MetalMiner IndX

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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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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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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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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The American Institute of Architects‘ Architecture Billings Index came in positive, again, in March, but its relatively low increase again reflected the weak recovery in both design and construction. The March ABI score was 51.7, up from a mark of 50.4 in February.

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“Business conditions at architecture firms generally are quite healthy across the country. However, billings at firms in the Northeast were set back with the severe weather conditions, and this weakness is apparent in the March figures,” said AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA, PhD. “The multi-family residential market has seen its first occurrence of back-to-back negative months for the first time since 2011, while the institutional and commercial sectors are both on solid footing.”

Multi-Family Weakness

We have reported on the general weakness in multi-family residential and its effect on prices of construction materials such as structural steel and copper for much of the first quarter of 2015.

AIA prepared a video featuring Baker, recorded in a swanky Architect Magazine studio overlooking our nation’s capital, describing the macroeconomic issues facing the construction market, which include the strong dollar and the continuing shortage of skilled construction labor, in Q2 and the rest of the year.

Forgive us for continuing the discussion of a bifurcated electrical steel market – with some parts of the market increasing in price (the high grade material) and others holding steady (standard grades). As 2015 rolls on, we can’t help but see this trend that we called attention to back in December of 2014 only grow stronger.

In fact, Allegheny Technologies, a producer of standard-grade materials has lowered its GOES surcharges by more than 40% since the beginning of the year. In the meantime, AK Steel has dropped its GOES surcharges by some 55%. Meanwhile, GOES average import price levels are now up 10% from January levels but only slightly higher than year-ago levels. The increases come primarily from Japanese and Canadian origin materials.

Free Download: Cut Your Overseas GOES Shipping Costs

Meanwhile, some stock analysts appear to be fairly positive about AK Steel, citing 2-3% growth in automotive builds. MetalMiner remains quite a bit more cautious on automotive growth. Our own Automotive MMI monthly index undoubtedly looks better than most of the metal indexes we track, but at 85 it has reached it’s three-year-low since we began reporting metal prices going into the automotive industry (January 2012 is the baseline reading of 100).

That same article also suggested a very positive GOES market for AK Steel since the company “produces high-efficiency PCH grades in this market that should enhance its results this fiscal year.” We’d argue the company certainly produces M1-M6 grades, but does not produce the high-grade materials supplied by the Japanese mills or South Korea's Posco, hence the price bifurcation.

Supply Alternatives

Of course since the trade case, many manufacturers have realigned their supply chains to take advantage of lower cost imported material in neighboring Canada and Mexico.

As we previously reported, the US International Trade Commission created several new HTS codes to break out laminations, stacked cores and wound cores from the more generic category these materials have historically been classified under. Based on the most recent data available from Zepol, imports appear alive and well:

Laminations for incorporation into stacked cores saw imports of nearly a million dollars; growing at 16% month-over-month (February over January) with the lion’s share of that volume coming from Mexico

Stacked cores for incorporation into transformers saw negligible quantities.

Meanwhile, wound cores for incorporation into transformers saw approximately $2 million in import totals with Mexico taking the lion’s share of volume followed by Canada.

But far and away the most interesting category to watch involves transformer parts which saw nearly $13.5 million in imported value coming mostly from Canada but also Mexico, Switzerland, China and India.

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Last month we lamented the slow growth of both the US and international solar and wind power supply industries. While we can't report a great one-month turnaround, renewables were flat as a board again this month, incremental progress seems to picking up steam in local markets both here and abroad.

Flat? Steady? You Make the Call

The monthly Renewables MMI® registered a value of 61 in April, proving that one man's steady with March's value is another man's flat with March's value.

Free Download: Cut Your Silicon Shipment Costs

While it might not be realistic to expect neodymium and solar silicon to trade into the higher ranges of our MMI reports, one would certainly think that increased adoption would lead to somewhat higher prices for mature technologies such as solar. While prices are not increasing for the base materials there were several positive stories about market-based solar technology adoption this month.

Texas Solar/Wind Power

In Texas, the city of Georgetown became the first city in the state to commit to receive its energy from 100% renewable sources by 2017.

In Georgetown, the city utility company has a monopoly and can choose the city’s provider like individuals elsewhere in Texas. When its staff examined their options last year, they discovered something that seemed remarkable, especially in Texas: renewable energy was cheaper than non-renewable. In February, city officials finalized a deal with SunEdison, a multinational solar energy company. It means that by January 2017, all electricity within the city’s service area will come from wind and solar power.

