Commentary

If you want a succinct analysis of activity or developments on the LME you have no further to look than posts by Thomson Reuters columnist Andy Home.

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For years Home has bought clarity to the wider metal community around the goings on at London’s metals market. Often tinged with a certain witty tone, his observations are rarely off the mark. His latest article is no exception, reviewing the thorny question of how to justify the high cost of storing metal in a London Metal Exchange warehouse and the options the LME has to tackle what nearly all stakeholders agree is a long-running problem fraught with the risk of unintended consequences and the potential for legal challenges in multiple jurisdictions.

For a wider review check out the article link, but, in short, the conclusion is the LME’s preferred option is likely to be a rent cap. The alternative is changing the contract to free-on-truck, essentially wiping out load-out charges, a so-called nuclear option. It would have been fraught with risk of litigation under the multiple legal jurisdictions across the LME’s network.

Capping Rent: What is it Good For?

So, what would a rent cap do? In the short term, nothing. LME rents are so far above off-market rates the probable move to cap rent isn’t going to attract metal back into the LME system anytime soon. That, apparently, is part of the attraction. A rent cap does not constitute a dramatic change in the economics of warehouse operators’ business models.

However, the extent to which it does attract metal back in the future can only be a good thing for the LME and the market for each individual metal on the LME system becoming more visible as its movement can be tracked and gauged.

When the metal is off-market, it is invisible and large stock movements are probably occurring, with consequences for prices but with no way for the wider market to measure or understand those consequences. It may even have been driven in part by off-market movements of inventory, but we have little or no way of knowing if buy/sell trades on the LME are related to physical metal sitting in warehouses or are simply paper transactions.

Transparency is information and, for investors and traders, information is everything. Any move the LME makes that encourages financiers to store their metal in the LME system is a good thing. To remove the distortion that queues created is an added benefit that has, for the time being, largely already been achieved and was always a symptom of the financier’s game, anyway, not a direct cause of high physical delivery premiums.

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The LME’s efforts to control their warehouse operators’ activities have been going on since the market started. This is yet one more development in that ongoing process.

There’s a quiet battle being fought outside the limelight between India and other steel producing nations over the world’s largest democracy’s protectionist measure, the Minimum Import Price (MIP), introduced in February.

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The MIP, essentially a tariff on imports targeted mainly at neighboring China, is set to expire August 5. While large steelmakers in India are pushing for the continuation of MIP by the government, some member-nations of the World Trade Organization have started to apply pressure to remove the MIP. The MIP on 173 steel items for six months was introduced as a way to curb cheap imports and firm up steel prices in the home market. The MIP ranged from $341 a metric ton to $752/mt depending on which product.

Other Nations Protest the MIP

In a recent meeting of the goods council at the WTO, nine members, including the U.S., the European Union and China, asked India to justify its continued restrictions on imported steel.

There are some who say that if India continues with the MIP after the deadline it could be dragged into dispute proceedings at the WTO by any of the complaining members, although India has consistently maintained it’s done no wrong and the MIP is a general agreement on tariffs and trade-compliant instrument to regulate imports. Almost all steel producing major countries have imposed one form or the other of tariffs or other protectionist measures to curb steel imports. There are also reports here that India could prune the list of 173 steel products and still keep the MIP in effect for most products.

MIP Effect: Imports Fall

In the first quarter of FY17 (India’s fiscal year begins in on April 1) total steel production in India grew by 3.8% year-on-year, while overall steel consumption grew by only 0.3%. In the same period, imports fell by 30.7% year-on-year, according to a new report by rating agency India Rating and Research (Ind-Ra).

According to the agency, the increase in Indian steel production was supported by the MIP policy but was unlikely to continue beyond August after it expires. Since the imposition of the MIP, domestic producers benefited by way of import substitution. Ind-Ra felt the continuation of the industry protection measure beyond August is required to “safeguard the interest of the domestic steel industry, which has shown signs of a recovery in the current fiscal on the back of MIP.”

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Ind-Ra opined that profitability for most steel producers is likely to remain under pressure due to the newly added capacity. The interest cost and depreciation from these new capacities has now started to impact the income statements and increased both operations and financial leverage for India’s steel industry. For India’s steel companies to see healthy profit generation, capacity utilization levels need to increase significantly.

A recent report by five U.S.-based steel trade associations analyzed 25 of the largest steel companies in China detailed the amount and type of government subsidies each company received in recent years.

