Metal Prices

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.

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“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.

Construction_Chart_May-2015_FNLThe energy sector, which accounted for much of last year's construction gains, is still shrinking due to low oil prices which are causing projects to get canceled because oil has become too cheap to go to the expense of pulling it out of the ground and then turn a profit.

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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MetalMiner's aluminum price index, the monthly Aluminum MMI®, registered a value of 90 in May, a significant increase of 2.3% from 88 in April.

Aluminum on the London Metal Exchange is back above $1,900 per metric ton, breaking short-term resistance to hit a four-month high.

China Ends Export Taxes

China erasing aluminum export taxes didn't seem to weigh down on prices; however, aluminum premiums took a beating when the news of China’s removal of export taxes came.

As my colleague Stuart Burns wrote in a recent article, the tax removal should reduce the domestic surplus of metal, supporting domestic prices and depressing prices in overseas markets. With current primary production counting for about 75% of total primary capacity, Chinese producers will have the ability to increase production without creating any shortages in China's domestic market.

Even outside China, production has been ramping up over the past six months. UC Rusal and Alcoa, Inc. have responded by closing older and less-efficient capacity, but even so, both they and other primary producers are investing in new capacity at the same time. Demand for aluminum remains robust, but the excess of supply is something that is clearly bugging aluminum producers.

Certainly, the supply outlook doesn't explain the recent price increase. However, the recent weakness in the dollar does. The dollar index is experiencing some turbulence for the first time in more than 9 months and that supported aluminum and most industrial metal prices in April.

Battery Research Continues

In other aluminum news this month we also had Stanford University  building an aluminum-ion battery prototype that offers various improvements over lithium-ion batteries. These aluminum-ion batteries will potentially make consumer electronics safer, charge faster and allow thinner or even flexible-form factors.

Get all of this month's exact prices in the full article.

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New metal technologies play a key role in all we do here at MetalCrawler and none could be more promising than Tesla Motors‘ line of batteries for the home. The Chinese yuan may also be on the cusp of being declared not manipulated by the International Monetary Fund.

Tesla Home Batteries

The idea is that homes and businesses powered by solar panels could harvest and store energy during the day that could be used to run homes at night, or be used as a backup during a power outage.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

Although the exact technology involved in the battery, called Powerwall, is a closely guarded Tesla secret, it probably isn’t based on revolutionary concepts, Jordi Cabana, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago told Live Science. Cabana studies new battery materials and said the batteries look as if they are based on the same lithium-ion batteries in Tesla’s cars.

“Just looking at the specs that they publicize, it doesn’t look very different — in terms of the cost — to what they’re putting in their cars,” Cabana said.

The company is also planning to unveil a business-based battery-storage system, called the Powerpack, though the price for that system has not been released yet. Tesla is already taking orders for its residential system, but the products won’t ship until late summer, company representatives said at the news conference.

IMF Close to Calling Chinese Yuan ‘Not Manipulated’

In what would be a blow to US manufacturers, particularly steelmakers, the International Monetary Fund is close to declaring China’s yuan fairly valued for the first time in more than a decade, according to the Wall Street Journal, a milestone in the country’s efforts to open its economy that would blunt US criticism of Beijing’s currency policy.

The fund’s reassessment of the yuan—set to be made official in IMF reports on China’s economy due out in the coming months—follows years of IMF censure of Beijing’s management of the currency.

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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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Several news articles this week have led with comments made by UC Rusal executives regarding the price of aluminum. The FT led with Rusal battles with LME on aluminum price and Reuters added Rusal plays down concerns of Chinese aluminum flooding market.

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All of which says to me, Rusal is worried sick that a combination of falling physical delivery premiums and rising Chinese product exports are going to depress aluminum prices this year and into the medium term. The fact is, there is no shortage of aluminum and, although demand continues to grow robustly, supply is growing faster.

Primary Producers Opening New Capacity

Mills such as Rusal’s and Alcoa, Inc.‘s have manfully responded by closing older, less-efficient, higher-cost capacity but even so both they, and other primary producers, are investing in new capacity at the same time. Production outside of China has been creeping higher over the last five months.

Reuters’ Andy Home tells us it’s creeping up to the tune of an annualized 650,000 metric tons. Part of this is older European plants being purchased and restarted by smaller players. Part is new capacity such as Alcoa’s Ma’aden joint venture plant in Saudi Arabia. Likewise, while Rusal has closed older, higher-cost plants it is now talking about a ramp up of it’s 600,000-mt per year Boguchansk plant in Siberia, although, admittedly, only the first 150,000 mt phase for next year.

