Articles in Category: Ferrous Metals

Details of another hack are at the heart of U.S. Steel‘s section 337 complaint, including what it calls theft of lucrative automotive alloy Dual-Phase 980. Chinese commodity futures trading volumes are hitting records despite attempts by regulators there to rein in speculation.

U.S. Steel Alleges Dual-Phase 980 Stolen by China

According to filings with the International Trade Commission, U.S. Steel claims a forensic analysis into an alleged 2011 illegal hack of its systems by culprits based in China — one that used a similar method as the confirmed 2014 hack of U.S. Steel and other companies by the Chinese military — included stealing plans for the chemistry for an automotive specialty steel alloy and its coating, the necessary temperature for heating and cooling the metal and the proper layout of its production lines.

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The automotive steel is one of U.S. Steel’s most popular products, Dual-Phase 980, that can withstand more than 140,000 lbs. per square inch, making it a light, strong metal coveted in the lucrative automotive market for its safety as well as its ability to meet government weight standards.

Two years after the 2011 hacking, China’s Baosteel Group, the world’s fourth-largest steelmaker, started selling a new line of products that included Dual-Phase 980. U.S. Steel says it can prove to the ITC that the product was stolen in the 2011 hack.

Chinese Commodity Futures Hitting Records

Commodity futures linked to China’s vast steel sector rebounded sharply on Friday, Reuters reported, led by iron ore and rebar, as robust construction demand spurred buying even as the country’s regulator ordered exchanges to rein in speculative trading.

Big bets on Chinese commodities futures this year from hedge funds, retail investors and others have driven up contracts on everything from iron ore to cotton, prompting many analysts to warn of parallels with a boom in China’s stock markets that ended in a sharp crash last summer.

Steelmaking raw materials iron ore, coking coal and coke ended April with their biggest monthly gain on record.

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Rebar, a construction steel product, also posted its biggest monthly rise ever, with volumes in the most-traded contract in Shanghai hitting a record 1.4 billion metric tons, enough to build San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge more than 15,000 times over.

As if to underline just how much of the recent froth in commodity prices has been speculative, it took nothing more than a tightening of rules to bring the market off the boil.

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Iron ore, steel and non-ferrous metal markets in China — and by association the London Metal Exchange after opening — dropped following a decision by futures exchanges in Dalian, Shanghai and Zhengzhou to increase trading margins and fees. The most-traded contracts were down up to 4.6% in response.

Some Commodities Are Actually in Short Supply

Not all commodities dropped. Some experienced genuine supply tightness, such as coking coal wherein many of the domestic mines and ovens closed last year due to low prices, and bucked the reversal. Coking coal continued to rise and although iron ore did fall back. The fundamentals are a little more supportive following announcements by producers that they will limit output, but, in truth, even iron ore’s price increases are more due to speculative bullishness than a genuine tightness of supply. Read more

In a complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. International Trade Commission, U.S. Steel Corp. demanded penalties on Chinese steel imports which could include a total ban on imports into the country. U.S. Steel said that Chinese steelmakers conspired to fix prices, stole trade secrets and circumvented duties with false labeling in filing a section 337 petition.

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“We have said that we will use every tool available to fight for fair trade,” said Mr. Longhi. “With today’s filing, we continue the work we have pursued through countervailing and anti-dumping cases and pushing for increased enforcement of existing laws.”

How to Prove Unfair Competition?

But what, exactly, is a section 337 petition? What law is U.S. alleging Chinese producers Hebei Iron & Steel Group, Anshan Iron and Steel Group and Shandong Iron & Steel Group Co. violated? The ITC provides us with a handy frequently asked questions page. It reports that “most Section 337 investigations involve allegations of patent or registered trademark infringement. Other forms of unfair competition, such as misappropriation of trade secrets, trade dress infringement, passing off, false advertising, and violations of the antitrust laws, may also be asserted.”

Chinese black hat hacker steals password from computer screen concept

Chinese black hat hacker steals password. Source: Adobe Stock/beebright.

China has been implicated in stealing trade secrets before, and U.S. Steel was one of the victims. In 2014, a U.S. grand jury indicted five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army on charges they stole information from U.S. Steel and other American firms. Computer hacking, espionage and other charges were alleged in federal court in Western Pennsylvania (U.S. Steel is headquartered in Pittsburgh). Other victims of the alleged hacking included the U.S. arm of SolarWorld AG, Westinghouse Electric Co., Allegheny Technologies Inc. and Alcoa, Inc. Read more

Allegheny Technologies, Inc., reported in its first quarter earnings call this week that its high-performance materials and components segment sales were up. Sales were $493 million in the first quarter, up approximately 8% compared to the fourth quarter of 2015. 73% of segment sales were to the aerospace and defense market.

