By Emerson Schwartzkopf

Toting up the U.S. import numbers on dimensional stone, it’s easy to see that granite, marble and other varieties are more than back … they’re moving ahead.

The exclusive Stone Update analysis of year-end figures from the U.S. International Trade Commission show stone imports – which make up more than 85% of the U.S. dimensional market – continued a steady rise from the huge valley floor of the recession in 2009. Granite shows the strongest recovery, with all sectors but one (Other Stone) moving well ahead in year-to-year increases in volume.

The recent rise in stone imports strongly resembles the growth seen during the mid-2000s, but there’s one difference: the last time, stone rode the wild expansion of the U.S. housing bubble. Now, it’s regaining top form all on its own.

MEASURING THE IMPORTS

200 2005-14 compareClick image to enlargeThere are two ways of evaluating U.S. import numbers: the declared customs value and the actual volume in metric tons. Because one of the dimensional-sector imports – non-roofing slate – isn’t reported completely in metric-ton weight, customs value is the only full comparable of U.S. stone imports.

In 2014, U.S. imports of dimensional stone totaled $2.47 billion, up 4.3% from 2013. The sectors (and corresponding change from 2013) break down as:

Granite: $1.32 billion (+2.9%)
Marble: $393.8 million (+15.4%)
Other Stone: $293.3 million (-0.2%)
Travertine: $290.9 million (+2.4%)
Other Calcareous: $112.7 million (+4.0%)
Slate: $60.7 million (+2.9%)

Using value to determine the impact of dimensional-stone imports can offer some false guidance, however. The value per unit – whether it’s a slab, a container or a metric ton – of any import like stone can change rapidly. Currency variations worldwide also can play havoc in trying to compare dockside customs values from year to year.

Actual tonnage data, meanwhile, gives a genuine feel of supply and demand.  The 2014 import volume of dimensional-stone sectors (excluding slate), stated in metric tons, tells a very different story:

Granite: 2,053,847 (+30.4%)
Travertine: 661,574 (+28.3%)
Marble: 324,469 (+23.4%)
Other Stone: 292,262 (-8.5%)
Other Calcareous: 172,116 (+11.5%)

Let’s take a look at the individual sectors.

GRANITE

200 Granite Volume 1Click image to enlargeGranite is going strong. Maybe not to the false heights of the mid-2000s housing bubble, but dimensional-granite imports are again on the path of steady growth.

U.S. imports of worked (cut/slab material) granite totaled 2,053,847 metric tons last year, outgaining 2013’s shipments by 30.4%. It’s the best year for the sector since 2007, and the growth is due to one country: Brazil.

Brazil shipped 1,114,112 metric tons of granite to the United States in 2014, topping 2013 by 52.7%. The country also accounted for more than half (54.2%) of all dimensional granite received in U.S. ports-of-entry.

That million-plus metric-ton total also represented Brazil’s best year ever in U.S. granite imports, topping its pre-recession record of 985,764 metric tons in 2006.

The rest of granite’s Big Four suppliers also posted good import numbers last year, albeit far behind Brazil. China, in second place, sent 460,357 metric tons for a 9.2% year-to-year increase. India’s 234,430 metric tons marked a 4.1% increase from 2013, while Italy moved up 36.1% with 121,139 metric tons.

Of all the stone-import sectors, granite went through the biggest change in the recession. In 2005, Brazil also led all granite-supplying countries to the United States, but the Big Four ran tighter in the metric-ton race:

Brazil: 631,428
India: 470,263
Italy: 421,612
China: 335,628

Consider again the lineup in 2014:

Brazil: 1,115,113
China: 460,357
India: 234,430
Italy: 121,139

Chinese granite imports took less of a downturn than other countries during the recession, and continued gaining strength in the past few years. India – except for a spurt of imports in 2010 – consistently runs at half the amount of pre-recession years. And Italy continued to drift from its former dominance of world granite processing; it’s only shipped >100,000 metric tons to the United States in two of the last six years.

Second-tier granite exporting countries, such as Spain, Canada and South Africa, also saw shipments slip to the United States in the past ten years. No country, however, took the recession harder than Taiwan, going from 52,176 metric tons (and fifth place) in 2005 to 9,848 metric tons in 2014.

U.S. import value on dimensional granite didn’t grow anywhere as fast as volume, as the $1.32 billion total of 2014 showed only a 2.9% annual increase. While Brazil’s tonnage grew by more than half from 2013-2014, last year’s value of $651.2 million only showed a 6.8% increase, and two of the Big Four showed a decrease in total custom value: China (-1.3%) and Italy (-8.7%).

MARBLE

200 Marble Volume AClick image to enlargeWhile the major focus remains on granite, there’s a bigger recovery story in cut/slab dimensional stone: marble. Thanks to renewed consumer interest, 2014 proved to be marble’s best year yet; the 324,469 metric tons sent to the United States represented a 23.4% increase from 2013.

Italy topped the totals again last year, shipping 100,447 metric tons – up 13.9% from 2013. Turkey muscled into second with 73,869 metric tons, increasing exports to the United States by an impressive 69.3%. China dropped to third with 69,614 metric tons, netting only a 4.1% advantage from the previous year, while Spain took up fourth at 28,481 metric tons (+10.3%).

India and Brazil managed to ship >10,000 metric tons each last year to more than double 2013 volume. India’s 15,248 metric tons represented a 174.8% year-to-year increase; Brazil moved up 105.4% to 11,839 metric tons.

Marble also recorded the biggest growth in the past 10 years, with 2014’s volume besting 2005 levels by 44.1%, with double- and triple-digit growth from five of the top six exporting countries. Only Spain failed to better 2005 totals, with 2014’s tonnage close to 25% less than 10 years ago.

