Ferrous Metals

The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) 2015 General Meeting closed just yesterday here in Chicago, where steel industry folks on the producer and service center sides (to name a couple) came together to discuss key issues surrounding the US steel market landscape, while leaving a crucial issue explicitly unmentioned – but we’ll get to that in […]

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Seems that somebody forgot to tell the automotive metals that the bear market was still going on this month. Strong aluminum and high-strength steel demand, and end-user purchases, have again made auto the standout in a field of mostly down markets.

After flattening in April, the monthly automotive MMI® registered a value of 87 in May, an increase of 2.4% from 85 in April. A big factor was the performance of aluminum coil on the index, as its index broke resistance and soared as well.

Pool 4 Tool's Automotive SRM Summit

China removed export taxes on aluminum, opening more markets up to the automotive-grade sheet and coil prices that automakers in the West have been experimenting with for a decade now. Prices of palladium, lead and even copper also notched strong LME growth filling strong demand from domestic and foreign automakers.

Consumer Sales Rising

In the US market, April new car sales rose by 5% from a year ago, to more than 1.463 million units as predicted in a J.D. Power and LMC Automotive's mid-month auto sales forecast update. April's totals are anticipated to be the highest since April 2005.

SUVs and smaller "crossover utility vehicles" were the main leaders in the sales surge. While not all US automakers posted strong Q1 results, profits were generally up even if they were up lower than some analysts expected. General Motors' results were better than in the same period a year ago, when costs associated with safety recalls limited quarterly profit to $125 million.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles reported a profit of $101.2 million (€92 million) d​uring the first quarter compared with a loss of $173 million (€190 million) during the same period last year.

What This Means for Automotive Buyers

Consumer demand for automobiles traditionally picks up in the summer months, so this could be the beginning of a big turnaround for our Automotive MMI®. Fundamentals continue to look strong as the index had better supply and demand numbers than other metals even when it was losing price ground. Stay tuned.

For actual prices of the automotive metals this month, read the full article by logging in or signing up to become a MM member.

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Steel prices remain at their lowest levels. Almost every industrial metal price rose in April as a weaker dollar gave a boost to commodity markets. However, steel prices remained quiet, hanging at record lows.

The monthly raw steels MMI® registered a value of 60 in May, on par with April's value.

Raw Materials Undercutting Scrap

Scrap prices are at their lowest levels and we don't really see anything that could give prices significant momentum on the upside, at least until a bigger supply response is seen.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

Unless we start seeing the dollar depreciate against other currencies, European scrap exports will keep gaining market share, leaving a supply excess for US steelmakers.

Cheaper to Produce

Moreover, although prices seem low, it's still cheaper to make steel still using iron ore than scrap. Pig iron or billet could substitute some scrap as primary raw material in which case, US exporters would sell more in the domestic market, causing US scrap prices to keep falling lower.

Meanwhile, steel imports keep arriving. Since US prices are no longer inflated compared to the rest of the world ,we would imagine steel imports to start slowing down through the remainder of the year. However, Chinese exports could actually increase due to the recent removal of export tariffs.

Either way, steel demand remains weak, particularly in oil and gas tubular markets while the market remains oversupplied. It doesn't seem likely that steel prices will rise significantly higher this year.

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It may be the world’s largest steel producer, but Lakshmi Mittal-led ArcelorMittal saw a decline in its businesses in India in 2014 for two main reasons: weak demand and cheap imports.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

The firm’s recently released annual report said ArcelorMittal and its subsidiaries rang in sales of $225 million from India. Once upon a time, in fact in 2010, ArcelorMittal’s Indian operations had netted $873 million, so that will give readers some perspective of the depth to which sales have plummeted.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that almost all of India’s major steel companies have stories similar to that of ArcelorMittal. Even the government-owned Steel Authority of India Ltd. (SAIL), which had posted a net profit for the October-December quarter 8.6% higher than the same period last year, had a similar lament.

In its Q2 results statement, the company said the turnover was impacted due to “challenging market conditions” and high imports, among other reasons.

Rough SAILing

SAIL chairman C.S. Verma told the media here that the only way his company had circumvented these challenges was by bringing in initiatives to reduce energy consumption and optimize raw material utilization, as well as adopt state-of-the-art technologies.

It looks like these measures were not enough to save SAIL from Fitch Ratings. Fitch recently lowered the outlook for SAIL’s long-term foreign currency issuer default rating to negative. The crux of the matter lay in its commentary, where Fitch said continued weak steel demand growth in India, high steel imports or a further softening in global steel prices could derail SAIL’s efforts to modernize.