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The analysis found that these subsidies and policies have led to tremendous overcapacity and created a fragmented domestic steel sector in China made up, primarily, of inefficient, heavily polluting companies, all of which require government subsidies at several levels to stay open. Read more

Allegheny Technologies, Inc. reported sales were up 7% for the second quarter over the year before, increasing to $811 million, with the company reporting an overall net loss largely due to its recent work stoppage.

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ATI CEO, President and Chairman Richard Harshman described reason for cautious optimism to an uptick in orders in the aerospace market — both in engine components and airframes — and lowered capital expenditures in the near future ATI continues to ramp up production at its $1.2 billion Brackenridge, Pa., flat-rolled stainless production facility.

Aerospace Growth

“Commercial aerospace market sales increased another 3% compared to the first quarter of 2016,” Harshman said. “Sales to the aerospace and defense market continued to drive ATI’s results, representing over 50% of total 206 sales. Our aerospace market is being driven, in large part, by the growth of ATI’s next generation mill products, forgings and castings.”

Harshman and other ATI executives described the nickel and titanium alloys — and powders that ATI sells for additive manufacturing — it provides to the defense and aerospace markets as the future of the company. Harshman also said the business momentum ATI is experiencing “certainly the best it’s been in quite a while.”

Flat-Rolled Products

While flat-rolled stainless products are clearly not ATI’s future, ATI  officials said the flat-rolled products division improved financially in Q2. According to the earnings report, officials expect the division to be “modestly profitable” in the fourth quarter. This opened up the possibility of ATI considering reopening its Midland, Pa., production facility. ATI officials had previously said the plant won’t return to production until the flat-rolled market improves.

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“In our FRP segment, our second quarter results demonstrate that we are making progress in our journey toward a consistently profitable business, during a period of continuing low raw material prices, global stainless steel sheet and strip overcapacity, and uncertain end market demand,” Harshman said.

The United Steelworkers and the petitioning domestic steelmakers praised new anti-dumping tariffs against cold-rolled flat steel products, while also saying that the damage from cheap imports has already hurt their operations.

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“Today’s final duty orders by the Obama Administration expands fairer pricing conditions on cold-rolled steel products from five countries, combined with duties placed earlier this summer on the same steel import products from China and Japan,” United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said. “We have nearly 19,000 steelworkers and iron ore miners still on extended layoff status since last year as the remaining steel trade case investigations continue to reduce huge inventories of unfairly dumped and subsidized finished steel imports that have been stockpiled before the case was initiated.”

Non-coil stainless is included in a new anti-dumping petition. Source Adobe Stock/Jovanning.

Cold-rolled steel flat products from five countries received new tariffs. Source Adobe Stock/Jovanning.

 

The cold-rolled case hit producers in Brazil and the Republic of Korea hardest — South Korea’s POSCO was hit with 64.62% combined anti-dumping and countervailing duties due to a failure to confirm key elements of its response to investigators — but tariffs have already had an effect on steel imports into the U.S. Most of them were already being collected as preliminary duties that became final last week. The initial case was filed last year.

Injury Before Remedy

“The year-long investigation and duty orders show our trade laws need a rewrite in today’s world of steel overcapacity that’s putting American manufacturing workers and miners on layoff in their our own market, while foreign producers keep shipping illegally-subsidized and dumped products,” USW International Vice President Tom Conway told the Times of Northwest Indiana. Read more

The pendulum has been swinging in the direction of the suppliers of flat-rolled stainless steel suppliers for all of this year.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Base prices have increased three times since the beginning of 2016. Stainless buyers have already been paying a steady increase in base prices in the transactional market. By now, most contract stainless buyers are at base prices higher than their prior contract period. Master distributors are extracting premiums as metal buyers scramble to fill in any gaps in their supply chains. Another base price increase is expected to be announced after the September anti-dumping duty determination on Chinese cold-rolled, flat stainless steel.

US Mills Enjoying Price Increases

The U.S. mills have the momentum to capture another base price increase. Domestic mills have strong order backlogs. Domestic lead times continue to be longer than the normal six to eight weeks. The impact of the anti-dumping and countervailing duty lawsuits against Chinese cold-rolled stainless has finally occurred.

The latest U.S. Census statistics showed cold-rolled stainless imports into the U.S. from China dropped to under 2,000 metric tons in May, compared to almost 10,000 mt in April. Other Asian importing countries have not significantly increased activity into the U.S.  Increased imports into the U.S. from Europe have amounted to less than a 1,500 mt-per-month increase.

The threat of trade cases has made many importers cautious about the U.S. market. Whether domestic or import, the metal buyer should expect to be paying higher overall prices in the upcoming months. Since publishing our July monthly outlook, nickel prices have climbed 12%.

