Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Trend in Timberland Prices

The current issue of Forest Landowners Magazine published an article that I wrote a few months ago that looks at the trend in timberland prices over the last decade. It examines the changes, data sources and some transactions during the first half of this year. It also tries to answer the following questions:
  • What has caused timberland prices to stay up while timber prices and most investments have declined in value?
  • What would cause prices to decline?
  • So what does the future hold?
If you are interested in reading the article, here is a link to it on my web site. --Brian

Monday, November 16, 2009

Anthony Forest Products Sells 93,360 Acres

The pressure from low product demand and low selling prices continues to hammer the sawmills. Companies that have been long-term owners and managers of timberland are continuing to be forced to liquidate landholdings to stay in business. Anthony Forest Products is the most recent with the sale of 93,360 acres of conservatively managed timberland in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana being sold to a client of the Molpus Woodlands Group for $173,150,000 or $1,895 per acre. There is a wood supply agreement between Anthony and the new owner as a part of the sale agreement.

The Molpus Woodlands Group continues to build itself into a stronger and well diversified TIMO (850,000 acres in 11 states). Read the entire news release here.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Timberland Transaction Update

Major timberland transactions have slowed considerably but some continue to close. I wrote an article for Forest Landowners Magazine (THE TREND IN TIMBERLAND PRICES) that was supposed to be published in October but the publishing date was postponed until late November so I thought I would do a little update on transactions to date for this year. From the list below, you can see that there are quite a few transactions but relatively few large ones.

Here is an insightful comment from Plum Creek's 3rd Quarter Earnings Conference Call.  "We have not noted any significant changes to our rural land markets since the last quarter's call. In general, rural land values were off approximately 25% in higher value regions such as Florida, portions of Georgia, and Montana. Rural land sales in lower priced markets such as Mississippi and Northern Wisconsin remain fairly active. Prices in these markets have been more resilient and appear to be off 15% or less from their peaks." The comment is supported by the Rayonier sale above for $1,200 per acre which is a conglomerate of sales showing that Florida is definitely a soft area. Some of the other companies are reporting very little decline in the rural/recreational market.

In spite of these stated declines, there remains little sale activity supporting significant declines in institutional timberland values. Several of the larger timberland sales were at a solid price but there are too few to say prices have not declined. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this list is the names of the sellers. They are almost ALL public companies selling land to try to protect their dividends (or in Forestar's case, the entire company!). The one TIMO sale was at a very good price.

If I have missed any sales, and I probably have, send me an email to As always, comments and differing opinions are appreciated (especially if supported by facts).

My last post had an error in a link. Click here if you would like to see the PDF of the presentation The Forest Industry of the Future: What will it look like. . --Brian

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Future Forest Industry

I was recently asked to speak at the North Carolina Forestry Association’s annual meeting in Myrtle Beach. The topic was to be “THE FOREST INDUSTRY OF THE FUTURE, What will it look like?” Before agreeing to the talk, I had to think about it for a while. The quote “Its tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Attributed to Yogi Berra (as most quotes are) hung in my mind for a few days. But I agreed to take a shot at it and gave the talk earlier this month. I thought I would share a few of the points with you.

First, there has to be a basis for the prediction. The basis that I chose was to look at the changes occurring in the forest industry and to look at what I thought the future economic environment might look like.

The Three Key Changes in Progress

• Changing Timberland Ownership
  • Shift from forest industry to institutional and other owners
  • Well under way and well documented
• Biomass for Energy
  • Not a new thing but impact is changing
  • Sourcing moving from residue to pulpwood
  • Sheer magnitude is not well understood
• Global Industrial Revolution

The shift in timberland ownership is well documented so I didn’t spend any time on that whereas the magnitude of the biomass issue is not universally well understood and merited significant discussion. Slides focused on the biomass drivers, sources (Residues or pulpwood? Answer: pulpwood), nationwide energy sources and biomass utilization examples. There is also one slide on the cost of alternative transportation fuel costs (including cellulosic ethanol) relative to the cost of oil. It is a somewhat complex slide but the story it tells is that as oil goes up in price and as research brings costs of alternative fuels down, demand for biofuels grows in leaps. When I gave the talk less than two weeks ago, oil had settled into a trading range around $70. It is now approaching $80.

My view of the drivers behind the economic future looks like this:

• Social drive for renewable energy, energy self-sufficiency and climate change
• High energy costs- The key cost escalator
• High Inflation Rate (perhaps hyperinflation) Driven by:
  • Very high government spending
  • High oil prices
• Declining Dollar
• Global Industrial Revolution
• Commodity Shortages (natural resources)

There is a series of slides supporting my economic assumptions followed by a series painting my opinion of the future for sawmills, pulpmills, the wood supply chain and the future forest. A brief synopsis follows:

•Biomass/Power companies will be a key part of the industry.
•There will be more “in-woods” operations (chippers, biomass harvesting, biochar, and perhaps mobile methanol).
•A smaller pulp and paper industry will survive and exporting will play a larger role.
•Sawmills: Demographics still favor housing and lumber export market will become significant. Imports less competitive.
•Logging contractors will have a more stable operating environment. Annual production contracts.
•Stumpage market will be more competitive and more stable.
•Plantation establishment will consider energy market.
•Timberland ownership will be a good place to be!

If you would like to see all of the slides, you can go to and navigate to the “Articles” page. The presentation is in html format, which destroyed the “Build” on a key slide (oil prices). I will be adding that one slide as a Powerpoint presentation with the build to make it easier to understand. Run slideshow. Objective is to show how oil prices and cellulosic ethanol (and, by inference, other wood based transportation fuel) costs are converging. Comments, thoughts and differing views are welcome. --Brian

Friday, June 12, 2009

Baptist, Bootleggers and Biomass

When I moved to North Mississippi to buy land in the late 60’s, I landed in a “dry county” where it was illegal to buy or have alcoholic beverages in your possession. Like most folks, I enjoyed an occasional adult beverage. And coming from an Italian family, this was a pretty foreign concept to me. I asked “Why?” and the answer came back “because of the Baptists and the bootleggers”!

It was a coalition of two diverse groups with very different reasons and objectives. The Baptists supported the “blue laws” for religious, moral and ethical reasons and the bootleggers supported the same laws for reasons of personal financial gain (although it was pretty widely known that some members of the latter group were widely outspoken members of the former group!). The differences in their motives were irrelevant with respect to their ability to create a strong coalition that maintained a common objective.

A similar coalition has evolved to oppose the development and use of renewable energy, specifically biomass. The group is composed of environmentalists, power companies and the pulp and paper industry. Strange bedfellows again.

The news media’s focus on renewable energy is pretty much confined to solar and wind and what might be. Here is a graph of what is - courtesy of The Energy Information Administration.

Renewable energy currently supplies a meager 7% of the nation’s energy consumption. A year ago it was 6% and 90% 0f that was equally split between hydropower and biomass. All of the rest combined represented less than 10% of that meager 6%! The significant growth in renewable energy in 2007 came from biomass, and to a lesser degree, from wind. Now, let’s take a look at the coalition and what is driving it.

Environmentalists: The environmental community has been a strong proponent of renewable energies up until the point of actually supporting their implementation. Following is a look at the rational and frequent hypocrisy of its “support” for renewable energy.

