Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A View to the Future of U.S. Pencil Manufacturing

My last post addressed recent news regarding allegations of illegally imported Chinese pencils.  In order to avoid anti-dumping duties these pencils were apparently transshipped via third party countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia and mislabeled as to country of origin.  Today I am addressing the overall U.S. market for pencils and future of U.S. production of pencils relative to how I see this topic coupled with other developing industry trends.

In my view, regardless of the final outcome of this particular legal case I believe this is a positive development for U.S. pencil manufacturers and other established pencil industry participants who are committed to making quality products and playing by the rules when it comes to all manner of international trade, environmental, labor and product safety regulations.  For the past 20 years the trends of globalization, retail channel consolidation and other competitive market forces have contributed to a dramatic shift in our industry structure just as in many other industries.  As a free market thinker I do not believe these are inherently bad trends and they have led to a number of benefits for society as a whole though those benefits may not always be evenly dispersed and has not always resulted in comparable product quality. 
When it comes to pencils, both here in the U.S. and worldwide, we are seeing more pencils sold and consumed at lower average prices than 20 years ago.  Despite the common misconception that pencils are a dying business, pencil consumption generally grows globally at or around the rate of population growth.  Also per capita pencil consumption tends to increase with income growth as well.  Providing we continue our positive immigration trends we should see stable and slowly growing demand for wood-cased pencils over the long term.  Obviously income growth and dispersion is a current concern in light of recent economic developments, but ultimately I still remain optimistic about U.S. potential from the macroeconomic stand point.

The rise of computers, tablets, or smart phones over this period have yet to prove to me that these technologies are going to displace writing instruments and pencils as a whole.  Technology certainly can impact how and where we use pencils at the margins. However, there is a strong emotional and tactile connection people have with their preferred writing tools and the physical act of depositing graphite, ink, paint or color pigments onto paper.  What could impact per capita pencil consumption even more than technology is allowing another generation of kids to be raised without access to and experiencing the use of good quality pencils. This could drive consumption patterns to alternate writing instruments in the long term.  Despite the benefit of ever cheaper wood-cased pencils on household budgets over the past 20 years , one negative byproduct has been exposing children, teachers and other consumers to a general reduction in the quality of the average pencil sold here in the U.S.  At Pencils.com one of our most common consumer questions is: “Where can I find a decent pencil at a reasonable price in which the lead won’t break, the eraser works without smearing and that actually writes well?”  Teachers often report that the simple act of more frequent breakage and sharpening has become a disruption in the classroom.

One complicating factor is the poor state of funding for education in the U.S., especially when it comes to the provision of basic school supplies. As a result the burden of supplying pencils and other suppliesis increasingly pushed onto teachers and families who have their own budgetconcerns.  The drive for ever lower prices has helped, but has also compromised quality and selection.  As a result the assortment of pencils on retailers’ shelves has declined and the mix increased towards imported private label or low price non-manufacturer brands.  Lower space allocation is offered to traditional quality manufacturer brands.
So what do a bunch of economic, social and demographic trends have to do with an illegal transshipment case and whether this helps the U.S. industry or not.  The question lies in part whether the retailers as a group, begin to see that price of pencils cannot be their sole determining factor in the product mix as there are other costs such as the associated anti-dumping duties and penalties.  Also will consumers take a greater interest in the quality and origins of their pencil purchases?  Sure they are still going to want the best price possible.  However, I tend to think that a supplier who is willing to illegally transship pencils is also a supplier who is more likely to cut corners in product safety and quality.. These are all problems the retailers and consumers don’t want to deal with over the long term.  If retailers increasingly find they will be held responsible for penalties, fines and consumer dissatisfaction as a result of the potential negative aspects of their product supply chain then they are going to increase their diligence in vetting and selecting their suppliers.  Certainly they cannot be expert in every product range they sell and as they are importing many products globally, the headache of assuring compliance on products with anti-dumping duties and other safety or regulatory concerns may result in some level of return for advice and supply to known domestic vendors for improved reliability.  This does not necessarily mean an imported pencil will be replaced by a domestically produced one, but the opportunity for engagement on that supply decision will certainly improve for the U.S. producers.

Further there are currently added economic trends that point towards some return to U.S. manufacturing in general.  My belief is this ultimately will have some positive benefits for the U.S. pencil industry also.  Labor costs in China are now increasing dramatically and though still quite low relative to the U.S. are making it difficult for many general manufacturing companies to find and retain qualified employees.  Chinese labor regulations as well as other environmental and bureaucratic regulations are beginning to impact the general cost of doing business in China.  This first impacts those producers in China who play by the rules, but in time the effects should spread further throughout the Chinese economy. Meanwhile, U.S. domestic energy costs are declining with the increase in domestic gas exploration and development.  Long lead times on overseas supply chains complicate planning and inventory investment while domestic producers can often be more flexible with quicker response times. 
Another important concern within the pencil industry is that Chinese basswood and other Chinese woods have come under pressure for use in other domestic purposes.  More wood is coming from Russia which has less stringent regulatory oversight causing more concern with legal wood supply issues.  A resurgence in total Chinese GDP growth from their current slowdown will have further inflationary impact on global wood supply and thus eventually pencil prices as well.  In my personal assessment we’ve seen a low point reached in global wholesale pencil prices that was reached about two or three years ago.  There will always be some other part of the world, the next low cost country, to move on to, but adequate quality wood supply and transportation costs also have an important impact on pencil economics beyond labor costs and regulatory environments.  Overtime, the developing world catches up in relative costs so the U.S. should be able to adapt and innovate to remain competitive.  That is as long as we do not let our current political stagnation and increasingly burdensome regulatory environment overwhelm us over the long term. As the U.S. remains one of the most important global growers of trees this ultimately will have some positive impact on a host of products manufactured from solid wood.  As a result I do predict that we will eventually see at least some small improvement in U.S. production of pencils and other wooden products over time.

In our own business at California Cedar Products Company we are certainly not prepared to return our slat manufacturing operations to the U.S.  However, we are increasing our commitment to U.S. based wood supply with the recent introduction of our Pacific Albus product range.  Eventually we expect this will be an increasingly relevant component of our business displacing Chinese and Russian Basswood and supplementing our premium California Incense-cedar product range. 
Additionally, we have recently made several small movements towards U.S. production regarding our Palomino Brands pencil ranges.  Recently we relocated the final eraser tipping process for our Palomino Blackwing and Blackwing 602 pencils from Japan to our Stockton, CA using a newly developed tipping process.  This should improve tipping quality and responsiveness as demand for Blackwing pencils grows.  Thought the pencils themselves will continue to be produced in Japan.  Also, we are transitioning our Prospector and Golden Bear products from Thailand production to the U.S. where we are working with one of our slat customers Musgrave Pencil Company to produce these items. The new “made in the USA” versions of both pencils will phase out our prior California Republic versions and be available exclusively on Pencils.com in the coming weeks.  These pencil items represent only a very minute segment of the U.S. pencil market, but do expand our commitment to offering a “Made in the U.S.A.” product selection in our Pencils.com store.


ana said...

This is very exciting news! I am looking forward to a long happy life filled with American-made and American-finished pencils from California Cedar!

John said...

It's GREAT news on the Pencil Front. This is fantastic!

(Commemorative red/white/blue edition?)

Kelly said...

I get a lot out of reading your articles on the business side of pencils, and am fascinated by the ends and outs of the business. Please keep them coming.