Metal Prices

China has changed its tack on steel exports.

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In previous years it has sought a more conciliatory position to complaints by trade partners, a WSJ article says in the past CISA, China’s steel trade association, has sought to persuade local steel mills to curb exports and show restraint but this year, in the face of an unprecedented surge in volumes, Ministry of Commerce spokesman Shen Danyang is quoted as taking a much more defensive line saying the rise in steel exports is due to higher global demand and is a result of Chinese steel products having strong “export competitiveness.”

Chinese Now Say Exports ‘Justifiable’

Set against a backdrop of the EU’s recent investigation into dumping of cold-rolled coil from China and Russia, Shen is reported to have come out fighting, saying “Under such circumstances (demand and competitive pricing), I feel that it’s quite normal for Chinese steel exports to these countries to be rising, and it’s quite justifiable.”

Meanwhile, the WSJ adds the US, Australia and South Korea have also signaled that they are lining up support for trade action against Chinese steel exports, which rose by 50.5% last year to a record 93.8 million metric tons and have continued at a high level this year.

Chinese steel mills are on a roll according to data reported by the WSJ. Between September last year and January this year, the volume of China’s outbound steel shipments each month shattered the preceding month’s record. While in the first four months of 2015, steel exports were 32.7% higher than a year earlier.

The reason isn’t hard to find, domestic steel prices in China have been on a slide as demand has collapsed. According to a Bloomberg article Infrastructure and construction together account for about two thirds of China’s steel demand, citing HSBC research, and construction is slow as housing prices fall there.

Construction Slump Continues

New home prices slid in 69 of the 70 cities tracked by the government in April from a year earlier, according to National Bureau of Statistics data. As a result construction-related steel prices such as rebar have hit their lowest level since 2003.

What’s worse is the peak buying period for the construction sector is now in the past and demand would fall for seasonal reasons even if construction was strong. According to Reuters, prices have dropped 13% so far this year with the most-traded rebar futures contract for October settlement on the Shanghai Futures Exchange down to 2,355 yuan ($379.71) per ton, while MetalMiner’s own China tracking service has recorded a 16% fall in domestic steel prices this year from 2,810 yuan/mt at the beginning of the year to 2,340 yuan now.

What is Chinese ‘Cost?’

Such a slump in prices has aided steel mills in their drive to dump excess capacity overseas. Is it below cost? What is the cost price in China? what are a mill’s true costs for state enterprises that receive all kinds of support both at the regional and state level?

Steel mills are under pressure to close excess capacity but so far the result has been limited, excess capacity is being offered for export rather than any real attempt made to exercise market discipline and shutter plants. The trend is likely to get worse before it gets better, particularly if Beijing’s hard line continues, we can expect more trade disputes and possibly lower prices in the year ahead.

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Autodesk, Inc. announced the release of its 2016 Design Suites at a launch event in Boston this week, offering more control over all aspects of the design-build process through a connected desktop and cloud user experience.

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For structural steel, the main difference in the 2016 suite of software products is a much tighter integration of the Advance Steel, a 2013 acquisition, and the Revit 2016 3D building information modeling platform.

“The means of production – how we think about and deliver buildings and infrastructure, both intellectually and physically, is changing,” said Amar Hanspal, senior vice president of Autodesk’s information modeling and product group. “By 2020 there will be 50 billion connected devices in use, with the number rising by 20 billion per year. Buildings are joining the digital world.”

New Rendering Engines

The 2016 version of Revit has new rendering engines that can deliver a rendered scene in minutes instead of hours under the old engine. It also has linked model cropping and better support of the open-source IFC file format.

“Customers don’t want to work in a different environment when doing design and detailing,” said Jim Lynch, vice president of Autodesk’s building group. “No longer have to use (a separate design tool) for detailing. Steel, cast-in-place concrete can all be done in Revit. The plan is to integrate (Advance Steel’s design tools) into Revit. We will keep Advance Steel as a separate product but WILL make it work seamlessly in the Revit environment.”

