A dispute between Cemex and Vulcan Materials over the use of a terminal in Quintana Roo state heated up this week as the two companies publicly argued over the situation. US-based Vulcan Materials went to the press to say that the Mexican police had forced entry into the facility south of Cancun, run by its subsidiary Calica, with orders to allow a Cemex ship to discharge cement. Vulcan denied that the authorities had any legal basis for the action and said that it was an illegal occupation. Cemex then responded with a press release explaining that the two companies had held a previous contractual relationship for joint-usage of the terminal until the agreement broke down in late 2022. It says it was granted an injunction by a local court to continue using the terminal while legal proceedings carry on.
The disagreement over the use of the Punta Venado terminal dates back to at least 2018 when Vulcan initiated a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) arbitration claim over alleged planning and environmental issues in relation to a nearby quarry. Dialogue continued, but Calica’s operations in the area were shut down by the government in May 2022. Subsequently, Vulcan’s total volumes of shipped aggregates fell by 6% year-on-year to 54Mt in the fourth quarter of 2022, partly due to the closure.
Unfortunately, the argument has become increasingly politicised with Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador criticising Vulcan for its environmental record and US senators using the Vulcan case as an alleged example of Mexico treating US companies unfairly. Some media commentators have also noted that the Mexican government is promoting a number of large-scale infrastructure schemes in the region, including the Tren Maya project, a new 1500km train line around the Yucatan peninsula, which would link tourist towns such as Cancún with historical sites like Palenque.
Graph 1: Grey cement production in Mexico, 2018 – 2022. Source: National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI).
Data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) shows that rolling annual cement production in Mexico peaked at around 43Mt in late 2018 before falling to 39Mt in mid-2020. It later recovered to a peak of just under 46Mt in mid-2021. It has since dropped a little to mid-2022 and then started to trend upwards again. The nominal cement production capacity in Mexico is 60Mt/yr according to the Global Cement Directory 2023. Yet, the actual production capacity has been reported in local press as being 42Mt/yr, lower than the annual cement production of 43.9Mt in 2022. In February 2023 it was reported that the Mexican government was taking steps to ‘implement import facilities’ to support more cement being imported. This was due to shortages in certain states particular in the south-west of the country.
Cemex’s net sales in Mexico grew by 11% to US$3.84bn in 2022 and this was attributed partly to tourism-related construction in ‘the peninsulas.’ Holcim noted ‘market softness’ for cement in the country but reported growth for concrete due to infrastructure projects such as the Tren Maya. Cemento Moctezuma’s net sales rose by 2.6% to US$878m. Despite rising sales, both Cemex and Cemento Moctezuma reported falling earnings in 2022.
The dispute between Cemex and Vulcan Materials overlaps with wider trends on how and where the Mexican cement market is developing following a lull in the late 2010s. Production is growing in certain parts of the country, particularly in the Yucatan peninsula due to various infrastructure projects and tourism-related demand. However, the overall economic environment appears to have decreased earnings for some producers. However Cemex said that this was starting to correct itself in late 2022, as prices caught up with inflation. Portraying the Cemex – Vulcan situation in nationalistic terms is unhelpful, especially since Cemex made more money in the US than Mexico in 2022! However, this may be yet another example of more isolationist economic policies along the same lines as the US Inflation Reduction Act.
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