Author Archives: Stuart Burns

Did you honestly think it had gone away? In the week that the U.K. government is set to announce article 50, formally notify its European partners that it plans to leave the E.U. within two years, we’re reminded of the ongoing political process which is likely to add significant volatility in the year ahead.

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The U.K.’s (or at least Great Britain’s, Scotland is vowing to hold its own referendum on staying in the U.K.) decision to leave the E.U. will have far-reaching consequences but, realistically, does not look likely to signal a breakup of the E.U. itself. Recent elections in the Netherlands saw a swing back to liberal pro-E.U. political parties and a rejection of more xenophobic and anti-E.U. sentiments as espoused by Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom. Although she is likely to do well in the first round, the Dutch result does not bode well for Marine Le Pen in the upcoming French elections with pro-E.U. parties doing well in the polls. The E.U., politically, is currently showing a united front particularly in its pre-negotiating stance with the U.K.

Clean Break? Or Regulatory Cooperation?

Britain, on the other hand, is waging what can the politely be called an internal debate between those who are lobbying for a hard Brexit or clean break from all E.U. laws and institutions, and those on the other side taking a more pragmatic view that it could be in Britain’s interest (if it genuinely wants some form of open access to E.U. markets) to maintain compliance with many E.U. regulations and institutions. Read more

Following the fortunes of Boeing and Airbus, you could be forgiven for thinking that aircraft manufacturers always run late, over budget, and the resulting end product can struggle to meet initial expectations.

Emrbaer E2

The Embraer E2. Source: Embraer.

But Brazil’s Embraer, the world’s third-largest commercial jet maker, has shown with its next generation narrow body regional aircraft, the E-2 series, that it doesn’t have to be that way. Embraer introduced the aircraft at the Paris Airshow in 2013 and it was first displayed last summer at the Farnborough Airshow just 45 days after its maiden flight. The aircraft is set to be delivered on time, on budget, and even slightly underweight.

Segment Dominance

Embraer has been very successful with their current E-jet series and the new E-2 program looks set to maintain the company’s 55% market share dominance of the regional jet market. The E-2 will commence deliveries in the first half of 2018 and variants will be capable of carrying between 70 and 130 passengers. An FT article notes that Embraer has a backlog of commitments from airlines for 690 E2 aircraft, including firm orders of 275.

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The company has struck a wide-ranging and exclusive arrangement with Alcoa Corp. for aluminum sheet and plate for the wings, skins and fuselages of the model, with other Alcoa products being used in key applications such as wing ribs, fuselage frames and other structural parts. The long-term collaboration is said by Aluminum Today to be worth $470 million to Alcoa. “PurePower” engines will be supplied by Pratt & Whitney. Read more

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, have done the U.S. oil industry a massive favor, and they are probably ruing the day they tried to squeeze America’s shale industry out of existence.

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The collapse in oil prices that ensued after Saudi Arabia-led OPEC opened the spigots two years ago forced American companies, and their many subcontractors, to innovate in a way that would never have happened so fast or gone so far without the imminent threat of survival forcing the pace.

Oil Prices Allow Reopening of Old Wells

Now, U.S. shale producers have achieved economies of scale that allow them to return to previously closed wells in fields like Eagle Ford and achieve 30% returns even at $40 a barrel. U.S. explorers may be making hay in the domestic market, but huge potential exists for these same firms to take their technology abroad. Read more

Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal’s audacious purchase of 13% of mining giant Anglo American PLC  took the stock markets by surprise last week. But Agarwal, chairman of London-listed Vedanta Resources is known for his bold and sometimes seemingly counter-intuitive acquisitions.

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Agarwal has bought the shares in the name of his family trust Volcan, saying it is just an investment in a “great company with excellent assets,” stating that he had no immediate plans to launch a takeover, according to the Financial Times.

No one believes him, of course, or at least not the part about it just being an investment in a great company with excellent assets. True, the prospect of Agarwal’s Vedanta with a market cap of $2.99 billion, being able to takeover Anglo-American with a market cap of  $20.84 billion (£16.7 billion) is verging on the absurd, but the truth is Agarwal is probably more interested in a seat on the board and the opportunity to influence Anglo-American’s future in South Africa than seriously taking over a group that is seven times the size of his own.

Source: Financial Times

Anglo-American has made no secret of its desire to divest some of its more troublesome South African investments.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

The political instability and red tape in South Africa has caused the miner problems in recent years and Anglo has already sold two assets to Vedanta including the Gamsberg zinc project in the Northern Cape which Vedanta should bring to production next year. Read more

For an industry that has for decades been criticized by environmental groups as the root of all evil it is ironic that oil and gas producers are aligned in championing carbon capture with such enthusiasm.

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The fossil fuel industry is at the forefront of lobbying for radical changes in public policy into research to cut the costs of extracting CO2 from hydrocarbon energy. Industry leaders like Bob Dudley from BP are quoted in the Telegraph as saying, “we can’t just keep our heads in the sand”.

The reality is the hydrocarbon industry has seen the writing on the wall. Public attitudes are hardening, aided by worries about particulate emissions from diesel cars and air pollution in major cities from Beijing to Delhi and even in western capitals like London. The industry is under huge pressure from sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and activist shareholders to find long-term solutions to the carbon question and thwart claims that hydrocarbons are our sunset energy source. Read more

We haven’t heard much of late about President Donald Trump’s border adjustment tax, but that doesn’t mean to say it has gone away.

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Indeed, the fact that it has a measure of support in the Republican Party suggests it could be on the agenda in the not-too-distant future. The idea is to transform the corporate tax landscape from a system that has prevailed for nearly 100 years, in which profits are taxed at the place of production, to a system in which profits are taxed at the place of sale.

