that mitigate the leverage risk:

  • The book value number is misleading as Mercer has received substantial government grants for capital investments that are netted against the book value of their assets. At the end of 2010 the government grants less depreciation stood at €298 million. If we add that back to the book value of equity we get €585 million of equity ($14 a share).
  • The German government has guaranteed €417 million of the €477.5 million of debt remaining on the Stendhal mill.
  • While pulp earnings are very volatile, the energy revenues should be steady as long as the mills keep running at full capacity. The way MERC management frames it is that the €5o-60 million in energy revenues basically covers the approximately €50 million in annual interest expense.

Mercer has used most of its free cash flow for deleveraging and discretionary capital projects. Capex has averaged in the €30 million range the last several years, although most of that is growth capex as the mills are all relatively young with low maintenance requirements. They have also instituted a 25 million USD stock buyback plan and have bought back $10.6 million so far this year.

The debt against the Stendal mill has a reserve fund that requires a year of principal and interest payments to be put in before cash generated by the mill can be distributed to Mercer. On top of this, in 2009 Mercer fell behind on principal payments on the Stendal debt and had to restructure the debt.  MERC

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