Same Story at Tata Steel

Another Indian steel behemoth, Tata Steel Ltd.’s Indian steel operations had a rough quarter again for almost the same reasons — sluggish demand, cheaper imports and higher raw material costs on account of mining stoppages. In the December quarter, Tata Steel’s consolidated sales declined over the preceding quarter by 6.1% on the back of a 3.1% decline in steel volume and weak steel price realizations. The only redeeming factor here was Tata’s European operations which turned in a substantial jump in profitability.

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ArcelorMittal, Inc., as reported by The Economic Times, suffered weak Indian domestic demand for steel as the rupee depreciated by more than 30% since 2010, which also made imports difficult. ArcelorMittal had to pay more import duties to get ore into its CEO’s native country (7.5%) as opposed to imports from Free Trade Agreement (FTA) countries, who paid just 0.8%, adding to the company’s financial burden.

Pool 4 Tool’s Automotive SRM Summit

In February this year, Standard & Poors downgraded the company’s credit rating on lower than-expected profit though it maintained a stable outlook, saying ArcelorMittal would generate at least neutral cash flow and avoid meaningful debt increases over the next two years.

Weak Demand, Rising Imports

Most of India’s steel majors, such as ArcelorMittal, have, in recent times, been left trying to cope with weak demand and rising imports from China, Japan and South Korea.

Steel Authority of India Ltd.’s C.S. Verma, for example, has gone on record saying he is optimistic about a recovery in domestic demand in India, though that, to some extent, could be offset by a continued slump in export markets. Along with a few others, he feels steel prices, having plunged to a historic low, will only recover going forward.

A report released by Dun & Bradstreet earlier this week, reported sentiments generally in tune with the sentiments of executives such as Verma. While the outlook for mining and metals industry remained volatile globally, in India, though, the formation of a stable government had “reaffirmed corporate and consumer sentiment significantly,” the report said.

The latest Sector Outlook for Metals in India 2015 report by the agency said demand was likely to improve as fiscal policy was better geared toward an investment-led growth strategy. The government policy shift could provide an overall metal sector could benefit.

Government Help

India’s Modi government and the local governments are trying their best to improve the local situation. Indian Steel and Mines Minister Narendra Singh Tomar announced that the government had planned to set up four steel plants in the provinces of Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

Of the four, the one in Chhattisgarh is touted as the most important. SAIL and the National Mineral Development Corporation plan to create an ultra-mega steel plant there. It’s a multibillion-dollar greenfield project that, when complete, will have a 3 million metric-ton-per-year capacity. It is planned that both the company and the Chhattisgarh government will sign agreements for the project when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Chhattisgarh on May 9.

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The US steel industry is suffering because a barrage of imports has reached a record 34% of market share, steel executives said today at the American Iron and Steel Institute‘s press briefing in Chicago.

Nucor Corp. CEO John Ferriola said 4 million people whose livelihoods depend on the steel industry are at risk, but also that enforcing existing trade and anti-dumping laws consistently would make a wealth of difference for today’s producers.

Pool 4 Tool’s Automotive SRM Summit

“The first step is enforcing existing law as written,” he said. “Legally and consistently enforcing the laws on the books would help immensely… The American worker is still the most efficient worker in the world. We have relatively inexpensive energy, we have the raw material available, we have the best market in the world. When you look at those natural advantages, it makes no sense we should be operating at 60-70% capacity while the rest of the world is overproducing.”

Chinese Dumping

“While many nations continue to engage in unfair trade practices, China is of particular concern,” Baske said. “Last year, China exported 101 million metric tons. A surge of 60% over the previous year and that increase continued at record levels in the first quarter of this year. Some estimates are as high as 468 million mt. Steel demand in China declined last year and is expected to decline this year, too, according to the World Steel Association. China also manipulates its currency to give its products an unfair advantage.”

Baske also noted the business decisions US steelmakers have had to make due to declining prices due to the import surge and they are still in a difficult position due to what the glut has done to prices on the London Metal Exchange.

“On Sept. 3, almost eight months ago, hot-rolled ran $676 a ton. Now it’s $440 a ton,” he said. “In any industry, a 35% to 36% price reduction in that period of time would put pressure on the business. Fair trade will correct it.”

WTO Relief

The executives also noted that while bringing anti-dumping cases with the US International Trade Commission and the World Trade Organization has been somewhat successful, the process has not always worked in the favor of US producers. Even cases that were won, such as last year’s rebar case against Turkey, have not had high enough tariffs to discourage dumping. Gibson said the standard in a safeguard case is higher than in a trade case and the AISI, and the industry as a whole, continue to evaluate all options under the law.

