The year-old U.S./Canadian softwood agreement has brought an unprecedented level of confusion to the always turbulent market for framing lumber. In January, western spruce-pine-fir 2x4s were trading at $410 per thousand board feet (mbf), up from $245 a year before, according to the lumber market newsletter Random Lengths. But near-record high prices were only part of the problem: The wild swings in prices throughout the winter were an equal concern. Homebuilding groups and lumber dealers alike are blaming the April 1996 softwood deal for bringing on the most volatile prices in recent memory. "With the introduction of the quota system, we are seeing falsely inflated price spikes ... panic buying ... and further price increases," said a position paper from