Last year Georgetown signed a 20-year agreement with EDF for wind power from a planned project near Amarillo, the deal with SunEdison takes the renewable elements of the city’s power supply up to 100%. SunEdison will build plants in west Texas that will provide Georgetown with 150 megawatts of solar power in a deal running from 2016 or 2017 to 2041.

India Solar

If a small city in Texas embracing renewables doesn't convince you the needle is moving, then perhaps bigger government-supported projects in India are what's needed to convince the skeptics.

In the build-up to India's government-sponsored RE-Invest 2015 conference, participating companies provided non-binding investment indications of 166-gigawatts of solar power generation capacity and five-GW-per-year solar manufacturing capacity.

SunEdison and First Solar committed to build more than 20,000-megawatts of clean energy capacity in India by 2022. SunEdison said it would build 15,200 MW of solar and wind power capacity by 2022, while First Solar made a commitment to develop 5,000 MW of solar by 2019.

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The monthly Copper MMI® registered a value of 75 in April, an increase of 2.7% from 73 in March.

Free Download: Cut Your Copper Shipment Costs

The suspicious copper rally is still in place. Copper has rallied as much as 17% since it hit its trough in February. The move might seem impressive for the non-trained eye, but copper is just zigzagging.

Copper's Selling, But We're Not Buying

After the huge drop during the second half of last year, we believe that there is no point in freaking out over this two-month rally. Picking bottoms is very hard and definitely not a good strategy for metal buyers. Was February the bottom of copper's bearish market? Nobody knows. But we do know that trying to guess what was the bottom is a terrible strategy to take with copper since 2011. Prices have kept on falling, trough after trough... after trough.

In the fundamentals side, we don't see any game-changing factor that could drive a significant upturn in copper prices. The market remains far from being in deficit and the macroeconomic outlook from China remains poor. Copper demand is lacking momentum.

Now, with the fundamental picture being dormant, at best, can we expect copper prices to rise above last year's levels? That seems very unlikely. Especially while a strong dollar and low oil prices are having a depressing effect on commodities, and many other base metals are making record lows.

Before copper is ready to turn around, we'll have to see more price strength changes in the demand outlook and commodity markets. Both need to turn upward. We believe that the last four years gave copper buyers reasons enough to wait for real signs of strength before making large volume commitments.

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With April's reading, MetalMiner's monthly price index tracking metals used in the automotive industry has stanched its general downward slide – the index dipped below the baseline of 100 in February 2014 and has been trending down since. The monthly Automotive MMI® registered a value of 85 in April, on par with March's value (check out last month's report). But with most base metals markets in a bearish mode, this index may have further to fall.

The downward slide had particularly begun accelerating in Q4 of last year and has continued through Q1 2015, a sign that the auto index's basket of metals has seen the same bearish treatment as the Raw Steels, Stainless and Aluminum MMIs.

US Auto Sales 'n Oil Prices–March 2015

Of the US Big Three, GM and Ford's March sales both dropped this year compared to March 2014, while Chrysler gained nearly 2% in its monthly sales over last year. However, both GM and Chrysler's year-to-date sales so far in 2015 are quite robust over the same amount of time in 2014 (5.3% and 6.5%, respectively), while Ford's YTD sales are also in the green.

Bargain-basement oil prices have helped consumers at the gas pump, which in turn has spurred sales. Light truck sales, for example, have been outpacing car sales for the past 15 months, and have spiked to their highest level in several years in March 2015. Primary metal producers are on the bullish demand bandwagon as well – Alcoa recently received the promise of government cash for lightweight auto-grade aluminum production.

Essentially, the automotive OEMs and their suppliers should be paying close attention to our Automotive MMI® trend – with finished steel, aluminum, platinum and palladium at multi-month lows, while consumer vehicle demand appears to be high, some spot buying could be in order...but we can't say for sure how much further this index has to fall. MetalMiner will, however, be offering an exclusive automotive metal market outlook...

SRM Automotive Summit

If you happen to be in Southeast Michigan in May – and chances are, if you work for an auto OEM or many of their suppliers, you already will be – join MetalMiner Executive Editor Lisa Reisman at the POOL4TOOL SRM Automotive Summit, to be held at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham on Friday, May 22.

Lisa will present "Sourcing Strategies for the Automotive Metals: H2 2015." Don't miss out this analysis and a great overall event – register here.

This Month's Actual Metal Prices: Automotive MMI®

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