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Outlays for US construction projects fell 0.6% in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $967 billion, the US Commerce Department said last week. Commerce also revised February’s result to show almost no change.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

Despite the lower spending, the monthly Construction MMI® registered a value of 74 in May, on par with April's value. Flat is, apparently, the new up until construction starts and spending pick up some steam. The low prices have not yet incentivized developers enough, it would seem, to sign off on new projects or increase purchasing for anything but stockpiling, as credit is still hard to obtain and consumer demand for commercial and residential space remain tepid.

Energy Loans Called In

In fact, banks in the US are cutting credit lines to energy companies and forcing the firms to cough up more collateral to guard against fallout from the fall in oil prices.

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The US International Trade Commission upheld tariffs against both rebar and, more recently, oil country tubular goods (OCTG) from China, but the flood of imports has already done its damage when it comes to both traditional construction and the steel pipes used for oil and gas drilling. Supply is high and demand is simply not high enough to push prices upward.

It's a testament to the resilience of the US construction market that our MMI was even able to hold steady this month. For complete prices, read the complete story – log in or sign up for MetalMiner membership!

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Although stainless steel demand is expected to grow moderately this year, service centers are flush with inventory which is putting pressure on US mills.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

Combined with successive months of declines in nickel prices, service centers are only purchasing what is absolutely necessary. Both domestic mills and Asian mills have robust North American inventories, a stark contrast from a year ago when lead times went beyond the standard 6-8 weeks, causing service centers to seek alternative sources.

Technical Issues Hurting Mills

Another exacerbating factor in last year’s supply was Outokumpu’s technical issues with its cold-rolling mills and a lack of alternative domestic supply led service centers to seek other sources. With lead times extended, the domestic mills were able to pass through several base price increases in 2014.

With higher US base prices and the strength of the US dollar, Asian imports did not subside. Asian producers need other markets for their surplus material as Chinese demand is weak and both Europe and India have taken anti-dumping actions against China.

End market demand is strong for automotive,​ residential​ appliance and food service/food processing equipment. The only market that appears to be suffering is energy which is due to the low price of oil. Stainless demand is decent according to many sources and stainless base prices will remain under pressure.

Inventory Backlog

The North American market​ ​is ​saturated with inventory​ ​so​ lowering the base price will not spur on demand. Until service centers reduce their inventory backlogs and nickel prices start to improve, service centers will not buy, regardless of price. Service centers need to focus on getting their inventories in check before they resume anything resembling regular buying patterns. ​​Unfortunately, the mills are under pressure to book capacity which oftentimes leads to acts of desperation.

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MetalCrawler is covering the labor issues beat today and they might affect your metal purchases.

Century Hints at Lockout

Century Aluminum will invoke a lockout of unionized workers at its Hawesville, Ky., smelter starting on May 11 if the union does not approve a final offer on a labor deal, according to a letter posted on Century’s website on Friday.

Pool 4 Tool’s Automotive SRM Summit

United Steelworkers Local 9423 is set to vote on the proposed contract today, according to a post on the union website. If workers go on strike, it would be the first industrial action at a US aluminum smelter in more than a decade.

Train Drivers Strike in Germany

A seven-day strike by German train drivers could cost the German economy €500 million ($556.70 million), Germany’s DIHK Chambers of Commerce said on Monday.

The strike, the eighth in a dispute between the GDL train drivers union and state-owned Deutsche Bahn over work conditions, began today for freight trains and will be extended to passenger trains from Tuesday.

BP Refinery Strike Could Soon End

Workers and management at BP have reached a tentative agreement that would end a months-long strike at the multinational’s refinery in Whiting, Ind.

The United Steel Workers employees must still ratify the contract, and officials expect a vote to occur in the next few days.

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This week, our metals markets fell lower as they were buffeted by seemingly ever-increasing exports of steel, aluminum and other products from China.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

Even though China’s economic growth has been falling, its government still gives producers strong incentives to produce steel and aluminum that eventually ends up exported elsewhere. My colleague Stuart Burns rightfully points out that if Chinese mills are “supported by plunging raw material costs and extensive local state support, gifting them a break-even price around the lowest in the world, then the intent to simply ‘dump’ metal into export markets has few barriers.”

Can Debt Fuel Long-Term Growth?

But what’s the eventual result of state support? In China or anywhere else? Can government debt actually lift these economies back into growth mode? Stuart was there again, with an assist from the Daily Telegraph, postulating that sluggish growth and low inflation is the new normal and “advanced economies — and perhaps emerging ones, too — seem to have run out of productivity-enhancing growth and, therefore, need constant infusions of financially destabilizing debt to keep them going.”

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