Industry News

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This morning in metals news, the Japanese steel industry’s output is expected to grow next year, lenders have a new plan for Essar Steel, and China’s zinc and copper outputs in November were at their highest since late 2014.

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Japanese Steel Sector Set to Ramp Up Output

According to the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, the country can expect to see increased crude steel output in 2018 and 2019.

According to Reuters, Kosei Shindo, the chairman of the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, said “I hope that crude steel output (for next business year) would exceed 10.6 million tonnes.”

A New Plan for Essar Steel

In its insolvency proceedings, lenders to Essar Steel have reduced the time allowed to resolve the firm’s default, according to a report by the Economic Times.

The “single stage” process, according to the report, means any interested bidder has to meet both the conditions to be considered by the bankers, according to the report.

China Zinc, Copper Output Up

China’s output of copper and zinc in November was at its highest since December 2014, according to Reuters.

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According to the report, China’s refined copper output increased 9.8% to 786,000 tons, while zinc production rose 7.5% to 603,000 tons.

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As befits a letter from European treasury ministers to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the wording is couched in polite and respectful terms. The letter acknowledges the U.S. has every right to set its internal tax code, but draws attention to proposals they fear could have serious consequences for global trade.

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According to an article in The Telegraph, the letter asks the U.S. government to consider certain issues raised by a series of measures President Donald Trump has put forward that would increase the tax burden on foreign companies operating in the U.S. and distort domestic U.S. manufacturers’ behaviour.

“It is important that the US government’s rights over domestic tax policy be exercised in a way that adheres with international obligations to which it has signed up,” the letter is reported to say. “The inclusion of certain less conventional international tax provisions could contravene the US’s double taxation treaties and may risk having a major distortive impact on international trade. We would therefore like to draw your attention to some features of the proposals being discussed that cause significant concerns from a European perspective.”

The diplomatic terms mask serious worries in the treasury departments of the signatories: Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. President Trump’s intention is to encourage reshoring and the return of American jobs perceived to have been lost in the process of globalization.

But the fear is the proposals would seriously hamper trade and investment — not just between the U.S. and Europe but also between the U.S. and the rest of the world, without achieving the president’s desired outcome.

According to the article, one of the issues is a proposed cut in corporation tax from 20% to 12.5%, specifically for income derived from exported goods. The treasury ministers (not unreasonably as that’s clearly what it is designed to do) believe the tax cut would violate U.S. obligations under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, which ban countries from introducing fiscal incentives that distort trade by making exports cheaper or imports more expensive.

The ministers are also quoted as saying that a 20% “excise tax” on financial transactions, including on a U.S. firm importing goods from its own factories abroad, could “discriminate in a manner that would be at odds with international rules.”

The U.S. Senate has already agreed to moves that would lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, and some Europeans have objected, saying it would go against a series of agreements between the U.S. and Europe to keep corporate tax rates broadly in line with each other.

That argument, however, is on shakier ground. The U.K., for example, already has a 19% corporate tax rate and some smaller European states have even lower rates.

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Whether the U.S. will take notice of Europeans’ concerns remains to be seen. The president’s ambivalence to the WTO is well known, but even he can see such extreme moves as differential taxation for domestic and imported goods could kick off a tit-for-tat reaction; that is no more in the U.S. interest than it is for other major trading blocs, like Europe.

The Department of Commerce announced Wednesday, Dec. 13, that it had issued a preliminary affirmative determination in the countervailing duty (CVD) investigation of cast iron soil pipe fittings from China.

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The department announced the determination in a release, ruling that exporters from China received countervailable subsidies in a fairly broad range of 8.66-102.31%.

“The Trump Administration will not sit back and watch as American companies and workers are harmed by unfair government subsidies,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a prepared statement. “The United States is committed to free, fair and reciprocal trade, and will continue to validate the information provided to us that brought us to this decision.”

The petitioner in the case was the Illinois-based Cast Iron Soil Pipe Institute, which boasts three members: AB&I Foundry (California), Charlotte Pipe & Foundry (North Carolina), and Tyler Pipe (Texas).

According to the department, the 79 antidumping or countervailing duty investigation it initiated from Jan. 20 to Dec. 11 of this year marks a 52 percent increase from investigations started during the same period last year.