Better Integrated

Plant 3D, a plant design product, and Advance Steel have also been integrated so you can bring Advance Steel content into Plant 3D.

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Minutes were recently released of the Federal Reserve Board’s most recent meeting and another rosy forecast for the US construction market was released.

Construction Starts About to Surge?

Construction starts for residential and nonresidential construction in the second quarter should improve after weak numbers in the first quarter, according to a forecast by consultancy CMD.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

However, construction starts overall in the US could rise 9.2% this year, even though both residential and nonresidential starts have been downgraded, CMD said. The CMD forecast is derived by combining proprietary data with macroeconomic factors.

No June Rate Hike

Federal Reserve officials believed it would be premature to hike interest rates in June even though most felt the US economy was set to rebound from a dismal start to the year, according to minutes from their April policy meeting released on Wednesday.

The central bank debated whether a slew of disappointing data, including weak consumer spending, signaled a temporary slump or evidence of a longer-lasting slowdown, with most participants agreeing economic growth would climb to a healthier pace and the labor market would strengthen.

The US economy grew an anemic 0.1% in the first quarter, according to the most recent government data.

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ast week UGI Energy Services announced plans to build a liquefied natural gas production facility in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania.

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

The facility will draw Marcellus Shale gas from UGI’s Auburn gathering system, then chill it to produce up to 120,000 gallons per day in liquid form. While we have regularly reported the slowdown in both new shale oil and LNG projects in the US this year — and the subsequent cutbacks in oil country tubular goods production — investments are still being made, in the US and overseas, in drilling.

Plants, Projects Planned

Bloomberg Business reported this week that Anadarko Petroleum Corp. selected a group of developers including Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. for a potential $15 billion LNG project in Mozambique.

CBI’s joint venture with Japan-based Chiyoda Corp. and Saipem SpA, based in Italy, will work on the onshore project that includes two LNG units with 6 million metric tons of capacity each, Anadarko said Monday. Construction plans also include two LNG storage tanks, each with a capacity of 180,000 cubic meters, condensate storage, a multi-berth marine jetty and associated utilities and infrastructure, according to Texas-based Anadarko, which says it will make a final investment decision by the end of the year.

Last week, the Department of Energy gave Cheniere Energy Inc. final approval for the nation’s fifth major export terminal at Corpus Christi in Texas, which will ship the fuel from 2018.

What’s Driving Infrastructure Investment?

While oil prices have bounced back from lows seen earlier this year, it’s certainly not the market that’s driving these investments. While high-cost projects, such as those in Canada’s oil sands, have been canceled by oil exploration companies, relatively inexpensive projects with a quicker path to payback, such as these LNG projects, are still being funded.

The payback is diverse and not confined to domestic home heating. LNG has been priced at a fraction of diesel prices for the last four years. Domestic trucking (18-wheelers and other heavy consumers of diesel) have yet to make a large-scale commitment to LNG, and most places where fuel is dispensed have yet to put in expensive infrastructure to handle the product, but there has been enough success for UGI to justify committing resources to its adoption.

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With HR coil prices at $450 per ton in mid-April (although big buyers could get $420/ton), HR coil prices had dropped $250/ton since late summer. US mills blamed imports – which is true – but forgot to mention that they had kept steel prices at elevated levels for 9-12 months while prices in the rest of the world were tanking. What did they expect?

Why Manufacturers Need to Ditch Purchase Price Variance

It is our view that we are now at the bottom and in late April, ArcelorMittal led the industry with a $20/ton increase for June deliveries. Since then, transaction prices have edged up to $460/ton and slightly above. So where do we go from here?

Lead times across the industry vary from around 3-5 weeks for hot-rolled coil. The aim of the price increase was to extend those order books and lead times and therefore create momentum for further price gains. It certainly brought some buyers back in with any remaining May tonnage sold out quickly at the lower price.