On Hydropower
Hydropower dropped from 45% of renewable energy consumption to 36% of renewable energy consumption in one year. Hydropower production of electricity has come at the expense of free flowing rivers and I know of no environmentalists that support the expansion of hydropower by damming additional rivers. In fact, I know of very few Americans at all that support expansion of hydropower by flooding more rivers. Even if there was support, it would be squashed by the “discovery” of an endangered minnow or mussel. There will be no more hydropower sites added and some likelihood that there will be calls to restore some rivers to a natural state creating a loss of hydropower. There may be some gains in efficiency but, for all practical purposes, what we have today is all we can expect. Increases in renewable energy will have to come from other sources.

On Wind
Wind and solar represented the energy mantra of the environmental community until engineers dramatically improved the efficiency of windmills to the point of making them actually cost-effective in many (windy) situations. The environmental downside of windmills includes damage to certain species of birds (call in the Endangered Species Act again) and aesthetics. The only places that aesthetics are at issue are the mountains, oceans, deserts and the places in between.

This is a link to a Grist article entitled The Wind and the Willful: RFK Jr. and other prominent enviros face off over Cape Cod wind farm, By Amanda Griscom Little. It starts with the following quote.
A long-simmering disagreement within the environmental community over a plan to build a massive wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., is now boiling over into a highly public quarrel.
It is a good article illustrating the conflict in the environmental community. When the NIMBY attitude combined with the political clout of the Kennedy clan, the entire world watched as the environmental hypocrisy and political power of the Kennedy family emerged to create the reality of what it will take to actually implement renewable energy projects.

On Solar
Here are a few extracts from a FOX News article Feinstein: Don't Spoil Our Desert With Solar Panels.
“Sen. Dianne Feinstein said development of solar and wind facilities in California's Mojave Desert would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public.”
“"It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem," said David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy.”
"This is unacceptable," Feinstein said in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "I urge you to direct the BLM to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purpose."
Need I say more?

On Biomass
There are others much more in tune than me with the battles that have raged recently over the definition of biomass in this year’s Energy Bill but I have seen enough of the terminology to understand the role of the environmentalists. In an effort to suppress a fear that natural forests would be converted to plantations they were successful in creating a definition that excluded most trees from the definition. In the end, more rational heads prevailed within the environmental community and they worked to provide a reasonable, workable definition. Still, biomass growing on our federal lands has been excluded as a source of renewable energy. And that’s a lot when you consider that about 1/3 of our forests are on federal lands.

On Nuclear Energy
Nuclear power is not technically classified as renewable but it too, is an option that could replace much of the coal and biomass for electrical production. One publication by an environmental organization claims that 30,000 deaths a year are caused by particulates from U. S. coal-fired power plants yet none (that’s zero) have ever been caused by a nuclear power plant. Environmentalists have done a very effective job at scaring the American public to the point where it is questionable whether we can look at nuclear power in a rational manner. IF we are going to do it, some folks in the environmental world will have to play a leadership role. What would the environmentalist’s position be if 30,000 people were killed each year in nuclear accidents? We have options and it is up to all of us to pursue them in rational manners without the scare tactics.

Power Companies:
The power companies have an industry pretty much built on coal. It’s not that they love coal, it’s that coal is the least expensive way to produce electricity and their customers want low cost power. As an industry, biomass as a replacement for coal is an expensive proposition and they want to hold their costs down so there is a good reason for the resistance to the move to biomass.

But not all power companies are in the same boat. A large part of the cost of coal is freight. The largest cost component of biomass is transportation. So look where the resource is and it is pretty easy to see which states have an economic incentive to support or oppose the utilization of biomass. Transporting low sulphur coal from Colorado to Georgia or wood from Georgia to Colorado doesn’t make a lot of sense economically or environmentally. The utilization of energy resources close to the power facility makes a lot of sense and that is what we are seeing evolve from the plans of the power companies. The power companies outside of the nation’s “woodbasket”, sitting on coal reserves, are and will continue to be a part of the coalition. The companies in the Southern woodbasket will remain a part of that coalition UNTIL the 15% renewable energy standard really is a standard, then biomass becomes the least expensive option. In fact, in the South, it is pretty much the only option for both carbon neutral and renewable energy so some of the companies are moving quickly to secure their woodbasket.

Pulp and Paper Industry:
The pulp and paper companies, like the power companies, are looking at both costs and their ability to survive. They are faced with increased global competition, severely declining demand and now a new threat that is competing for both their raw material and one of their primary energy sources. Although they probably use more renewable energy than any other industry, don’t expect them to embrace a national shift to biomass that will make it even more difficult for them to compete or survive. Inflation, followed by a weak dollar, may save the industry but “hope is not a strategy”. The industry must fight for its survival on all fronts and we should expect to see little change on the biomass front.

The question that the industry poses is whether or not the forest can sustain both the pulp and paper industry and a robust biomass industry. Collectively, is it sustainable? One solid argument is that the economic value of the pulp and paper industry (employment, value added, and multipliers) is much greater than can be achieved by the biomass industry. Below is a graph produced by the South Carolina Forestry Commission that illustrates how important pulp and paper is to the forestry sector in that state.

On the value added issue, it is questionable. The resource supply chain for the two industries is identical – stumpage, harvest, transport to mill, and woodyard handling. I’m not sure how many more people a pulp mill employs relative to a pellet mill. If you throw in the paper mill, you have to throw in the power generation plant on the other side of the equation. I’m not sure how much difference there really is AND I’m not convinced that there isn’t room for both. I just don’t accept the argument that it has to be one or the other.

The industry is crying “sustainability”. And they are doing it in an organized and deliberate fashion. As a 40-year veteran of the pulp and paper industry, I am disappointed with the industries position. Twenty years ago the industry would have taken a strong positive approach and embarked upon an effort to substantially increase planting, growth and future availability of wood. Landowner assistance programs would be growing and new ones would be sprouting. Tree improvement programs would be well-funded in an effort to grow more and better trees on each acre. This time the industry has taken a position that is negative to all of the components of their entire wood supply chain. Negative to the growers of the wood, the loggers who harvest it and to those that transport the wood to the mills. People remember such things.

Some Final Thoughts:
If a shift to renewable energy is to be successful, some environmentally responsible environmentalists must step up to the plate and show some leadership. It is doubtful if an effective renewable energy policy can be developed with an environmental community unified behind antagonistic policies for every form of renewable energy but hemp. Additional hydroelectric sites are out of the question. That leaves wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. The environmental community must decide how best to utilize and mix the combination of those four renewable energy options or oil, gas and coal will be the answer. The environmentalists continue to fiddle as Rome burns.

The power companies are looking strictly at cost. Most of them have some level of governmental support, usually in the form of a monopoly supported by government control of prices. If a national goal of energy self-sufficiency, with a strong component of renewable energy and carbon reduction, is the goal, the pricing issue is something the power companies can understand. That problem can go away quickly if Americans want renewable energy and are willing to pay for it. If Americans are not willing to pay for it, then the power companies are right on target with their objections.