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Operating profit increased by nearly 40%, compared to the fourth-quarter 2015. Segment operating profit was 5.9% of sales.

New Generation of Jet Engine Parts

ATI’s product mix improved through increased sales of next-generation jet engine advanced materials. Sales of nickel-based alloys and specialty alloys increased by 8%, and sales of titanium and titanium alloys increased by 17%. Sales of ATI’s precision forgings increased 15%, driven nearly exclusively by growing demand for jet engine components and airframe forgings.

StuartsF35_500

ATI is very pleased with its sales of airframe and jet engine materials.

“Our differentiated products here include proprietary and unique alloys, as well as products that few others can make,” ATI CEO and President Richard Harshman said, “such as ATI 718+ alloy, Rene 65 alloy, ATI 720 alloy large billets, plasma arc-melted titanium alloys, powder metals, titanium aluminides, as well as hot-die forgings, isothermal forgings and titanium investment castings.”

PAM Power

ATI is currently the only qualified plasma arc melt producer of titanium alloys used for jet engine rotating parts.

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PAM is the preferred process for titanium alloys used in jet engine rotating parts for much of the industry.

“ATI has the most powerful open-die press forge in the industry, which enables fine-grained structure in complex nickel-based super alloy billet and the billetizing of powder alloys,” Harshman said. “ATI is one of only two independent and integrated qualified producers of nickel super-alloy powders and isothermal forged parts.”

U.S. Steel is accusing Chinese steelmakers of intellectual property theft and Germany is subsidizing its electric car industry.

U.S. Steel Files Section 337 Petition

U.S. Steel Corp. has launched a campaign to prevent imports from China’s largest steel producers, it said on Tuesday, the boldest step yet by a U.S. company as a trade brawl with the world’s largest steel producer escalates.

In a complaint to the U.S. International Trade Commission, the domestic steelmaker called on regulators to investigate dozens of Chinese producers and their distributors for allegedly conspiring to fix prices, stealing trade secrets and circumventing trade duties by false labeling.

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The petition, known as Section 337 is used to protect against intellectual property theft, listed some of China’s top producers, including Hebei Iron & Steel Group and Anshan Iron and Steel Group and Shandong Iron & Steel Group Co.

“We have said that we will use every tool available to fight for fair trade,” said U.S. Steel Corp President and Chief Executive Officer Mario Longhi in a statement.

Germany Subsidizes Electric Car Development

Germany’s auto industry risks being overtaken by foreign competitors unless it receives greater domestic support, the country’s economy minister said today, announcing a 1 billion euro ($1.13 billion) plan to subsidize electric cars that are seen as the technology of the future.

Electric vehicles have had a sluggish start in Germany, the country where the combustion engine-powered automobile was born. A government plan to get 1 million e-cars on the streets by 2020 is far behind schedule, with just 50,000 sold so far.

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“After a long debate we have agreed to a subsidy program that aims to show on the home market that we can master these new drive trains, from plug-in hybrid to battery-powered vehicles, and make them suitable for the mass market,” Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said at a news conference in Berlin.

The Financial Times wrote this week that a key driver of bullish sentiment for many asset classes, particularly emerging markets and commodities, has been the U.S. Federal Reserve lowering its estimate of policy tightening this year, but for metals the knock-on effect of that has been a weaker U.S. dollar which — as my colleague Raul De Frutos has written recently — remains a key driver of both price direction and sentiment.

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Equally, if not more important, though, has been the sugar rush of China’s not-so-mini fiscal stimulus, initiated late last year which has really picked up momentum in the first quarter. Across a number of metrics, China’s economy has surged this year driving a risk on sentiment among investors, the strength of which has caught many by surprise.

Stimulus-Driven Bull Market

Chinese speculative investors have piled into the country’s commodity markets betting the upturn has the potential to boost demand for those materials. Wider sentiment has helped, according to the London Telegraph, new home sales jumped 64% in March from a year earlier. Housing prices have risen 28% in Beijing, 30% in Shanghai, and 6% in the commercial hub of Shenzhen. Read more

Allegheny Technologies, Inc., hosted its first quarter earnings call yesterday morning and reported higher earnings for many of the specialty metal markets it serves, while admitting it has not yet “right-sized” its flat-rolled products business. ATI booked a net loss of $101 million ($0.94 cents per share), a loss that was less than most analysts anticipated.