Inventory Surplus

At this point in the cycle, the inventory situation is critical. Inventories remain elevated, but total flat-rolled stocks appear to have stabilized at just over 6 million tons (around 10-11 weeks of demand) and we expect them to begin to fall steadily over the next few months as service center order levels have been slack for much of 2015 as they received earlier orders – both domestic and import.

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409 is often considered “the barely stainless steel,” or affectionately the most humble of the stainless steels. Stainless steel must have a minimum of 10.5% chromium to be stainless steel. 409 Contains a minimum of 10.5% chromium, thus the moniker barely stainless steel.

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In addition to minimal chromium content, 409 stainless has three additional properties that make it an attractive product for substitution: it is the lowest cost stainless, it has good oxidation resistance and excellent formability.

Middleweight Corrosion Fighter

According to AK Steel, 409 gets specified where oxidation and corrosion requirements go beyond carbon steel and some coated steels. North American Stainless suggests, “it is not as resistant to corrosion or high-temperature oxidation as the higher-alloyed stainless steels (430 or 304), but it is still far superior to mild steel and low alloy corrosion resisting steels and most coated mild steels.”

And not to ignore the other main US producer of 409, Allegheny Technologies explained its usage in automotive mufflers, “The good fabricability of this alloy, combined with its basic corrosion resistance and economy have significantly broadened the utility of ATI 409HPtm stainless.”

As most MetalMiner readers know, alloy substitutions in stainless steel have typically occurred when an alloying element such as nickel has increased in price. When nickel becomes volatile, manufacturers have sought options with less nickel or no nickel that have sufficient properties to make the final product without compromising quality. Both 304 and 316L are readily available and could be considered the path of least resistance in terms of specifying stainless steel; however, in some cases, these alloys may exceed the necessary properties for the final application.

Most consider 304 or 316L the “old standby” grades, but that thinking contains a few misconceptions. For example, stainless is stainless because it has at least 10.5% chromium (some would say 11% chromium), not because it contains nickel. Stainless can be both magnetic and non-magnetic. In commercial food service equipment — NSF specifies, for food zones, stainless needs to have a minimum chromium content of 16% and has nothing to do with whether or not it is magnetic.

Compliance Alloy

In the early 2000s, product substitution meant a new push to inform the manufacturer that type 430 has 16% chromium and is, thus, NSF 51-compliant. In many cases, a transition occurred in which buying organizations switched from 304 to lower nickel-bearing grades such as 301 or 201 before the switch to 430 occurred. In cases in which 430 could not be substituted for 301 or 201, the next wave of substitution came from higher-chromium ferritic grades such as 439 or 441. Both alloys were developed for the automotive market in which weldability and formability were necessary along with added corrosion resistance from the basic 409 automotive grade.

In residential appliances, the major manufacturers became reticent to move to magnetic stainless grades due to a perception that magnetic equated to not “real” stainless steel.

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Another domestic steel plant closing has been blamed on cheap imports and a major steelmaker in India took a big write-down for similar reasons.

ArcelorMittal Shut Down

ArcelorMittal is permanently closing its money-losing Georgetown, S.C., mill, delivering a blow to the local economy, the Charleston Post and Courier reported.

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The company said the shutdown will be completed by Sept. 30 and 226 workers there will lose their jobs.
Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal blamed “challenging market conditions facing the USA business,” which uses electric arc furnaces to make wire rod used in the automotive and construction industries.
In the press release announcing the closure, ArcelorMittal also said the mill “has been severely impacted by waves of unfairly traded steel imports from China and other countries.”
ArcelorMittal previously shut down the Georgetown operation in 2009. It reopened in early 2011 after negotiating pay cuts and other cost-saving measures with employees.
“Despite our joint efforts and a highly productive workforce, the facility has incurred significant losses since the restart due to high input costs and imports,” P.S. Venkat, CEO of ArcelorMittal Long Carbon North America, told the Post and Courier.