The pulp and paper companies have traded a level of self-sufficiency (typically in the neighborhood of 25% - 30%) for the cash received for selling their land. This was a deliberate decision done after weighing the options and now the industry must live with it and it may not be pretty. The market will determine what products the new timberland owners will grow and sell. The pulp and paper industry has long touted its ability to compete in a fair and level playing field. The playing field has changed as the nation seeks energy independence, renewable energy sources and reduced carbon emissions.

If the anti-renewables coalition is not broken, Rome will be in ashes.

Visit our web site at Timberland Strategies

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tree Planting in the South Continues Decline

Last week I had an opportunity to speak at the annual Southern Forest Tree Improvement Conference at Virginia Tech. The subject that I was asked to talk about was "The Relevance of Tree Improvement to Changing land Ownerships and Objectives". By the time I finished my presentation, I think that I had reversed it and actually talked about the opposite or "The Relevance of Changing land Ownerships and Objectives to Tree Improvement". At any rate, in the process of putting together the information, I created one graph that should be of interest to more than just the geneticists and biotech folks.

Each year Steve Chapman, with the Georgia Forestry Commission, conducts a survey on the prior year's tree planting in the South. He contacts each of the State Foresters for the data and then he compiles it. The project takes a great deal of time and is a very important service to everyone involved with timberland in the South. Actually, given the importance of the Southern forest to the nation, this project has importance to everyone. We should all be thankful to both Steve and the Georgia Forestry Commission for their efforts.

Last year Steve had provided me with the historical data and I looked at the trends which were not real positive. I also noticed that not all State Foresters placed a high priority on cooperating with Georgia on the project. That is very unfortunate. I graphed the data with the intention of posting it here. I decided to try to get the missing data first so I sent emails to the State Foresters that didn't provide Steve with data and asked them to add the missing data. No response.

When I was asked to speak to the Tree Improvement folks, I knew it was important to them to understand how the demand for seedlings was changing so I contacted Steve again to see how he had made out with the 2008 survey. Most of the State Foresters had responded but data from two states was still unavailable. He sent me what he had and I adjusted for missing data by using previuos years data wherever annual data was missing. Not the best numbers but the best available and that is what I used to make this graph.

The picture isn't pretty. Planting dropped off considerably after the 2001 peak and has continued through 2008. Planting levels have not been this low since the 1950's!

Let's look at the reasons behind the decline and speculate about the implications. A year or two ago I was working on a project for a pulp and paper company and we were discussing this trend and one of the Wood Procurement people made the observation that he had not been doing any clearcutting - only thinnings- for a year. So maybe the lack of planting is not so important to the long term wood supply as the graph might indicate.

There is clearly some sound logic behind this observation. During the late 1980's, national planting levels peaked at the three million acre mark and the lion's share of that was in the South. Today we are thinning those plantations and that is what is providing much of the resource for pulp production. In addition, the shift in timberland ownership from pulp and paper companies to institutional owners has probably resulted in a lengthening of pine rotations by a couple of years as the ownership objectives shifted from maximizing mean annual increment to maximizing return on investment. High planting levels of the late 80's and lengthening rotations have clearly provided a thinning opportunity. So..., we are living on the investment of previous tree planters.

The other clear driver behind the lack of planting is the sawtimber market. Low demand resulting in low sawlog prices means reduced sales and reduced final harvest cutting (clearcuts) and that results in a reduced need for planting.

It all sounds pretty logical so maybe the reduced planting is not such a bad thing. The question that is not answered is "Are there a significant number of clearcuts that are not being replanted because of poor markets?" A"Yes" answer would be a bad thing. --Brian

Check out my new web site: Timberland Strategies

Thursday, March 26, 2009

RMK Gets the Adirondack Finch Pruyn Timberland

It appears that The Nature Conservancy has sold the 90,593 plus acres of the former Finch Pruyn lands in the Adirondacks to a subsidiary of the Danish pension fund ATP. The sale was handled on a sealed bid basis by LandVest (see details). The land will be managed by RMK Timberland and is subject to both a Fiber Supply Agreement with the current owners of the Finch, Pruyn mill and a conservation easement. According to my sources in Denmark, the purchase price was 180 million Kroners. If I’ve got my conversions correct from Kroners to Dollars, the price would be $361 per acre. The price/acre clearly reflects the result of the conservation easement. The location map to the left includes the entire TNC purchase of 160,000 acres. --Brian

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Dichotomy in Timberland Valuation

The issue in today’s post concerns why the transaction price of timberland has shown little or no decline in value but the stock price of the publicly traded companies that own timberland has declined dramatically. I will also look at what I think is happening in the timberland market today and how I see the market for timberland investment. But first, let’s set the stage.

In January, I did a post that included some graphs developed from my timberland transaction file. I was looking to see if the data supported a wide-spread belief that timberland values had dropped. The thinking was that housing starts declined, which caused a drop in lumber prices, which caused a drop in stumpage prices (all true), which caused a drop in timberland prices. You can read that post here How Much Did Timberland Values Fall in 2008? The data did not support the logic and did not show any evidence of a significant decline in timberland values. (For those that sent emails saying my opinion was wrong – that was not my opinion, it was just the data). I also wondered what the NCREIF Timberland Index would look like when it was released. The publicly accessible portion of the NCREIF website showed quarterly returns that compound to a 9.5% total return for the timberland in its index in 2008 but the components of the return are not broken out. A recent report by Brookfield Timberlands Management, distributed by Forestweb, shows the NCREIF return broken down by earnings and capital appreciation.


The significant decline in the blue portion of the graph reflects the decline in housing/lumber/stumpage/earnings. The green portion, Capital Appreciation, can be viewed somewhat (not perfect) as a surrogate of the change in timberland value as determined from tract sales and appraisals of tracts – all of which are a part of the index. Note the green from 2000 to 2002. This data certainly contains no indication of a 2008 decline in the price of timberland either.

Below is another graph that I found interesting. It is from the Timberland Report VOL. 10, NO. 2; by the James W. Sewall Company, a highly respected firm with a very long record in the timberland investment community.

From my perspective, the important take-a-way from this graph is that the old correlation between timberland values and housing starts fell apart. We can speculate as to why and we can speculate as to whether the correlation will return but it’s pretty clear that the conventional wisdom has not prevailed during this economic downturn. Another graph in the report reinforces the historical correlations between housing starts and stumpage prices. That correlation did hold as all timber owners know only too well. You can read the entire Sewall report here(recommended).

Now, let’s take a look at the price of common stock in some of the publicly traded companies that have timberland holdings that represent a significant share of the companies’ assets and see how share prices were impacted last year. Ownership structures of these companies include timber REITs, “C” corporations and limited partnerships but for my purposes today, I will refer to them collectively as “timberland companies”. Let’s look at this chart I made from Google.

It’s hard to see but the blue line just above Weyerhaeuser (green line) is the S&P 500. Weyerhaeuser took an early hit because it has such a major direct investment in housing. I read somewhere that it is the 17th largest home builder. The rest of the timber companies fell about the same amount as, and in synch with, the general market. My conclusion is that the timber companies stock price tracks the stock market rather than with the timberland market. Not a “pure play” in the bunch. Down about 50% when timberland prices held pretty steady.