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Revenue for the first quarter fell 33% year-over.year to $758 million.

ATI's Brackenridge facility is the future and commodity stainless is its past. Source: ATI

ATI executives noted during yesterday’s conference call and webcast the company’s Brackenridge production facility is only open three days, with three shifts each day. ATI would like to increase production there. Source: ATI

“Our High Performance Materials and Components segment is well positioned for profitable growth over the next five years, driven primarily by strong and growing demand from commercial aerospace,” ATI CEO Richard Harshman said. “We are committed to making the tough decisions to return our flat-rolled products segment to sustained profitability. This requires the business to be repositioned and restructured and to be more focused on differentiated products that have higher technical barriers to entry and serve markets that are global with attractive long-term growth prospects.”

Aerospace Products

Harshman and ATI’s executive team reported that the commercial aerospace market, which ATI has pursued as a growth market for the last two years, was starting to show dividends.

“ATI sales to the aerospace and defense markets grew 12% in the first quarter of 2016, compared to the fourth quarter 2015,” Harshman said. “Breaking that growth rate down by specific end markets, sales to the commercial aerospace market grew approximately 20%, with jet engine sales growth of nearly 15% and airframe sales growth of nearly 30%.”

Quarterly Numbers

The overall sales total of $758 million was up 3% over the fourth quarter of 2015, even though it was down year-over-year. High-performance materials and components sales were $493 million, up 8% over Q4 2015. Flat-rolled product sales, though, totaled $265 million, down 6% over Q4 2015. Harshman and the other ATI executives blamed the long work stoppage that ATI weathered for more than 8 months and said that production would increase with United Steelworkers personnel back on the job. ATI attributed $26 million of pre-tax costs to the work stoppage and labor contract return-to-work provisions.

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ATI also booked a $9 million for severance packages from recent flat-rolled products layoffs.

A war over steel imports has broken out yet again between the world’s two largest producer nations: China & India.

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The Steel Authority of India Ltd. and JSW Steel & Essar Steel India filed a complaint with India’s Directorate General of Anti-Dumping and Allied Duties, seeking an anti-dumping investigation as well as the imposition of tariffs on steel imports from six countries. Soon thereafter, the DGAD said it had prima facie evidence of dumping of steel originating from China, Japan, Russia, Korea, Brazil  and Indonesia.

Chinese Production vs. Indian Production

China is the world’s biggest steel producer, accounting for around 822 million tons a year. Driven largely by a fast track economy in the past quarter century, China’s steel output has grown by more than 12 times it’s size in the ’80s. By comparison, the EU’s output fell by 12% while U.S. output has remained flat. Of late, China has found itself in the midst of dumping controversies involving many countries it sends exports to, including the U.S., the European Union and Australia.

Steel mills Molten iron smelting furnace production line

Chinese steel production is the target of India’s anti-dumping probe. Source: Adobe Stock/zjk.

The Indian probe’s purpose is to establish the “existence, degree and effect of dumping” by the six nations. If found to be true, it will then recommend a minimum amount of anti-dumping duties. The probe covers hot-rolled flat products of alloy or non-alloy steel in coils, as well as hot-rolled flat products of alloy or non-alloy steel not in coils. Most of these products are used in the the automotive, oil and gas line pipes/exploration, cold-rolling, pipe and tube manufacturing industries.

Trade between China and India has been growing but individually, the two are polar opposites so far as global exports are concerned. India’s exports account for just 1.7% of world trade, compared with nearly 12% for China’s. China exported 112 million metric tons of steel in 2015, which was 25% more than India’s total production of steel. India produced 92 mmt of steel in its 2014-15 fiscal year, while it imported over 9.32 mmt of steel, of which, an estimated 30% came from China.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe in Belgium, international steel producing countries, too, called for urgent action to curb overproduction.

A joint statement from the U.S., Canada, the E.U., Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey, called calls for “ongoing international dialogue” to remove “market-distorting policies.”

But China rejected suggestions that it subsidized its loss-making steel companies.

India has often used anti-dumping duties and also imposed safeguard duties due to such import surges.

A few days ago, the Indian government extended the safeguard duty on steel imports until March 2018, after having first imposed them in September 2015. There will be no safeguard duties on steel imported at or above the minimum import price (MIP) stipulated by the government.

