The Fiber Factor
A statistical report shows how all three major man-made fibers have been affected by imports and exports.
The Fiber Factor A statistical report shows how all three major man-made fibers have been affected by imports and exports. The Fiber Economics Bureau recently published a statistical series detailing domestic fiber manufacturer production and shipments, exports, imports and domestic consumption for the three major manmade fibers: acrylic, nylon and polyester. The figures are particularly revealing of the role of fiber imports in U.S. textile mill activity.The modern U.S. fiber industry is barely 50 years old and has matured dramatically in those few years. Historically, U.S. fiber producers were net exporters, not so much because the industry actively pursued exports but rather because U.S. fibers were demanded since international rivals had not installed technology sufficient for competition in critical fabrics.The investment is now in place and enormous quantities of new fiber imports will harass the domestic industry in the next few years more than all the imports in history.All three of the major fibers are impacted but, as you might expect, polyester, the 800-pound gorilla of fiber usage, is most heavily affected.Total U.S. mill consumption of polyester fibers (filament plus staple) has grown at an annual rate of 4.1 percent thus far in the 1990s.Domestic fiber producers provided 470 million pounds of this growth, approximately 38 percent, while imports added the rest, 767 million pounds (See Table 1).Domestic producers did manage to expand exports 9 percent per year, a relatively impressive accomplishment given the short time producers have been focusing on establishing long-term export programs and the relative economic disadvantages U.S. producers suffer. Unfortunately, however, imports overwhelmed this success with an average growth of more than 22 percent during the period.It is tempting to blame the Asian crisis and its low offering prices for all of this change this but Table 1 suggests otherwise.From 1990 (admittedly a relatively low period in the early 90s recession) through 1995 (before the real impact of the Asian monetary crisis), imports grew at a 27+-percent annual rate. From 1995 through 1998, as the real shock of the Asian crisis became apparent, the rate slowed by almost half to the 14+-percent level restrained somewhat by home country fiber usage in garments for export. Asian fibers impacted U.S. producers more by slowing non-NAFTA export programs than by ravaging U.S. markets.That is not to say that current reported prices will help domestic fiber producers but, despite all the wailing, U.S. polyester producers, at least until 1998, enjoyed relatively good volumes.Table 2 details domestic and import shipments of polyester staple. Mill consumption of polyester staple increased by 3+ percent per year for the period but, more importantly, that statistic is of little comfort to domestic producers.Shipments of U.S.-produced staple for U.S. consumption grew not at all during the 90s as U.S.-polyester-staple manufacturers shipped an average of 2,150 million pounds of staple for domestic consumption each year in the period.Domestic consumption rose to current levels in 1994 (26 percent above 1990 recession levels) and since has stagnated, obviously depressed by the growing flood of manufactured items arriving from Asia.Any growth in U.S. staple consumption since 1991 is accounted for by imports, and it is apparent that domestic producers have abdicated domestic consumption growth to imports. Starting from the smaller base, imports grew an astounding 29+ percent from 1990 through 1995 and have slowed to a mere 8-percent crawl since. This staple shipment pattern drives the overall picture for all polyester fibers since staple represents approximately two thirds of all polyester processed in this country.NAFTA is extremely beneficial for the polyester staple producer. From 97 to 98, polyester staple shipments rose approximately 25 percent to our NAFTA partners, particularly to Mexico, while overall export shipments rose a more sedate 5 percent.Filament Shipments RiseTable 3 details domestic and import shipments of polyester textile filament. Significantly different from staples shipment and consumption pattern, textile filament has enjoyed substantial growth during the 90s.Domestic shipments for domestic consumption increased from 725 million pounds in 1990 to 1,005 million pounds in 1998, an annual increase of 4.2 percent, slightly under the 4.3-percent increase in total shipments for domestic polyester filament producers.The data shows that while U.S. filament manufacturers had made significant progress in opening and serving export markets between 1990 and 1996, the bottom dropped out in 1997 and 98 in response to the take-no-prisoners pricing strategies of Asian producers as they struggled to survive the regional financial crisis.Industrial FilamentThe largely specification-driven polyester industrial yarn business continues to grow. Analysis of the decades shipments clearly demonstrates the value of investment in technology.Long the preserve of domestic fiber manufacturers, the industrial market gradually is succumbing to the siren call of lower priced, generally equivalent quality, imported industrial fibers.Offshore manufacturers are waging a determined battle with domestic suppliers for a share of industrial textiles. Recent investment in state-of-the art spinning and winding equipment will serve Asian producers well in meeting quality and performance specifications at a more than competitive price.A small share of the import increases are deliberate manufacturing shifts between NAFTA-sited facilities. But the largest portion reflects increased activity from Asian nations. Increased Asian participation in world markets reduced U.S. export opportunities in both textile filament and industrial filament markets, the former dropping by approximately 30 percent from 1996 peaks and the latter, after suffering a setback in 1996, is now struggling to rise to pre-96 levels. Unfortunately, inexperience and lack of history in international trade will dog polyester fiber producers for years to come.Changes in the polyester filament trade with our NAFTA partners from 97 to 98 was entirely more steady than that in staple. What Canada increased, Mexico decreased for a virtual standoff year to year.Capacity Use SuffersAs can be expected from the foregoing analysis, domestic polyester fiber producers will struggle in the coming years to keep operating rates above the magic 80-percent level.We measure capacity use against sales (shipments), which allows us to ignore inventory changes which are more financial/production considerations than market driven. Against this measure, the overall U.S. polyester industry ran at a middle 80s operating rate through most of the decade and, as we earlier have reported in these pages, the industry was able to maintain finished goods stocks in the 30 day range.Searching For ImprovementThe string finally was broken in 1998 as U.S. markets faded and plunging Asian domestic consumption dictated export programs in search of hard currencies. The overall industry ran at a 74-percent operating level in 1998 with textile filament suffering the most. As DuPont withdrew Cooper River and part of Kinston from textile filament competition, new Unifi capacity added to the already oversupplied industry and drove textile filament operating levels into the mid-60s. Interestingly, even if there were no imports of textile filament, the operating rate would struggle to rise to 80 percent.The combination of poor business and recent capacity increases has forced this segment of the industry into the long term doldrums. Though the players are different (Wellman replaces Unifi), recent operating rates for polyester staple were barely better than those for textile filament for many of the same reasons. New capacity combined with bargain basement priced imported materials sank staples 1998 operating rate to 77 percent, a level only slightly better than that for textile filament.Only the industrial filament market has expanded sufficiently to absorb both imports and the modestly increased domestic capacity.Staple and textile filament both suffer from severe over capacity. It is hard to project domestic improvement until we see more Asian recovery than is currently apparent. May 1999