A-destination based cash flow tax (DBCFT), as proposed by the House Republican tax plan, would include border adjustments that exempt exports but include imports in tax bills rather than raising federal income from a corporate income tax. As William Gale, a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution explained in a recent article, all advanced countries except the U.S. already have a form of value-added tax (VAT), generally levied on top of corporate income taxes. All of those VAT systems are border adjusted, such that goods that are imported are taxed and those that are exported are not.

BAT or VAT

As part of the president’s pledge to bring jobs back to America, the border tax could have much to commend it. For example, if the U.S. introduces the system unilaterally, a factory in Ohio will pay no tax on the goods it exports to the E.U. while a factory in the E.U. will pay the border tax on its exports to the U.S. If you are a multinational corporation, suddenly it makes a ton more sense to have your new factory based in Ohio rather than some “lower cost” location. Read more

For off-road cognoscenti, there are few automobiles more iconic than Jaguar Land Rover’s Defender. Since its introduction in 1948, the rugged old workhorse has earned a reputation for go anywhere capability and durability as an article in the FT notes.

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The Defender’s engineering simplicity meant that the car could be repaired in the middle of the desert with the sparsest of resources and spare parts. But that rugged simplicity also led to its downfall. The SUV’s body-on-frame construction meant that it failed to meet modern safety crash tests and the engine just polluted the air too much to meet European emission rules. JLR consequently halted Defender production last year to the anguish of its diehard fans.

Land Rover Defender. Source: Autoexpress

Well, it would seem JLR has aspirations for a comeback. According to the FT, the group expect to relaunch the Defender in 2019 and its design group is working furiously to reconcept a new vehicle that meets modern environmental and safety standards, requiring a complete redesign from the ground up of the old Defender.

Aluminum Everywhere

It would be inconceivable if the new Defender was less capable than the old, a betrayal of that once iconic brand and, by all accounts, JLR has no intention of letting them down. Like the old Defender, a new version will employ considerable use of aluminum in the body, but unlike the old steel chassis will have an entirely new aluminum frame construction. Read more

If you can’t beat them, then join them? That may be the gist of UC Rusal’s latest proposal for dealing with Chinese aluminum overproduction: an OPEC-like organization for the global aluminum industry.

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In a Reuters article the world’s largest aluminiu producer outside of China was quoted by the TASS news agency at an economic conference in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi as suggesting that Industry ministers should get together and explore ways and means of creating a producers club.

Liquid metal

The Chinese aluminum industry has been able to cut costs by essentially selling liquid metal to nearby product manufacturers. Source: Adobe Stock/Kybele.

The trade minister quoted by TASS, Denis Manturov, talked of creating a single policy in the area of standards and technology but, in reality, there would be little to be gained if that was the sole purpose. More attractive to western smelters in general, and Rusal in particular, would be any mechanism that curbed China’s growing dominance of the primary aluminum market.

Rusal was, until a few years ago the world’s largest aluminum producer. In 2016 Rusal produced 3.685 million metric tons, according to Reuters, but China now produces over half the world’s aluminum with Chinese producers overtaking the Russian firm. China’s Hongqiao is now the world’s biggest aluminum producer overtaking Rusal in 2015 and again in 2016. Read more

Those not involved in the steel industry tend to look at large, integrated blast furnace steel plants as dated technology light-years from the gleaming glass and concrete operations of IT or electronics. However, steelmakers are constantly striving for technological improvements.

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In fact, the very marginal nature of steel production in the western world means that constant innovation is a necessity for a firm’s survival. Comparisons between U.S. Steel and Nucor Corp. illustrate this point. When U.S. Steel was focused on cost reduction and rationalization at the turn of the century, Nucor was innovating and investing not just in alternative electric arc furnaces, but in direct casting and other downstream technologies. As a result, Nucor is now North America’s most successful steel company but they’re not alone in looking to technology for their future prosperity.

Continuous Casting

An interesting article in the Economist details efforts at a number of steel producers around the world to find a better alternative to the traditional blast furnace. The slab casting and re-rolling route is epitomized by the likes of U.S. Steel and the major Asian steel mills. For years, the only real challenger to this process was the electric arc furnace which enjoys the benefits of scrap as a raw material and greater flexibility and economies of scale allowing it to operate profitably on a fraction of the cost required throughout for a traditional blast furnace-based integrated steel plant.

Liquid steel.

Innovation in steelmaking is coming from novel uses of liquid metal. Source: Adobe Stock/Photollug.

One of the major attractions most EAF plants have is that they produce final product by the continuous casting route. The liquid metal is taken from the refining vessel and, for flat-rolled products, continuously cast into 80-120-mm thick slabs, which can then be further rolled to thinner gauges. Read more

As one might misquote Mark Twain, we have been here before.

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In 2016, analysts were queued up to predict the iron ore price was going to collapse only for it continue its relentless rise. The recent pull back from $90 per metric ton has brought a fresh crop of dire predictions. Yet maybe, just maybe, there is more validity this time around for caution as to future price direction. There are a number of factors, each of which individually does not signal a price reversal but collectively suggests iron ore prices later this year could be lower than they have been in the first quarter.

Why Iron Ore Prices Might Really Fall

An article in the Australian Financial Review quotes analysts saying, the strength of recent pricing is encouraging Chinese domestic production to increase. In the first half in 2016 it was averaging a 220 million mt per year run rate, but rose to 280 mmt per year in the second half of the year. At the same time, global supply continues to rise with not just increased shipments from Australia but also number three miner Vale SA expanding supply from its $14 billion S11D mine. Read more