Anti-Dumping or Countervailing Duties?

Both, anti-dumping and countervailing duties try to rectify the same issue: low-priced imports. But the difference between the two is the real cause of the low price.

Anti-dumping duties are used to tackle “dumping,” a legal definition for imports whose price is lower than their production cost. An exporter sets steel prices lower than production costs and floods other markets with such steel products. If a Chinese producer spends $120 per mt to make cold-rolled steel, and then sells it in the Indian market for $90 mt, while his Indian counterparts are selling their produce for $110, then these imports are based on a predatory pricing model that is either indirectly subsidized in the originating country, or takes advantage of a lower-valued currency and production costs back home.

On the other hand, countervailing duties seek to counter low prices that are an outcome of direct subsidies. The Chinese government, like some others, offers subsidies on exports in the form of tax breaks. As a result, exporters can offer lower prices than domestic producers. Countervailing duties level the playing field by negating the advantage of direct government sponsorship by increasing import tariffs to level the playing field.

Such duties are allowed by the World Trade Organization under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) but only if dumping is established. Anti-dumping duties have to be removed if the margin between the domestic price and imported price goes below 2%, or when the imports of product from a country account for less than 3% of total imports of the product.

Also, the WTO says safeguard and anti-dumping duties cannot be country specific. So, if India or the U.S. imposes duties on imports from China, the latter can also impose duties on imports from those two nations.

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This is what China is now pointing out to India. A few days ago, the world’s top steel maker asked India not to resort to “trade protection measures” and to “strictly follow” WTO rules while investigating cases of dumping by Chinese iron and steel exporters. Steel overcapacity is a worldwide problem which requires a joint effort from all countries, an unnamed Chinese official was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

Steel imports into the U.S. were up in March while a glut of oil and gasoline production in Asia threatens the recent price rally.

Gasoline Glut In Asia

A rebound in oil prices this year from 12-year lows is in danger of coming to a crashing halt soon.

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The main engine of global demand growth for the past several years, Asian demand, starts to sputter amid signs of a gasoline glut in both Japan and China.

Steel Imports Into the U.S. Up in March

Based on preliminary Census Bureau data, the American Iron and Steel Institute reported recently that the U.S. imported a total of 2.5 million net tons (nt) of steel in March 2016, including 2.097 million nt of finished steel (up 12.9% and down 0.1%, respectively, vs. February final data).

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On the year-to-date, through three months of 2016 total and finished steel imports are 7.49 million and 6.424 million nt, down 36% and 34% respectively, vs. the same period in 2015. Annualized total and finished steel imports in 2016 would be 30 and 25.7 million nt, down 23% and 18% respectively vs. 2015. Finished steel import market share was an estimated 24% in March and is estimated at 25% YTD.

Andrew Lane, source: Morningstar.

Andrew Lane. Source: Morningstar.

MetalMiner Editor Jeff Yoders recently had a chance to discuss the broad commodities rally, individual metals markets and other related news with Morningstar Senior Equity Research Analyst Andrew Lane, (here he is talking about Alcoa, Inc. on CNBC). The Chicago-based, independent investment research firm recently released its Basic Materials Observer.

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Morningstar warns that  basic materials stocks look somewhat overvalued, with the average company under its coverage trading at a 12% premium to their analysts’ fair value estimate. That’s not to say that Morningstar’s analysts don’t see pockets of significantly undervalued companies in the sector.  Key takeaways:

  • Despite the recent rally in some commodity prices, Morningstar analysts’ outlook for commodities related to Chinese fixed-asset investment remains negative.
  • Price outlooks are relatively better for commodities related to the Chinese consumer. However, Morningstar analysts would preach caution on the recent safe-haven gold rally.
  • With faltering Chinese growth likely to wreak havoc on investment-oriented commodities, the analysts look to U.S. housing as a pocket of opportunity. Morningstar analysts believe housing starts will be driven higher during 2016.

In discussing the ongoing steel overcapacity issue, Lane said that any real recovery in demand in the Chinese economy is still far away, hindering the demand outlook from what was once the main driver for worldwide production.

“Any real recovery can’t come until past 2020 which is as far our long-term outlooks go,” he said. “The funding for these loss-making facilities, it has to run out at some time. It remains to be seen how far the local governments in China can kick the can down the road by keeping their local and provincial capacity open with access to this (loan) capital. It’s a game that can’t go on forever but… we tend to think that they can maintain current production levels for a lot longer than most people give them credit for.” Read more