I have long been a skeptic of the “pure play” concept of acquiring timberland companies (or an ETF) as a surrogate for timberland ownership. Even if 100% of the assets owned by the company were timberland, I would still be a skeptic and here is why.

Timberland investors use metrics based on a time horizon of 10 to 50 or more years. The key metrics are based on a discounted cash flow (DCF) analyses over that time horizon. If you would like to read more about timber valuation than you really want to know, you can do that here. The metrics used by those that analyze stock value are usually based on very short term future cash flows of a year or two (no need to discount those!). The inherent assumption is that the stock price will respond to very short term (a few quarters or few years at most) cash flows and that the stock will be bought or sold in that time frame. Some of the most referenced metrics are based on what happened last year rather than what is expected to happen in the future (current P/E for example). The Warren Buffets in the crowd that actually do take a long term view of stock investing are a clear minority today and I’m sure that DCF is an integral part of their valuation. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that one way is right and that the other way is wrong, only that they produce different results and that creates a dichotomy in value and an opportunity for long term investors. Given all this, is it any wonder that the stock of the timberland companies has fallen dramatically with the general market decline? The value of their timberland portfolio is based upon the very depressed earnings reflecting current stumpage prices rather than the DCF of future stumpage prices!

At this point, I reach two conclusions (and I know that some will not agree)
  1. Timberland values have fallen little if any, and
  2. The timberland value component of the timberland companies’ stock price has fallen dramatically

And therein is the opportunity.

Here is another stock chart just like the one above except Forestar Group has been added. If ever there was a pure play for timberland/HBU, this is it. Other than some OGM, that is its only asset!

The “Pure Play” Fallacy

In spite of that, the stock price of Forestar dropped over 80% - the worst of the group. So much for the “pure play” concept. If you want to invest in timberland, you need to own timberland, not stock!

Think about this. Is it possible that the assets of Forestar were worth five times as much in June as they were in November? Some folks sure didn’t think so. To name a couple, Holland Ware and Carl Icahn. Both recognize the dichotomy in valuation methodology between timberland and the valuation of the stock in timberland companies! Both made some serious money with that little bit of information and a lot of cash. Buy at $3 - $4/share, offer $15.00 (still undervalued), sell at $12 or so. Not bad. And the $15/share offer? Even that was well under the underlying value of the timberland/HBU asset.

Okay. We understand what happened in 2008. What is happening to timberland prices now and what will happen in the future? I still have seen no significant decline in transaction prices regardless of the emails I get claiming dramatic declines in prices (no transaction details attached). There is a slowing of transactions, at least one announced major transaction (St. Joe) did not close and several tracts that were put on the market were pulled off. What does this mean for the future?

It may mean that prices will fall. It may mean that buyers are holding their cash until this economic downturn, recession, depression, or crisis begins to resolve itself. I don’t know what the future holds but I do know that there is a lot of pension fund and other cash out there that will be invested somewhere. Today it is going into money market accounts and just kind of sitting there. Barron’s reported about a week ago that there was $4 trillion in money market funds which is about one-half the market cap of the entire U. S. stock market. That is a lot of money and I doubt that it will all stay in cash. At some point, some will go back into the market, some to commodities, some elsewhere and some to timberland.

Long term, I remain bullish on timberland but, in the short-term, I think that stock in the timberland companies is a better investment. The downside is less than timberland and the upside is much, much greater. If you follow Holland Ware, you won’t starve. --Brian
Visit my website at Timberland Strategies

Monday, March 9, 2009

Valuing Timberland V – The Discount Rate

This is the fifth and final post of a series on timberland valuation. If you missed the first post, which included an Overview plus a discussion on Disaggregation, you can read “Valuing Timberland I” here. The second post focused primarily on productivity and how that fits into today’s appraisal systems which use discounted cash flow techniques to determine the value of timberland. You can read “Valuing Timberland II” here. The third post focused on estimates of timber volumes and values, how we get them, and how to forecast them for future year’s cash flows. Read “Valuing Timberland III” here. The subject of the last post, Valuing Timberland IV, was on the methodologies used in discounted cash flow analysis. Today I’ll focus on the discount rate to be used in the cash flow model.

The “discount rate” is essentially the same thing as the interest rate used in any financial calculation. We have to get the series of future cash flows “discounted” back to the present so we pick the appropriate interest rate to do that. As an example, say you wanted to buy a tract of land and your credit union would lend you the money for 6%. You know there is some risk associated with this so you assign another 2% for risk. You would use a discount rate of 8%. Sounds simple to me.

Let me start off by saying “I don’t know what discount rate to use”! This question is argued by investors, economists and corporate finance types. But understand this, selection of the discount rate is the most important decision made during the valuation process. Let me illustrate.

Many years ago (I was working as a Land Acquisition Forester at the time) I decided to reread Thoreau’s “Walden” which led me to “In the Maine Woods”, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” and “Cape Cod”. Considering my job, Thoreau really got my attention with the following words from “Cape Cod”.

“Between the Pond and East Harbor Village there was an interesting plantation of pitch-pines, twenty or thirty acres in extent, like those which we had already seen from the stage. One who lived near said that the land was purchased by two men for a shilling or twenty-five cents an acre. Some is not considered worth writing a deed for.”

Thoreau had traveled across the Cape in the 1850’s and I had noticed and made mental note of these same pitch pine plantations while visiting there. So what would a Land Acquisition Forester think… “Man, what a buy that would have been!”

What if an investor knew what the values on the Cape would be like in 2008? Would he have bought some of that timberland for $0.25 acre? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s consider the opportunity and create a simple analysis. Let’s say that the investor could foresee all that wonderful HBU land on the Cape and actually KNEW what 2009 land prices would be like. Keeping it simple (so we can isolate the impact of discount rate selection), assume he leased the land out “for taxes” so he had no cash flows (positive or negative) other than the purchase and sale of the land. The data below shows the value of a $0.25/acre investment compounded forward for 150 years.

So…, would the investor have bought the land (for his descendents!!). It very clearly depends on the discount rate that the investor used. I don’t think that there is an acre of scraggly pine plantation on the Cape that could be bought for $1,562/acre and I doubt that you could sell an acre for over $300 million per acre either – not even the Kennedy compound. The value determined clearly depends on the discount rate used. So what discount rate would you have used? Think about that seriously. If the rate is too high (nice to get but will you get it!) you may never have the opportunity to make an investment EXCEPT one that is very risky.

When I was in forestry school (back in the 60’s) we normally used 6% in our forest economics courses. When I was an MBA student (in the late 70’s), we used the company’s marginal cost of capital with an appropriate adjustment for risk. Early in the timberland shift to TIMOs, it was pretty freely discussed that TIMOs were using real rates in the 6% to 8% which was based on the “risk free” rate of return (10 year T-bills at 4%) plus risk adjustment. At the same time, integrated forest products companies with large timberland acreages were using investment hurdle rates significantly above the average or even marginal cost of capital for the firm (a mistake – it should have been based on the marginal cost of capital and risk associated with purchasing and owning more timberland not riskier investments!). The result of this is that high-risk capital investments were subsidized by low-risk timberland ownership. As a general rule, discount rates used by the C corporations were much higher than that used by the TIMOs (rates in the range of 12% - 15% or more). Remember the decision you reached above with the Thoreau example. The C corporations also had to include taxes in the cash flow analyses (reducing cash flow and, subsequently, value) whereas most of the TIMO clients were pension funds and tax exempt. Between the tax payments and high discount rates used by the corporations, it is pretty clear why the TIMOs valued timberland higher than the forest industry.