Tata Steel Has Long Product Woes, Too

Tata Steel Ltd. slumped in Mumbai after India’s largest producer of the alloy wrote off its long-products business in the UK.

The shares fell as much as 3.1% to 355.10 rupees and traded at 359 rupees as of 9:37 a.m. local time, Bloomberg reported. The stock has declined 10 percent this year, compared with a 0.7% drop in the benchmark S&P BSE Sensitive Index.

The Mumbai-based company expects to take a non-cash impairment of 50 billion rupees ($787 million) for the quarter ended March 31, according to a statement Thursday. That would completely write off the value of the UK long-products business, which Tata Steel is trying to sell to Geneva-based Klesch Group.

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Most of our commodity metals posted gains this month. Even laggards such as the Construction and Raw Steels MMIs were able to post at least a flat month and avoid a loss. Only the markets that were generally flat to down before commodities’ big downturn, Rare Earths and Renewables, lost ground this month.

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The big question, is, then are these metals’ prices truly going back up or are we merely experiencing temporary gains with the downward trend soon to continue? It honestly may be too soon to tell.

We have seen several commodities fall much lower this year after outside-influenced one-month rallies. As my colleague Raul de Frutos wrote regarding the copper market this month, “we know that trying to guess the bottom is a terrible strategy to take.”

The Dollar and Oil Prices

The big outside influence, of course, is actual weakness in the US dollar, the first real weakness seen this year.
The oil price reduction that has kept most commodities low this year has moderated, with oil hitting $60 a barrel this week. A 0.7% fall in the dollar index was the biggest drop of 2015.
Further weakness in the dollar throughout the rest of the year would give a bigger boost to commodities and foreign markets.

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Gilbane, Inc., recently released its Spring “Building for the Future” construction economics report and predicted that even if new starts growth were to turn flat for rest of 2015 (which is not expected), starts already recorded over the past 12 months indicate spending for nonresidential buildings in 2015 will increase 15% over 2014, the best growth since 2007.

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Nonresidential new starts have been increasing at an average of 16% per year since a post-recession low was reached in 2012.

The Gilbane report states that nonresidential building starts from April 2014 through February 2015 reached the best three-month average and best six-month average since July 2008 this month.

The construction industry is, by far, the largest consumer of steel products worldwide. Approximately 100 million tons of steel is produced annually in the US. More than 40 million tons of that is delivered to the construction industry. The next largest industries combined (automotive, equipment and machinery) do not consume as much steel as construction.

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Around the world, copper producers have started looking to India as the provider of relief in an otherwise somewhat bleak copper market.

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The long-term forecast issued recently by the US-based research firm, The Freedonia Group, predicts that India will register the fastest gains of any major copper metal market through 2019.

Strong Housing Demand

Demand in China, the biggest consumer of copper, has started to weaken because of a downturn in its economy. India, on the other hand, has an industry-friendly government in the saddle that’s willing to try investment-friendly policies and that’s, so far, driving driving up the local economy.

The Modi administration’s openness to trade is one of the favorable reasons cited by the Freedonia paper. Another reason is that a strong increase in India’s building construction, driven in part by an expanding urban population and government investment, is expected to boost copper consumption here.

Worldwide demand for copper, says the report, is expected to advance 4.7% every year to 37.2 million metric tons in 2019. It also says the Asia-Pacific region is expected to see the fastest annual gains, led by increased output in China and India. Electrolytic refining of primary copper will be the primary method of production in these countries, but recycled scrap will account for a larger share of refined copper output.

US Construction is Next Best Hope

Outside the AP region, the Freedonia report says advances in construction spending would also fuel copper demand in North America, particularly in the US, where early signs of building construction activity significantly increasing are being recorded. This is followed by Western Europe which could see a “moderate increase” in copper demand since construction and manufacturing output there is expected to climb at a below average speed.

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