The road has been a winding one for the tire market over the past four years, and the road ahead may see just as many curves.

I was recently asked about the price history of the tire market and, while putting together my response, realized there have been a lot of ups and downs over the past four years. Post the significant decline of the economy in 2009, a commercial tire inventory surplus created depressed prices while significant competition among tire manufacturers depressed tire prices even further.  In reaction to this, tire manufacturers reduced production significantly and closed non-essential plant facilities in an effort to “right size” production and stabilize inventory levels along with pricing.

Commercial tire manufacturers began to see a rebound in late 2010 as the implemented tactics stabilized inventory and prices began to rise slowly.  By the start of 2011, the underlying commodities for tire manufacturers were spiking on the commodities exchanges as speculative trading and natural disasters affecting natural rubber production specifically occurred; all combined to drive a significant price increase trend for commercial tires.  All tire manufacturers were moving prices up in lock-step fashion at unprecedented frequency and magnitude.  Prior to this period, normal annual price increases for commercial tires were 3%-9%, this period resulted in quarterly increases averaging 12%-20% and by the end of the year price increases totaled 35%-50%.

Stabilization leads to expansion The tire industry stabilized in 2012 as the tire manufacturers reported that tires have reached a price point that allowed for a “correction” in the market place to recover raw material price levels.  The raw materials also stabilized in 2012 and began to soften as speculation subsided and production levels were reported to be in line with demand.  Commercial tire prices softened in 2013 as inventory levels and price competition amongst the tire manufacturers resumed in a stabilized market place.

Tire manufacturers have reported expansions in plant facilities starting late 2012 and in 2013 have announced that commercial truck tire production will also be expanded to meet projected demand estimated at a 3%-5% annual increase over the next 5-7 years.

Raw material availability always impacts pricing The single most significant threat to the current stable market will be the raw materials commodities involved in the manufacturing of a tire; natural and synthetic rubber, steel cord, carbon black, oil, and organic chemicals.  Of these, natural rubber (representing nearly 40% of a tire cost) harvested from trees grown in the three largest rubber-producing countries; Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, account for 72 percent of all natural rubber exports. This part of the world is characterized as poor nations with little modern industrialization and is subject to weather related disruptions such as heavy rains and flooding which hamper rubber harvests, causing higher prices. Harvesting of rubber is seasonal as well, further restricting supply should a disaster occur.

Emerging markets will create huge competition for limited resources Beyond natural risks, the world has fallen into a slow growth trend since the recession of 2009 and the emerging markets are seen as “sleeping giants”; specifically China (largest rubber consumer and auto market) and India are projected to require enormous resources once a true economic recovery gains momentum.  All the natural resources will be pressured as these nations attempt to fuel their population demands.  The International Rubber Study Group forecasts that by 2020, there will be a 3-million-ton shortfall of natural rubber in the world. The study states most rubber-growing countries are not in a position to substantially increase their capacity to meet this growing demand. Vietnam and Ivory Coast are the only countries with plans to increase supply.

The 5-7 year outlook The 5-7 year outlook is for tire price increases based on the limited natural resources required as well as market speculation as random disruptions occur.  The significant pent–up demand of the emerging markets will reinforce the global price increases as these nations consume critical natural resources especially those sourced from the Asian region.   With these risks probable, it is advised to create an index related to tire costs to recover a portion of the increase should a dramatic event occur within the contract period.

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