Note two things from the above discussion. The “appraised value” of a particular tract of timberland, based on comparable sales, was the same for the TIMO buyer and the forest industry seller yet the real valuation for the buyer and seller were very different. As I pointed out in an earlier post; timberland valuation and fair market value are two different things!! The second point: the difference in discount rates used, combined with tax policy, has dramatically changed the face of timberland ownership and forestry practice in this country.

How do inflation and taxes affect the selection of the discount rate? We discussed that somewhat in the post on cash flows. Here are a couple of quotes, also from the Forest Landowners Guide to the Federal Income Tax, Ag. Handbook No. 718.

“it is imperative that the discount (interest) rate used for the analysis include a similar expectation factor for inflation. In summary, both elements of the analysis—cash flow and discount rate—must be kept in comparable terms (with or without inflation and before or after-tax) for reliable results.”

“Forestry investments are very sensitive to the discount rate used because of the long time period between planting and harvest. For after-tax analyses, the correct discount rate is the after-tax rate based on your alternative rate of return. If the next best alternative is a tax-free investment, such as a municipal bond, then the interest rate is used without adjustment, as shown in Table 2-3 for the 10-percent discount rate. If your next best alternative is an investment, such as a corporate bond, that yields 10 percent annually with taxes subtracted before compounding, the correct discount rate is 7.2 percent, after-tax [10 percent x (1 - 0.28 assumed tax rate)]. Alternatively, if the next best alternative is an investment such as an individual retirement account (IRA), certain saving bonds, or an alternative timber investment, where taxes are deferred until the end of the period rather than being subtracted before compounding, then the correct discount rate depends on the length of the investment period and when the costs are incurred and revenues received. Assuming an initial investment, 10 percent interest, and a 28-percent tax subtracted at the end of 34 years, the appropriate discount rate would be 8.94 percent.

Now, if you feel that you still need more info on how to select the right discount rate for a timberland purchase, let me give you a couple more references.

Finally, it may be worthwhile to speculate a little bit (actually that is what the selection of the discount rate is). Timberland investors have watched as discount rates rose early in this decade followed by decreasing discount rates which resulted in a steady increase in timberland transaction prices (and corresponding values from comparable sale based appraisals). Some TIMOs have left the market so they clearly believe discount rates got too low and pushed prices too high (potential returns too low). Other TIMOs have tried to sell large blocks but pulled them off the market. Perhaps they think discount rates are too high but prices are too low to justify selling?? Or maybe there is less money chasing timberland. This concludes the Timberland Valuation series.

Oh, I almost forgot. Nobody is going to tell you what discount rate to use. That's your call. Comments welcome. --Brian

Monday, March 2, 2009

I-P to Sell 143,000 acres

The following is from IP’s website
International Paper (NYSE: IP) announced today that it plans to divest approximately 143,000 acres of properties located in the southeastern United States in a transaction with American Timberlands Fund I, LP (the "Partnership").

The transaction value is approximately $275 million. International Paper will sell approximately 114,000 acres to the Partnership for $220 million in cash and will contribute 29,000 acres, with a value of $55 million, in exchange for a 20 percent interest in the Partnership.

The transaction value is subject to various adjustments at closing and is contingent upon the Partnership raising $220 million to finance the transaction. The transaction is expected to close in mid-June.

A couple of observations:
1. American Timberlands Company, out of Columbia, SC, also bought 20,000 acres from I-P last year. The Registered Agent for them is Mark W. Buyck III from Florence SC. Other than that, I don't know anything about them but it looks like they could use some money.

2. It also looks like somebody thinks the value of timberland has not dropped. The reported value is $1,923/acre. --Brian

Visit my web site at Timberland Strategies

Friday, February 20, 2009

Valuing Timberland IV

This is the forth post of a series on timberland valuation. If you missed the first post, which included an Overview plus a discussion on Disaggregation, you can read “Valuing Timberland I” here. The second post focused primarily on productivity and how that fits into today’s appraisal systems which use discounted cash flow techniques to determine the value of timberland. You can read “Valuing Timberland II” here. The third post focused on estimates of timber volumes and values, how we get them, and how to forecast them for future year’s cash flows. Read “Valuing Timberland III” here. Today, I’ll focus on how all of the previously discussed factors are tied into some form of discounted cash flow (DCF) model.

Foresters and most financial types are well versed in DCF, what it is and why it is so important. Its use can be traced back to Martin Faustmann, a German forester, in an 1849 publication on valuing immature stands. By the 1930’s, the financial community had recognized its importance and began incorporating it into investment analysis.

Here is the definition of DCF according to Investopedia: A valuation method used to estimate the attractiveness of an investment opportunity. Discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis uses future free cash flow projections and discounts them (most often using the weighted average cost of capital) to arrive at a present value, which is used to evaluate the potential for investment. If the value arrived at through DCF analysis is higher than the current cost of the investment, the opportunity may be a good one.

Forget that comment about the “weighted average cost of capital” and we will talk about that in the next post. This post will touch on the following issues.

  • Cash flows: Revenue from timber sales, leases, HBU sales, etc.; silvicultural expenses, taxes, management fees and other costs.
  • Inflation and taxes
  • Spreadsheet models, computer programs, harvest scheduling software
  • Location: Important? Can it be quantified? Final sale price: When you sell the land, how much will you get? Existing cons easements
  • Discount rate: very, very important and will be discussed in next post

Cash Flows: The costs and revenues, and when they occur, constitute the cash flows used in a DCF analysis. The entire process can be visualized utilizing a timeline such as the one below from a forestry investment example illustrated in the Forest Landowners Guide to the Federal Income Tax, Ag. Handbook No. 718.

The cash flows illustrated in this timeline are shown below.

This is a very simple example but it illustrates the process very well. Note that some of the flows occur in a particular year and some recur every year. Although the costs and revenues occur at different times, they are all discounted back to the present to determine the value today. There is a very thorough explanation of the process accessible by the link above. Note that in this example, the land purchase price is included at the start of the analysis and then the land is sold in the final year. An alternate approach is to create the cash flows in perpetuity (don’t include the land cost) and discount them back to the present. The result is the value of the land BUT only if you hold it forever any your cash flow calculations never change! If you plan to sell off some HBU land in the early years or if you see real increases in land value at the end of the investment, you MUST include land cost. If a conservation easement has been sold, the revenue should show up in the appropriate place AND the final sale price must be reduced by the appropriate amount.

What about inflation and what about taxes? Should they be incorporated into the cash flows? The answer is fairly clear, with respect to taxes, if the owner, such as a pension fund, does not pay taxes! For every investor though, there is a clear answer. Include them IF they are included in the discount rate. Here are a couple of quotes, also from the Forest Landowners Guide to the Federal Income Tax.