Italy also claims top-dollar amounts for its marble. While the country provided less than a third of last year’s U.S. marble imports, Italy’s marble customs value ($205.8 million) made up more than half of the $393.8 million value for all 2014 dimensional-marble imports. (Plus, that $393.8 million in total customs value is a staggering 81.4% more than 2005.)

TRAVERTINE

200 Travertine VolumeClick image to enlargeU.S. imports of travertine took a big leap up in 2014, with the 661,574 metric tons besting 2013 tallies by 28.3%. The growth’s due to one country: Turkey.

Turkey’s shipments to the United States last year increased by 39.2% from 2013 to 548,171 metric tons. The country accounted for 82.8% of all travertine shipped here in 2014 – the biggest domination of a dimensional-stone sector by one source.

Mexico, as the second-largest exporter, moved 66,922 metric tons last year, a 7.4% increase.

Last year represented a reawakening for Turkey from post-recession doldrums that, at one point, halved its annual U.S. shipments. Last year’s volume moved back into the levels of the mid-2000s, although it trailed the record 695,032 metric tons of 2006.

Other travertine suppliers haven’t fared as well; Italy’s 2005 level of 55,319 metric tons shrank below 10,000 for several years, and last year’s 20,978 metric tons is 10.1% behind 2013. Peru slid from 30,528 metric tons in 2006 to 9,000 metric tons last year. China showed some spark post-recession, but last year’s 12,489 metric tons trails 2013 by 36.6%.

The $290.9 million in customs value for U.S. travertine imports last year marked a 2.4% increase from 2013. It’s a long way from the $472.4 million noted in 2005, when it more-than-doubled marble’s $271.4 million.

OTHER CALCAREOUS

200 OtherCalc VolumeClick image to enlargeThis “other” (as in not officially classified as either marble or travertine) category of calcareous continued its recent rebound, with overall U.S. import volume of 172,116 metric tons in 2014 – an 11.5% year-to-year gain. China again led all countries with 31,832 metric tons, despite a 31.6% drop from an abnormally large 46,519 metric tons in 2013.

In 2014, plenty of other countries picked up the slack, led by second-place Italy at 27,875 metric tons (+56.9%), Spain at 19,602 metric tons (+67.4%) and Turkey at 16,484 metric tons (+55.3%). All other countries shipping >10,000 metric tons to the United States also showed gains from 2013.

The $112.7 million in customs value of 2014’s other-calcareous imports marked a 4% increase from the previous year, and the best tally since 2009’s $116.2 million. Previous years, however, aren’t exactly comparable.

With other calcareous, the best way to consider performance during the last 10 years is to chop off all the numbers before Jan. 1, 2011 and burn those results for warmth. A frenzy of massive imports from unlikely countries exceeds any possible realistic demand.

The best example of this is Lebanon, which shipped 509 metric tons of other calcareous to the United States in 2005; in 2008, it sent 487,967 metric tons, and another 469,346 metric tons in the following year. The 2009 volume in other calcareous from Lebanon along totaled more than twice the amount of all dimensional marble imported that same year from … well, from all countries. In 2011, Lebanon sent 15 – not 15,000, but just 15 – metric tons, and hasn’t topped 200 metric tons in any year since then.

More than four million metric tons of other calcareous went through U.S. ports-of-entry from 2005-2010; less than 630,000 metric tons came by in 2011-2014 in a steady and realistic pattern of growth.

SLATE

200 Slate ValueClick image to enlargeNon-roofing dimensional slate caught barely a ripple of the recovery wave, with recent years showing small upticks. U.S. imports in 2014 of $60.7 million offer a 2.9% increase from the previous year, but that’s still less than half of the high-water mark of $130.8 million in 2006.

China’s $32.2 million in slate sent here last year remains well behind 2006’s $53.6 million, but the laggard here is India. It led all exporters to the United States with $47.4 million in 2005, and kept pace with China through 2009; since then, it’s dropped consistently to $15.7 million last year. Italy’s also unlikely to regain its 2006 level of $7.4 million, given its slit to nearly $1.2 million in 2014.

Slates offers a few bright spots, but the impacts are small. Spain reversed a large drop in 2013 and almost returned to million-dollar levels last year with $973,864. And Portugal experienced its best year in a decade, albeit at $389,320.

OTHER STONE

200 OtherStone VolumeClick image to enlargeThe omnibus category for dimensional-stone imports bucked the recovery trend last year, with its 292,262 metric tons dipping 8.5% from 2013. All major (>5,000 metric tons) exporters showed a year-to-year drop, save for China’s 44,136 metric tons (+9.2%). Sector leaders Brazil (101,286 metric tons) and India (85,100 metric tons) dropped 12.9% and 11.2%, respectively.

Brazil, India and China remain ahead of 2005 shipment levels; other former leaders in other-stone exports to the United States are well below pre-recession numbers. Italy went from 36,618 metric tons in 2005 to 11,660 metric tons last year; Mexico dipped from 20,968 metric tons to 6,136 metric tons in the same 10-year span.

Then there’s Tunisia. The North African country gained traction in the U.S. market in the mid-2000s, shipping 15,982 metric tons in 2006. However, in the seven years following, it hasn’t sent a single metric ton.

The other-stone sector held the line in retaining overall value during the last 10 years. While the $293.2 million in U.S. imports last year recorded a nominal 0.2% dip from 2013, the total is 13% ahead of 2005’s $259.4 million.

Data for this article, and for accompanying charts, is derived from information reported by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. International Trade Commission. All analysis is made using comparable data. “Cut /slab” data excludes crude/roughly trimmed stone comprised of marble/travertine, granite or other categories where volume measurement is in cubic meters instead of metric tons. Marble/travertine crude/roughly trimmed stone data is not included in value summaries, since the two stones are not delineated in the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (2014).


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