Trials of faith, signs of redemption

16 May 2017

The crane industry's long march out of the slump caused by the global financial crisis continues like the final stages of the Compestela pilgrimage – a painful and exhausting crawl on bloody hands and knees.

At last, though, there are some signs that dedication may be rewarded with redemption. There were few miraculous signs in 2016 and rather more dark omens. Terex's crane business, for example, saw losses of tens of millions. Liebherr boasted a near-record year as a group but its mobile-cranes division saw sales go down, registering even a slight decline in Germany, its strongest European market. Manitowoc saw sales decline again in the first quarter of 2017.

No one, yet, has unchallenged faith in a recovery. However, there seemed to be increased confidence among crane buyers at ConExpo 2017 and a degree of very cautious optimism among manufacturers. Some of the key drivers of demand are turning positive and end users are making cautious steps that promise a better future.

Commenting on Manitowoc's first-quarter results, CEO Barry Pennypacker pointed out that while sales were down year on year, orders were up. As I describe in a feature on mobile cranes in the US, senior staff at many crane manufacturers reported a positive ConExpo.

Indeed, Link-Belt veteran Pat Collins, who has ten ConExpo shows behind him, described this year's show as one of the best that he's been to. Rather than cautiously surveying what is on offer, many buyers were apparently keen to get orders under way for fear of waiting for deliveries.

Terex's Steve Filipov, returning to the crane segment after working on the MHPS division, laid out the steps that the company was taking to improve its sales process as part of an overall turnaround strategy. That appears to be paying off, with a series of big orders from well-known rental companies including Sanghvi, Sarens, Mediaco, Bigge and, most recently, Herkules.

It may be the case that the manufacturer has pushed for orders as Filipov tries to demonstrate a turnaround, but none of these companies will be buying without some confidence that they can put their cranes to work.

Supporting this confidence among buyers are signs of optimism among end users. As ConExpo started, for example, ExxonMobil announced that it would be investing $20 billion in refinery projects on the US Gulf Coast. Randy Robertson at Manitex pointed out that the Baker Hughes rig count, which tracks working oil and gas rigs in the US, has been trending upwards over the past few months.

Even in Australia, which has been hardest hit by dropping commodity prices, there has been some recent new investment.

While the oil prices that underpin this spending are nowhere near what they were in 2014, they have danced around the $50-a-barrel mark that many consider to be a necessary minimum for sustained investment.

Iron ore, coal and copper prices are also moving away from their recent low points. Residential construction, too, is showing signs of promise. In the US, housing unit starts are continuing on an upward trend.

In the UK, mortgage approvals are inching upwards. With a general election looming and housing costs in cities like London still far from affordable, UK politicians are competing with promises to deliver hundreds of thousands of new homes.

As discussed in the previous issue, the alignment of the executive and legislature in the US holds out some renewed hope for agreement on a much needed plan for federal highway spending. On a local level, Stephen Scott at South Carolina's Heavy Iron explains how some states have been finding their own funds for road and bridge building.

Finally, in the US, the contacts I spoke to saw some promising political trends.

Their focus wasn't so much on the uniquely Trumpian aspects of the new administration so much as the new president's adherence to traditional Republican values of lower taxes and reduced regulation. The White House may or may not deliver on those policies, but its fealty to them is certainly welcomed by many rental company owners.