“Most forestry costs change at the rate of inflation in the economy; however, stumpage prices may increase (or decrease) at rates exceeding (or less than) inflation when supply/demand relationships change. These differential price trends can cause miscalculations in an investment analysis. Real (exceeding inflation) price appreciation—or price depreciation as the case may be—for some products, such as Southern pine and Douglas-fir sawtimber stumpage, has received much attention. But other product prices, such as those for pine and hardwood pulpwood, and equipment costs, also have been affected. Predicting the future always is uncertain and hazardous, so the best information available for projecting real changes in cash flows should be used.”

And the second quote: “it is imperative that the discount (interest) rate used for the analysis include a similar expectation factor for inflation. In summary, both elements of the analysis—cash flow and discount rate—must be kept in comparable terms (with or without inflation and before or after-tax) for reliable results.”

The take-away here is to include inflation in the cash flow if you think it is appropriate and to include taxes in the cash flow if you think that is appropriate, but you must incorporate those elements in the discount rate if they are included in the cash flow. My solution, when building a model, is always to create the discount rate as a variable. Then model the discount rate so the analysis can instantly be modified by setting the inflation and tax rate variables (either or all) to zero. If you don’t do this, I promise that someone will ask you “What if…”

Let me also add that there are some complexities associated with timber depletion that will create some pitfalls for the model builder not experienced with forestry taxation (depletion and multiple tax rates). The taxation issues are further complicated by the “inflation tax”. Maybe someday I will do a post on that too but not today. For now, let’s look at the types of software available to do DCF analysis of timberland investments.

Spreadsheets, forestry investment software programs or Harvest Scheduling software?

Spreadsheets: This is the “roll your own” option. It has some advantages but some very powerful disadvantages as well. The biggest advantage is that you can do it your way, you already have the software (and you can distribute the model to everyone in your organization) and you understand all of the drivers used. It is a good solution for simple situations like the one above. The disadvantage is that you really have to understand forest management, DCF, forest taxation, depletion accounting, G & Y models, spreadsheet development and probably a few things that I have left out. I have constructed complex models used for evaluating large transactions so it can be done. But the results fall short in many ways.

Forestry Investment Software Applications: These applications, frequently web based, are a good alternative to the use of spreadsheets if the target tract is not to large or complex. There are usually multiple applications in each suite which allow calculations designed to feed the DCF application. Growth and yield models may be built-in or a part of a supporting application. Applications that allow projections of both real and inflated timber prices (and land prices) are available to help feed the DCF analysis (remember to use a discount rate that is consistent with the inflation/real price). They have “help files” that explain the terminology and provide guidance in usage. They are generally easy to use and they are free.

Two examples can be found on web sites at Mississippi State and the Texas Forest Service. See FORest VALuation or FORVAL Online and the Timberland Decision Support System. You can actually use both of these sites to create your cash flows and then enter them into the Texas site.

The MSU site also has G&Y models for loblolly, slash and longleaf as well as some calculators to let you look at real increases in timber values (can also be used for real increases in land values as well). The Texas site also has several supporting “calculators” including The Timberland Management Simulator which integrates a loblolly G&Y model with the financial analysis.

There is other software available that you can find with a Google search. Some of the software is web-based and some requires downloads. I prefer the web-based stuff because it is more likely to work without problems. There are some very good G&Y models that have been “left-behind” because they no longer behave well (or at all) on the current operating systems. Another advantage of the web software, particularly over spreadsheets, is that they have well thought out explanations of the terminology and give you some good advice on how to conduct your analysis.

Harvest Scheduling or Forest Planning Software: What is Harvest Scheduling? First of all, the term is a misnomer. It is a carryover from earlier linear programming models that focused on the best time to harvest stands. Today’s applications, best referred to as Forest Planning applications, are far advance from just projecting harvests. All of the activities from planting through harvest are included while measuring the impact on attributes such as habitat, wood flows and cash flows are reported. The earlier applications have morphed into spatial applications importing GIS data and producing maps that show the “where” of all activities in the plan. The spatial applications also allow the use of spatial constraints, such as “green-up” requirements. The following paragraphs are from NCASI’s HABPLAN, spatial Forest Harvest and Habitat Scheduling software, users manual. I selected them to give you a better understanding of harvest scheduling and its complexities.

“Harvest scheduling entails the application of mathematical programming techniques to determine the allowable cut and/or the cutting budget, for a given area of forest, over multiple rotations or cutting cycles. With sustainability being a buzz word in the forestry industry, a number of harvest scheduling methods have been (and continue to be) developed that help us to manage our forests on a sustainable basis. The basic management unit is the forest stand (or a polygon comprising multiple stands). It is desirable that each management unit be managed in the most environmentally, economically and socially beneficial way. For each management unit, however, there are numerous management regime possibilities. The following are a few variables, which contribute to the wide range of potential management regimes.

  • species
  • site quality
  • age of current stand
  • length of rotation
  • number of thinnings (& ages at which they occur), and intensity thereof
  • regeneration or replanting
  • greenup window

The potentially complex procedure of developing and solving a harvest scheduling model can be summarized in the following steps:

  • Decide on decision-making variables. In Habplan, where integer programming is used, each decision-making variable represents one whole management unit (forest stand or polygon), i.e. each management unit can only be assigned one management regime. However, in linear programming, it is assumed that each management unit can conceptually split up, and managed under a number of different regimes, thus creating a number of different decision making variables for each management unit.
  • Develop the objective function, according to the objectives of the given harvest scheduling problem.
  • Incorporate various constraints e.g. land constraints, volume flow constraints, financial constraints and ending inventory constraints.
  • Use a mathematical programming technique to solve the problem for the optimal/best solution.
  • The solution to such a problem should offer information on which management units (or how much of each management unit) to devote to each of the proposed management regimes.

There is no one computer program in the world that can account for all variables in nature. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that harvest scheduling is merely man's best effort at simplifying a very complex and dynamic natural phenomenon into a mathematical formula, and does by no means offer the perfect solution in the quest for the optimal management regime. However, it is safe to say that various harvest scheduling methods are capable of providing fairly reliable guidelines, by which land can be managed.”

The above paragraphs illustrate the complexities and capabilities of harvest scheduling. In addition to Habplan, there are several other applications available. The hands-down favorite of forest planners is Remsoft’s Forest Planning System (Woodstock and Stanley) regarded as the best available by most users (at least managers of 500 million acres on five continents)!

It takes very well trained people to prepare a harvest schedule or plan. From personal experience, I can say that Remsoft also offers excellent training programs and support for its products. Some companies and TIMOs have trained people and do their own plans. Others use forest consultants that have experienced harvest scheduling people on their staff. One company, FORSight Resources, actually specializes in harvest scheduling and has several world-class authorities on the subject.

The take-home for the harvest scheduling discussion is that it is the best DCF methodology for a major acquisition because:

  • It seeks optimization of management scenarios.
  • The better versions allow spatial constraints and provide spatial output.
  • It allows the addressing of very complex issues that other solutions are not capable of doing.
  • Optimal solutions form the basis of the future management plan.
  • There is some very good software available with tools built that reduce the complexity of the mathematical programming.
  • But… it is complex, time consuming, and must be implemented by specialists


  • because of the timeline associated with the cash flows of all timberland investments, DCF is a requirement of all valuations (except the flip!)
  • for large timberland transactions, use harvest scheduling software
  • for small tracts (up to a couple of thousand acres) and infrequent purchases, use freely available forestry investment software
  • for frequent purchases/valuation of smaller transactions, spreadsheets may be the better choice.