As for the respondents, according to a fact sheet provided by the Commerce Department, the following preliminary subsidies were calculated for the respondents:

  • 8.66% for mandatory respondent Shanxi Xuanshi Industrial Group Co., Ltd.
  • preliminary subsidy rate of 12.72% for mandatory respondent Wor-Biz International Trading Co., Ltd. (Anhui).
  • Commerce applied an adverse facts available rate of 102.31% for mandatory respondent Shijiazhuang Chengmei Import & Export Co., Ltd. because of its failure to respond to the Department of Commerce’s request for information.
  • 10.37% for all other Chinese producers and exporters

According to the Department of Commerce, imports of cast iron soil pipe fittings from China during 2016 were valued at an estimated $8.6 million.

A final decision in the CVD case is scheduled for April 24, 2018.

U.S. ITC Rules in 5-Year Sunset Review of Stainless Steel Pipe Fittings

The U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) issued its own ruling Dec. 14 on stainless steel butt-weld pipe fittings from Italy, Malaysia and the Philippines.

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The USITC ruled that removing existing antidumping duty orders on the product from the trio of countries “would be likely to lead to continuation or recurrence of material injury within a reasonably foreseeable time.”

Before we head into the weekend, let’s take one last look back at the week that was:

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Free Download: The December 2017 MMI Report

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This morning in metals news, Chinese aluminum output fell to its lowest total since February 2015, Liberty House considers buying a large Rio Tinto smelter in France and copper approaches a two-week high.

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Chinese Aluminum Output Falls

Chinese primary aluminum production dropped for a fifth straight month, Reuters reported.

In fact, winter smelting restrictions saw output fall to its lowest in the country since February 2015, according to the report.

Liberty House Eyes Rio Tinto Smelter

According to Reuters, Liberty House is considering a bid for Rio Tinto’s aluminum smelter in northern France.

The Dunkirk plant is valued at around 200 million euros, according to Reuters sources familiar with the matter.

Copper Rises Near Two-Week High

A weakening dollar and positive Chinese manufacturing data saw copper rise on Thursday, Reuters reported.

The Chinese industrial sector grew faster in November than markets expected.

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London Metal Exchange copper traded at $6,760 a ton in official midday rings, according to the report.

Liquefied natural gas . donvictori0/Adobe Stock

Natural gas has long been promoted as a less-polluting alternative to coal and less-costly alternative to nuclear power.

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Its green credentials are not whiter than white, but relative to coal, modern combined cycle gas turbine power plants (CCGT) are highly efficient, emit low levels of pollution and crucially can be turned on and off quickly to provide intermittent or peak power demands, in addition to balancing more variable sources (such as renewables).

The Non-Nuclear Option?

After Fukushima, many major economies have moved away from nuclear.

In addition to Japan’s near complete shutdown of its nuclear generating capacity, Germany followed suit. Even France, long a champion of nuclear power, has said less of its generating capacity will be met by nuclear in the future.

The expectation was that natural gas would be the natural successor to nuclear power, as countries took an increasingly responsible view to reducing carbon emissions. But despite a surge of investment in natural gas liquefaction facilities and the construction of new liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers, the growth in LNG consumption has been much lower than expected.

LNG Demand Drops in Europe

In fact, some markets are going backwards, the FT reports.

Natural gas demand in Europe is 12% lower than it was 10 years ago. Chinese and Indian demand continues to grow, but the dramatic gains by solar power and wind, where costs have fallen 85% since 2009, have severely limited the prospects for natural gas as a power source.

Indeed, India’s entrenched coal industry and coal-based electricity generating capacity means its future is likely to be predominantly solar and coal — not natural gas at all.

China, like Europe, has adopted renewable power (particularly wind) on the basis of cost, as costs have tumbled for both solar and wind (again, particularly wind) to below the cost of natural gas.

As new supply-side capacity comes onstream, the market for natural gas has shifted from long-term contracts signed prior to new LNG facilities even being started to a competitive spot market; yet even here, prices are not low enough to spur a significant switch from renewables investment to gas.

Only in the U.S., where shale gas prices are low, has natural gas consumption risen significantly. However, even that is more geared toward chemicals feedstock and to supply exports rather than to meet rising demand due to power generation.

Looking Ahead

The future, at least over the next few years, is not any rosier for gas producers.

U.S. production is rising, Russia is opening up new resources in the north and is looking to export more, projects in Australia have created a major competitor to Qatar and Middle Eastern suppliers. Meanwhile, the world’s second-largest reserves in Iran are waiting for investment to bring them to market. The Financial Times suggests new finds in the eastern Mediterranean by Israel, Egypt, and off East Africa may never see sufficient investment to develop liquefaction and export, and are destined only for local consumption.

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This is not exactly music to the ears of aluminum producers for whom LNG liquefaction and regasification plants and the construction of LNG carriers has been a particularly profitable niche industry over the last decade. LNG gas codes call for controlled chemistry and manufacture that has created a higher value add industry for more sophisticated and capable producers.