Cover Your Volumes

Even though prices are on the uptick, stainless buyers need to ensure that their volumes are covered. Any manufacturer with spikes in stainless demand may have difficulty in procuring additional material quickly, especially in bright-annealed, polished and thicknesses less than .030 inches.

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I strongly urge metal buyers to review stainless flat-rolled requirements to ensure that adequate volumes are secured with your suppliers. Whether import or domestic sources need to be utilized, your suppliers need more transparency than ever before in your flat-rolled stainless steel needs.

As global stocks rallied, metals saw gains with them this week. The bounce that precious metals got from Brexit has largely been sustained and lead and other base metals have come with them despite neutral fundamentals.

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Yet skulking under this prosperity lies a specter that threatens to erode prices and even affect the positive performance of those stock markets: Chinese overproduction.

This week, more tariffs came down on Chinese steel products and the American Iron and Steel Institute testified before the U.S. Senate and said steel overproduction must stop.

The European Union. went so far as to tell China to stop subsidizing unwanted steel if it wants to achieve market economy status in the World Trade Organization, only to have bilateral talks collapse. The export quotas that China maintains have also led manufacturers to substitute out rare earths metals, now the E.U. and U.S. are asking the WTO to eliminate more Chinese export quotas. The U.S. and the E.U. teamed up against Chinese export quotas on base metals.

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So, even as metal prices look like they are rising, oversupply lies in wait.

In the coming years, India will be scouting around for strategic partnerships with multinational mining exploration companies to secure the supply of critical minerals for its defense and manufacturing programs.

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In the opinion of analysts, if the Indian government wants its much-vaunted “Make in India” campaign to be a real success, it has no choice but to do this. Over the coming years, India will need to strategically develop joint partnerships with existing global players to secure assured supply of critical minerals. Read more

American Iron and Steel Institute President and CEO Thomas Gibson said in a recent media conference call that the U.S. and other nations continue to experience economic impacts from the Chinese steel oversupply largely produced by China’s state-sponsored companies. He said policymakers must address the “root cause” of the problem.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

“We believe that the Chinese government has to get out of the steel business,” Gibson said, “and let its steel industry operate according to market principles.”

Gibson spoke July 13 on a conference call with the press.

In 2015, China’s production of crude steel fell 2.3% from 2014, according to the World Steel Association, but its share of the world’s production grew slightly to 49.5%. Gibson said China’s oversupply of steel reached 112 million metric tons in 2015 and added that some reports estimated excess production would increase this year. U.S. steel companies’ production fell 10.5% last year and approximately 10% of the workforce has been laid off.

Gibson said that nine of the 10 largest steel producers in China are state-owned. While these firms may be selling steel at a loss, China is directing state-owned banks to “continually refinance the debt” and also sweep the debts off the books and this is what’s keeping “zombie mills” open.

In an effort to address declining domestic demand, China announced that it would reduce steel production as much as 150 mmt over the next five years. Gibson said these promises are often empty as China made similar commitments in the past and “each time capacity has actually increased in China.”

Speaking a day after the press phone call to the Senate Banking Committee, Gibson said, “the surge in imports is a result of foreign government interventionist policies that have fueled global overcapacity in steel, more than half of which is located in China… While China is not the only source of the problem, the overcapacity in China is the greatest challenge facing the global steel industry today.”

Free Download: The July 2016 MMI Report

Gibson said China’s major steel firms reportedly lost more than $15.5 billion last year while still producing so much excess steel.

The U.S. and the European Union filed a joint World Trade Organization challenge against China on July 19 over its use of duties and export quotas to control shipments of metals such as tin, tantalum, lead, copper, chromium, cobalt and others.

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The E.U./U.S. effort comes after the U.S. government’s original request for consultations filed on July 13. It also comes after the European Union failed to resolve a dispute with China over its use of duties and export quotas during bilateral meetings with China last week.

Chinese imports are allegedly being dumped in the EU and other foreign markets. Source: Adobe Stock.

Chinese export quotas are being challenged by the U.S. and the E.U. Source: Adobe Stock.

The new request adds challenges to export duties on chromium to the original list of antimony, cobalt, copper, graphite, indium, lead, magnesia, talcum, tantalum and tin. The new request also includes China’s export quotas imposed on antimony, indium, magnesia, talc and tin.

Trade Rep Speaks Out

During last week’s announcement, U.S. Trade Representative officials said export duties on the raw materials ranged from 5 to 20% and enabled Chinese companies to produce lower-priced goods than their U.S. competitors. China also used the lower cost of raw materials to encourage U.S. companies to move production to China, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative charged. Read more