This concludes the DCF discussion. The next, and final, post in this series will focus on the choice of the discount rate and how critical that decision is to the outcome of the valuation. Comments welcomed. --Brian

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Valuing Timberland III

This is the third post of a series on timberland valuation. If you missed the first post, which included an Overview plus a discussion on Disaggregation, you can read “Valuing Timberland I” here. The second post focused primarily on productivity and how that fits into today’s appraisal systems which use discounted cash flow techniques to determine the value of timberland. You can read “Valuing Timberland II” here. Today’s post will focus on estimates of timber volumes and values, how we get them, and how we forecast them for future year’s cash flows. We will also take a quick look at the confidence you should place in them.

First, let’s look at timber volumes. What does the cruise say? What does the inventory say? What is the difference? How was the acreage calculated? Are volume estimates tied to a GIS? What are the sources of errors? Can volumes be reasonably audited? If the volume estimate isn’t “right”, the value certainly won’t be!

What is a “cruise”? A survey of forestland to locate timber and estimate its quantity by species, products, size, quality, or other characteristics; the estimate in such a survey. Several different sampling techniques can be used in a cruise. (source: Forestry Terms for Mississippi Landowners, Mississippi State University Extension).

What is an “inventory”? See Cruise (same source). H’mmm. I don’t want to aggravate my Mississippi State colleagues or to argue semantics but there is a huge difference between a cruise and an inventory or, more appropriately, a timber cruise and a forest inventory. To keep it simple, the cruise (as correctly defined above) collects data to estimate the timber volume, quantity, etc. that is there right now. The forest inventory collects much more information which can be used to project volumes and harvests (and other stuff too) into the future. A cruise, as defined above, wouldn’t collect any information on an eight year old loblolly pine plantation. There is little or no volume (perhaps a few trees that meet the limits of merchantability) but there certainly is value. A forest inventory would want to know the species, age, trees/acre, site index and acreage at a minimum. That is the information that is necessary to drive the growth and yield models necessary to estimate future wood flows from the tract. The wood flows become the basis for the cash flows in the appraisal. Perhaps this is just semantics but it is very important to understand the difference and to know what you are looking at.

So the “acquisition cruise” necessary to purchase land is more appropriately referred to as a forest inventory than a cruise. A “timber cruise” is more likely used to determine the immediate value of the timber for a timber sale. Data to drive growth models or cash flow models is not necessary. This distinction is more than academic. The inventory data can be “grown” to provide volume information for appraisals, stand level info for thinning or harvest, projected harvest and regeneration sites for planning site preparation and planting, all at multiple forward points in time. A typical cruise is not designed to do this. Merchantability specs are frequently different between cruises and inventories resulting in differences in volumes reported. Merchantability specs for inventories must be consistent from tract to tract, year to year, cruiser to cruiser and they must be consistent with what the growth models require. Merchantability specs for a timber sale cruise will normally be modified to conform to current demand, market pricing and perhaps even the logger that will be doing the harvesting.

The lesson here is that the user of cruise or inventory information had better understand what he or she is looking at. The cruise/inventory designer needs a clear understanding of the objective of the cruise. Otherwise, expect disappointment.

The sampling intensity of most inventories will not provide adequate data for timber sales. Inventories must collect some information on every stand or stratum (a collection of stands with similar characteristics). The objective of an inventory or cruise is to gather the information that is necessary at an acceptable level of accuracy at the least possible cost. Contrasting the two extremes, consider the case of a 100,000 acre land acquisition compared to a 50 acre mature hardwood timber sale. The objective of the land acquisition inventory is to be accurate enough to generate a reasonably accurate cash flow analysis for the perceived life of the investment (and hence, its present value). Another objective may be to assist in management if the tract is purchased. The resulting inventory would be one with a low sampling intensity but one collecting much information at each sample plot. The inventory is “not accurate” at the stand level. Cost is a serious consideration. If the tract is not purchased, the entire cost of the inventory is wasted. The 50 acre timber sale, on the other hand, has a much higher sampling intensity (perhaps a 100% tally), does not require collecting growth modeling information and requires careful inspection of the quality of each tree relative to current market conditions. The cruise cost/acre is much higher but the payback is immediate and ensured.

Statistics 101: Reiterating an earlier point when addressing timber volume reports; you had better understand what you are looking at. Most well done cruise reports will provide some detail with respect to the statistical accuracy provided by the data. You will see something like “2,216 MBF ± 10% of hardwood sawtimber”. This means, that from a statistical standpoint, the actual volume will be within 10% of the volume estimate 95% of the time, or maybe 90% of the time, or maybe 66% of the time. Maybe you better ask which probability level applies! You will probably also see a volume by species report and perhaps that will also provide statistical error reporting too. If it doesn’t, you should understand that because the sampling intensity for any given species is well below that of all of the species combined, the accuracy of the estimate drops pretty dramatically in a mixed species stand or forest. Now, digging into the cruise report a little deeper you will see that volumes may be reported by species and diameter class. How accurate do you think that will be? If the statistics are reported, that is great. If not, beware the value that you place in the numbers. This information can be useful but you have to assign it the appropriate credibility.

You should also understand that there are other sources of error in a cruise in addition to the statistical sampling error. Examples are the use of incorrect volume tables, measurement errors, poor sample design, calculation errors and, yes, a poor cruiser.

The statistical accuracy of large inventories that have been conducted over several different years and have been brought current using growth models is a different story. I’m not going to get into how to do this because I have no earthly idea how to do it! It can be done by a fairly limited group of forest statisticians, mensurationists and biometricians but it is clearly a difficult task. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to say that the accuracy is somewhat less than what would be calculated using the “ungrown” plots and declines as the number of “grown” years increases.

That’s enough said about cruise reports, inventories and the timber volumes that they report. Now let’s talk about volumes that what will be there tomorrow and the fundamentals of creating a future wood flow.

Future harvest volumes and timing must be done on a stand by stand basis utilizing stand volumes that have been “grown” using yield tables and growth and yield models. The starting base is the stand or strata level inventory and each stand or stratum is grown into the future. Some rule or methodology is then used to select the harvest date to determine the harvest volume for each future year. The result is a wood flow model that, when combined with values, becomes a key component of the cash flow model. More detail about this will be provided in the next post.

This is probably the appropriate place to discuss the integration of a GIS (Geographic Information System) with the timber inventory system when creating the information system used for timberland management. GIS based inventory systems are very common among managers of large tracts of timberland today and sellers normally provide output from these systems to potential buyers. Inventory or cruise volumes may say what is out there but the GIS says exactly WHERE it is on the surface of the earth. A quick check of the validity of the data provided by the seller can be made by auditing selected stands to compare inventory acreage, stocking, volumes, forest types, SI, etc. to the audited values. It doesn’t take much of this type of checking to determine how serious the forest managers have been about the quality and timeliness of their inventory efforts and hence the credence that can be placed in the data provided. The GIS data can be “read” into the GIS based harvest scheduling/ cash flow models and will eventually provide the basis for future management (activity schedules, maps and annual cash flow projections). These are the tools that become the foundation for communications and expectations between the new landowner and the timberland managers. The schedules tell the owner what to expect financially and form the basis of the management plan for the manager. A final point about the GIS based inventory system is that it provides the basis for a field audit in conjunction with the traditional financial audit. In the timberland sector, a financial audit without a corresponding field audit is a serious mistake; in fact, it's not really an audit.