Semi-Finished, Completely Sold and Shipped

Meanwhile, China exported 1.07 million mt of mostly semi-finished products in the first quarter of this year, representing a year-on-year increase of 353,000 mt. Although December’s almost 500,000 mt was an outlier, the removal of a 13% export tax on May 1st and the consideration of further tariff reductions signals that Beijing has no intention of reining in this overcapacity, but rather is setting course to support domestic producers as domestic demand slows.

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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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In January 2015, Saudi Arabian company ACWA Power surprised industry analysts when it won a bid to build a 200-megawatt solar power plant in Dubai that will be able to produce electricity for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

That price was less than the cost of electricity from natural gas or coal-fired power plants, a first for a solar installation. Electricity from new natural gas and coal plants would cost an estimated 6.4 cents and 9.6 cents per kWh, respectively, according to the US Energy Information Agency.

Technological advances, including crystalline silicon-solar photovoltaic panels can now convert higher percentages of sunlight into energy and have made solar panels more efficient. As a result, we may be seeing a long-awaited rise in the price of silicon used for the panels, microchips and semiconductors. The week's biggest mover on the weekly Renewables MMI® was the price of silicon, which saw a 7.4% increase.

Last week, manufacturer SolarCity began construction on a $900 million, 1 million-square foot PV panel factory in Buffalo, as well.

The price of silicon rose 7.4% on the renewables MMI last week.

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Construction spending falling again was the big news in today’s MetalCrawler report. The race for world’s largest steelmaker by market value heated up, too.

Construction Spending Falls

Outlays for US construction projects fell 0.6% in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $967 billion, the Commerce Department reported Friday.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

Economists polled by MarketWatch expected a drop of 0.5%, compared with an originally reported decrease of 0.1% in February. On Friday, the government revised February’s result to show almost no change. Looking at private outlays in March, spending fell 1.6% for residential projects, and rose 1% for nonresidential projects. For overall public construction projects, spending fell 1.5%.

Baosteel Keeps Growing

Baoshan Iron & Steel Co., spurred by China’s stock-market rally and growing car market, is poised to overtake Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. as the world’s largest steelmaker by market value.

Baosteel, supplier of half of China’s automotive steel, had a market capitalization of $23.8 billion to Nippon Steel’s $25 billion on Thursday. The spread on Tuesday was only $52 million. Also tracked in the attached chart is South Korea’s Posco, which wrestled with the Japanese steelmaker for the crown from 2013 until last year.

Shares of Shanghai-based Baosteel more than doubled in local-currency terms since Oct. 30 as the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index rallied 86% Nippon Steel’s stock rose 14% and Posco fell 18% in the same period.

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While India leads the world in Direct-Reduced Iron production, the domestic industry has been facing an uphill production battle for the last four years.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

India’s DRI sector is hoping for help from the government and clarity in the overall steel policy to see it through, what many have dubbed, its most critical phase ever.

Demand DRIs Up

What is worrisome is that the falling demand for steel, especially construction steel globally, could further, negatively impact the sector. Some are quick to note that India’s DRI units need not worry much on this front as the market in India has remained insulated from global trends owing to steadily increasing domestic steel consumption.

Two other risks facing the sector are imported scrap being used by steel companies in India, DRI is an excellent substitute for scrap in electric arc furnaces, and the reliance by medium-sized DRI producers on inferior technology. That means technological limitations stop the producers from exploiting inferior grades of iron ore and coal.

Further, the limited availability of coking coal only motivates steel production in the country through a combination of DRI and blast furnace. What has added to the misery is the recent round of coal auctions held by the federal government.

Unable to Bid in Coal Auction

DRI companies were unable to participate in the auction, and a hitherto discounted source of fuel was lost, pushing the cost of DRI production by an estimated 40%, some have said. The DRI segment has brought this to the government’s attention.

While many steel companies prefer to use DRI instead of scrap, the slowdown in the global steel industry has seen some amount of the steel melting scrap being imported into India because of lower import duties. What makes steel plants happy in such cases, besides the cheap duty, is the fact that the imported scrap percentage works out to be higher, which eventually negates the cost of imported scrap.

To many analysts, the DRI sector in India is poised on the cusp of a turnaround, but only if there is adequate government backing as well as support from domestic steel companies. Even then, it could easily take four years for the industry to come back to an even keel and ramp up production.

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