Tuesday, April 8, 2014

China’s Dominance in Cement Has Little Effect on European Suppliers

HONG KONG — In the cement industry, as with so much else in global commerce, China is a dominant force.

Yet unlike many global commodities, cement is a product in which China’s leading role has little bearing on exports or on European suppliers.

Cement is so heavy and relatively inexpensive that it is not worth shipping far from the source of production. That means China, in this field, has little impact on global supplies or prices, even though the nation accounts for about 60 percent of world production of this most basic of building materials.

‘‘Cement is usually a short-haul sea trade, because the cost of production is not high,’’ said Vikrant S. Bhatia, the chief executive of KC Maritime, a bulk-carrier shipping line based in Hong Kong that specializes in cement. Very little cement moves between Asia and Europe, he said.

Lafarge and Holcim, the European giants that plan to merge, each have substantial operations in Asia, Mr. Bhatia said. Lafarge maintains a large office in Singapore with big plants in countries like Vietnam. Holcim is strong in India and Dubai, he said.

But China is the big player in Asia, though mainly for its own voracious construction needs. Only a tiny fraction of Chinese cement is exported.

According to the European Cement Association in Brussels, China accounted for 59.3 percent of the 3.6 billion tons of cement produced in the world in 2012, the most recent year for which detailed global information was available. Producers in the rest of Asia accounted for an additional 20 percent of the global supply. Over all, Asian producers made almost 80 percent of the world’s cement that year.

China’s cement production rose 9.6 percent last year, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics, even as weak economic growth held back expansion elsewhere.

China exported only 14.5 million tons of cement last year, or 0.6 percent of production, while importing less than a million tons, Chinese customs information shows.

Much of that cement went to countries with large natural resource sectors that have the means to pay for imports and are investing heavily in construction, notably Mongolia, Australia and Angola.

China has been building cement plants at a torrid pace, despite growing concerns about the plants’ air pollution and their voracious demand for electricity, which is mostly generated in China by burning coal.

Cement is made by crushing and mixing limestone and clay, which requires considerable amounts of electricity, and then baking the mixtures with additives in huge, extremely hot kilns that consume a lot of oil or coal-based materials.

Even as new cement plants continue to open, there are worries that China’s demand for cement might start to slow. Real estate prices have begun rising a little less quickly this year in China, while many of the country’s real estate developers are struggling to cope with fairly high inflation-adjusted interest rates on corporate borrowing.

The largest single use of cement by far in China has been in railroad construction. High-speed rail lines, in particular, tend to be built on long, above-ground concrete viaducts to minimize the amount of farmland that they occupy and to keep the rails almost perfectly flat for long distances.

The Chinese State Council, the country’s cabinet, announced last week that it would accelerate the completion of new rail lines this year to 4,100 miles, an increase of 620 miles from last year.

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