Now let’s discuss timber values. They are down! A lot! If you are selling timber today, that is very important but how important is it with respect to timberland valuation? Should current market conditions be used for valuation?

The comments below are by Rick Holley (from Plum Creek 2008 Q3 Earnings Conference call) answering an analyst’s question about why he thinks timberland values are holding up while other asset classes are declining in value. The quote is a little messed up but his point is clear.

“I think largely because the investor in timberlands, and there’s still a fair amount of capital on the sidelines trying to invest in timberlands, is longer term. They’re looking through this cycle. If anything they’re starting to look at this cycle and lower prices as being more upside when you look out a year or two years or whatever these markets improve. I know there was a recent [Reese] article talking about some transactions that may or may not get done. We’re in the marketplace and we talk to a lot of buyers. We know who the sellers are, and we think all those transactions will in fact get done at very, very good prices, so I think the market is holding up and there’s still a lot of capital chasing very little opportunity…”

The key words above are “looking through…” with respect to timberland prices. To me, that implies that they are also “looking through” with respect to the timber values used in the timberland valuation. I think that if stumpage prices were at all-time highs, buyers would “look through” and see lower prices in the future as well. As Andy Malmquist, my good friend, former employee, and current TIMO guy, used to remind me about so many things… “It’s regressing toward the mean”! Andy actually talks like that.

There are at least three factors to consider for determining future timber values to apply to future volumes – current values, real price increases and inflation. We will discuss how to address inflation in the next post so for now, we will confine the discussion to the first two items.

I am defining “current price” as a “look through” price that is on the trend line for the species,local area and region (huge differences between NE and NW, cherry and red maple). In other words, I am looking for the price that has “regressed to the mean”. This data can be obtained from several different pricing services such as Forest2Market, RISI and Timber-Mart South. In addition, most state forestry commissions (South Carolina Forestry Commission pricing report) or forestry university extension services also provide some level of pricing reports. Local consulting foresters usually know what is available and can also provide first hand local knowledge. Pricing from these sources will provide the baseline for projecting the value of future harvests in the cash flow model.

A real increase in future stumpage prices can and should be incorporated into the model if you think it is justified. U. S. Forest Service reports suggest that sawtimber stumpage prices have increased at a real rate of 2% a year over a very long period of time. An analysis of southern pine stumpage prices by forest economist Jack Lutz reached the following conclusion:

“Our analysis indicates that southern pine sawtimber stumpage prices are mean-reverting, with a 50-year mean of $38.29/ton (based on LDAF data). Those prices have held to that mean through 50 years of timber supply and demand shocks and significant changes in timber harvesting and processing technology. That means we should not expect a significant increase in sawtimber stumpage prices in the near future. This supports the current practice of many timberland investors who are using 0% real appreciation rates in their timberland investment models.”

The future is anybodies guess but the real value increase used should be based upon your view of the future. That’s why there is always a high bidder and a low bidder!

This concludes the discussion on timber volumes and values. The next post in the series will attempt to tie it all together by addressing the methodologies associated with the discounted cash flow models. Comments are welcomed. --Brian

Friday, January 16, 2009

How Much Did Timberland Values Fall in 2008?

My stock portfolio has certainly taken a hit to the downside. The housing market has tanked and the values of many houses and rental units have gone down with it. Stocks of the publicly traded timberland owners have gone down 20 to 60% in the last year or so. The logic is that the decline in housing has caused a drop in lumber price which has created a drop in timber (stumpage) price which has resulted in a corresponding drop in timberland prices. So logically my portfolio has taken a hit on the tree farm side too. But has it?

I do some consulting with market analysts and hedge fund managers interested in valuing timberland and the drivers behind it. The most common question that I have heard recently surrounds the declining value of timberland and just how great that decline is. How can a company like Weyerhaeuser or Plum Creek be properly valued given the logical decline in timberland values? I could give my opinion (and I always do!) but that is not enough.

I have been maintaining a database of the major timberland transactions for over a decade so I wanted to quantify the change for 2008. Below is a chart showing the $/acre sale price trend for the last decade.

This is pretty interesting. Nationwide, it appears that prices have dropped about 21% following a year where they gained 60%! BUT… it is important to understand the data and what is happening. This database is composed of transactions that total between one and seven million acres in any given year. Also in the database is a “REGIONS” field. Price distortion occurs between years due to the variation in the percentage of sales occurring between regions ($/acre varies significantly between regions). So how does the price per acre change if we just look at a single region? Let’s look at the South.

Within any particular region, individual transactions will impact any given years weighted average price. In spite of that, the trend is clear and it is difficult to find any argument in the data that supports a decline in timberland pricing – at least in the South. The first reported sale for 2009, Potlatch to RMK, was at $1,745/acre, right in the ballpark.

The Northeast is the only region that did show a drop last year. The acreage sold in the NE was not particularly large (meaning most of the variability was probably due to the variability between tracts) so I would be reluctant to attribute much significance to the decline. There was one significant datapoint though. The Essex Timber to Plum Creek transaction (at $267/acre) pulled the average down. It is important to note that there was a conservation easement on this tract. We should expect to see significantly lower transaction values as more sales occur on tracts with existing conservation easements. The sale of a conservation easement provides revenue in the form of an early payment for HBU land but it can also have a negative impact on future forestry based revenues as well.

So…, what does all of this mean? I can see little or no decline in timberland values. I’ll be curious to see what the NCREIF index on timberland values has to say. The index is based more on appraisals than actual sales but the appraisals SHOULD be based on comparable sales and comparable sales just do not support a decline in appraisal values. If sale prices are not declining, what is wrong with the logic expressed in the first paragraph – declining housing starts means declining timberland values?

Here is my take. First, buyers are “looking through” current timber prices. Sophisticated timberland investors use appraisal techniques that look at cash flow from timber over the planned life of the investment. Those timber values are based on their view of the future, not just today’s market.

Second, more money is chasing fewer acres. A significant amount of timberland is being pulled from the market. Example: almost all of the 161,000 acres of Finch and Pruyn timberland in the Adirondacks will ultimately be withdrawn from production and become a part of the Forest Preserve. An example from the other side of the equation: this week the United Nations announced that its pension fund would diversify its portfolio and seek to acquire timberland. More money chasing fewer acres. Institutions want to diversify their portfolios, particularly by acquiring hard assets.

Third, future wood demand will be impacted by both renewable energy and global warming concerns. We are already seeing pellet mills being built to export pellets to Europe where they are mixed with coal to reduce the amount of carbon tax the utilities must pay. Most forecasters expect to see a similar tax in the U.S. soon.

Fourth, there is evidence that declining interest rates are impacting the discount rates used by institutional timberland purchasers. A declining discount rate drives value up!

These are my thoughts, these are my numbers, and these are my opinions. Comments are welcomed. --Brian