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.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Allegations of Illegal Chinese Pencils

U.S. Pencil Anti-Dumping Duties are news once again as a result of new developments with regards to alleged transshipments of pencils produced in China via third countries to avoid these duties.   Despite the imposition of such duties since 1994 there has been a steady increase in imports by retailers and wholesalers most importantly from China, but also Indonesia, and numerous other countries over the past 20 years.  To maintain competitive through out this period much of the traditional volume supplied by U.S. pencil manufacurers has migrated primarily to Mexico and Asia, particularly the largest U.S. producers.

In effect, the large retailers and a new class of importers and distributors have significant increased importance to overall US pencil supply using lower cost imports by bypassing the historical U.S. producers. Today U.S. manufacturers now use a combination of U.S. production, foreign production in their own subsidiary facilities as well as outsourced production from third party foreign suppliers to meet thier customers needs. Only a very few maintain all their production within the U.S.

Today I estimate that less than 10% of U.S. pencil consumption consists of pencils actually manufactured in the United States.  Certainly the actual market share of the traditional U.S. producers is much higher when factoring in production imported from their own facilities in Mexico or China plus what they import from other foreign producers.  Perhaps 50% of the U.S. market today are pencils imported directly from China, despite the anti-dumping duties of 114% levied on Chinese pencils since 1994.  Most of these direct Chinese imports do not pay the full anti-dumping duty given that provisions under the statutes allow for a review process with the U.S. Commerce department that results in reductions in these duties applicable to some Chinese producers/exporters.  However, the review process is expensive and only the largest Chinese producers that export to the US participate.  As a result it has been long suspected that there also have been a substantial number of Chinese produced pencils being illegally transshipped via third countries to avoid these duties.  Suspecting and proving such transshipments however are separate matters. 

Now for the first time since implementation of the duties it was made public in May that there is an active civil case proceeding against several large U.S. retailers and importers for participating in the importation of illegal transshipped Chinese pencils via countries such as Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam.  This case was filed in 2008 by the Cullen Law Firm in Washington, D.C. per the this press release published May 17, 2012.  The public docket was made available May 1st.  Note that at this time these remain only allegations, but if the case prevails there are substantive fines and penalties that would be accruing going back to at least 2006 as it’s not just the transshipment to avoid duties that is a potential violation, but also incorrect marking relative to country of origin laws as well. 

I have now had the opportunity to review the actual Docket Report from the U.S. District court which was formally unsealed on May 1st of this year.  Certainly the details of the allegations in these documents seem well researched and argued and are consistent with rumors of various transshipment practices I’ve heard throughout the years.  The Cullen law firm seems confident in their press release.  In the event the case is successful it appears that the the Cullen firm and their client will benefit financially receiving a share of the duties and penalties collected with the balance returning to the U.S. Government which remains an interested party to this case. 
There is also the matter of whether the defendants were knowingly or unknowingly participating in this practice.  My understanding is that the burden of proof on that point is not as relevant in a civil case vs. a criminal case and that may be the rub.  The plaintiff just has to prove the illegal transshipments occurred.  Whether these companies knew they were illegal transshipments doesn’t really matter.  If proven true, clearly the drive for ever lower procurement costs from these retailers will have played a part in supporting the illegal behavior facilitated by thier suppliers in one way or another.  As the importers of record they are potentially subject to the back duties and penalties and as these appear to be rather substantial I assume this case has definitely got their attention and hopefully the attention of other pencil importers.

Finally, from what I’ve learned about the case to date none of the traditional U.S. pencil producers appears to be actively involved as a plaintiff, nor has any been named or identified as a participant in any of the alleged transshipment activities.  In my experience the U.S. Industry participants have always supported “playing by the rules” and indeed several companies were involved as plaintiffs in the original anti-dumping case.  In that respect they helped set the current rules.  Even if some  of these U.S. producers may have relocated much of their own production overseas, they have long been active in assuring that their own imports of finished goods and raw materials are fully compliant with applicable U.S. trade law as well as all relevant consumer products safety regulations, etc.  While the U.S. Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association and it’s Pencil Section have taken no public position on this case, my personal view is that these member companies (of which ours is one) are watching this case with interest and hope that whatever the final ruling it will have some form of positive impact for all of those companies in our industry, foreign or domestic, that play by the rules.
So what does this all mean for U.S. pencil manufacturing?  If proven true, what changes will these defendants and potentially other retailers and importers make in their practices and supply chain structures to address potential risks brought to light by this alleged activity.  Will it benefit U.S. manufacturing or just redistribute purchasing to other foreign manufacturers?  What other market forces are currently at play that could impact the trends regarding the future of U.S. pencil manufacturing?  I’ll address these questions in my next post in just about two weeks time. In the meantime here's a link to a collection of my past posts on international trade issues related to the pencil Industry.