With steel overcapacity touching a historic high at about 737 million tons (MT), and China adding to new capacity, this remains a huge industry concern.

Not only is the demand-supply market askew, jobs are being lost, especially in the United States, which, by one reckoning, has seen about 35% of steelmaking jobs vanish in the last two decades or so.

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So, when representatives of G20 member states met at the end of November for the Global Forum on Steel Excess Capacity in Berlin and announced they had come to a basic understanding on the need for restructuring of the sector and dismantling market-distorting subsidies to ensure a level-playing field, many welcomed the move.

In the meeting, China and the U.S. may have locked horns — but China’s neighbor, India, on the other hand, seemed more content regarding the developments coming out of the meeting.

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This morning in metals news, Toyota and Panasonic are considering working together on developing electric car batteries, U.S. Steel did not test for toxic materials after a chemical spill into Lake Michigan in October and U.S. raw steel production last week was up 4.3% compared with the same week in 2016.

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A Toyota, Panasonic Partnership?

According to Reuters, Toyota and Panasonic are considering joining forcing in developing electric batteries for vehicles.

Panasonic already manufactures batteries for Toyota’s gasoline-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, according to the report.

U.S. Steel Didn’t Test Water After October Chemical Spill

Documents posted online by state regulators Tuesday show that following a U.S. Steel chemical spill in a Lake Michigan tributary in October, the company did not test the waters for toxic materials, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The October spill was the second of the year for U.S. Steel, the first affecting the same waterway in April.

According to the Tribune report, an inspector from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management visited U.S. Steel last month, when plant managers told the inspector they decided not to test for hexavalent chromium in the water.

U.S. Raw Steel Production Up 4.3%

U.S. raw steel production for the week ending Dec. 9 jumped 4.3% compared with the same week last year, according to a report from the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI).

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Domestic raw steel production was 1,672,000 net tons, while it was 1,607,000 net tons in the week ending Dec. 9, 2016.

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ArcelorMittal’s proposed purchase of Italy’s troubled Ilva steel plant was hailed by nearly all parties as a successful solution to one of Italy’s thorniest and longest-running industrial and environmental problems.

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The Ilva steel plant has been dogged for years by under-investment, losses and, most seriously, repeated toxic emissions linked to high cancer and respiratory disease rates in the area.

ArcelorMittal had undertaken to clean up the plant and tackle open-air mineral waste deposits that, according to the Financial Times, spew such serious pollution into the air that the local Taranto authorities have to declare periodic “wind days” (on which schools near the plant are forced to close to avoid dust exposure).

ArcelorMittal’s €1.8 billion (U.S. $2.15 billion) purchase of the plant from the Italian owners would have saved Italy’s largest steel works from insolvency, securing some 20,000 jobs at the plant and supply chain but also, according to pledges made by the firm, would clean up the environmental problems.

Yet politicians in the Taranto and wider Puglia area have mounted a legal challenge to the takeover on the grounds that it does not tackle pollution from the plant quickly enough.

No one said doing business in Italy was easy — but many fear ArcelorMittal could walk from the deal if local politicians continue to obstruct the process.

The European competition authorities in Brussels have already raised objections to the deal on the grounds that ArcelorMittal would control more than half the European market in premium galvanized steel should the purchase go through without divestments in other areas.

Fortunately for the local community that desperately needs the deal to ensure employment while addressing the environmental catastrophic they find themselves in the European steel market is doing rather well at the moment and it remains in ArcelorMittal’s interests to secure the plant if the local communities interests can be shown to be taking precedence.

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For the time being though the combination of EU and local opposition means the fate of one of Europe’s largest steel plants remains in the balance.

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This morning in metals news, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill ending the state’s moratorium on gold and silver mining, Chile approaches a busy year for mine union negotiations, and Chinese steel futures drop.

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Going for the Gold in the Badger State

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill ending the state’s moratorium on gold and silver mining, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

The moratorium was imposed in 1998, when Walker was a member of the state Assembly.

Union Negotiations on the Horizon in Chile

Chile’s copper mining industry has a busy schedule next year, with 32 union contracts on the docket, Bloomberg reported.

Chile, a dominant force in the copper industry, will negotiate the contracts, which represent approximately 75% of the country’s copper output, according to the report.

China Steel Futures Drop

Chinese steel futures took a dip Tuesday as a result of concerns regarding demand in the country, the world’s top steel consumer, according to Reuters.

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According to the report, upward price movement driven by supply constriction is expected to be counterbalanced by a drop in demand as winter weather affects construction projects.