China

Much is being made of a mega merger between the publicly traded arm of Shanghai Baosteel Group Corp., the second-biggest Chinese steel mill by output, and the listed unit of Wuhan Iron & Steel Group Corp., its No. 6 steelmaker.

Profitable Baosteel will issue new shares to swap with the loss-making smaller firm. The Chinese press is full of the deal, saying it will rival ArcelorMittal in size and hailing it as an example of Beijing’s drive to consolidate the steel industry and tackle overcapacity.

Why the Urge to Merge?

ArcelorMittal, produced 97 million metric tons of steel last year and has a market value of $17.2 billion. Baoshan and Wuhan were worth $16.3 billion combined as of the June 24 close and produced about 60 mmt last year. Baoshan is a profitable enterprise and generally acknowledged to be well run. Wuhan, on the other hand, is loss making, carries too much debt and, probably in the newly combined group, ripe for plant closures and rationalization.

With 1.2 billion mt of crude steelmaking capacity but 803 mmt of steel production, China clearly has a massive overhang of unproductive capacity, causing some firms to be heavy loss makers. Estimates put combined losses for the industry at $10 billion last year.

But, for Beijing, it is as much a desire to clear up these loss-making companies before the market pulls them down into bankruptcy than it is to cut excess steel capacity. There is little doubt it has taken Beijing’s arm-twisting on profitable firms like Baoshan to take over loss makers like Wuhan that they would probably otherwise steer well clear of.

Beijing wants to avoid a domino collapse of lesser steel firms, like Dongbei Special Steel Group, owned by the Liaoning state government that finally filed for bankruptcy this month after eight, yes eight, defaults.

“If they can merge with others, they merge,”  Li Hongmei, an analyst at S&P Global Platts is quoted in the Financial Times as saying. “If not, they will ask the banks if they can change debt for equity. If that fails, then they will choose the last resort — that will be bankruptcy.”

But bankruptcy is bad for publicity, bad for workers, bad for the banks left holding the debt. Better, in a state-directed world, to have a profitable firm swallow them up and quietly rationalize the loss-making operations.

What’s China’s Real Plan for Loss-Making Steel?

The Economist reports on the wider trend, saying China aims to establish two major steel groups, one in the north and one in the south. The northern union of Hebei Iron & Steel Group with Shougang Group would be the nation’s biggest producer, with output of 76 mmt last year for a share of national production at 10%, topping Baosteel-Wuhan’s 8% share in the south, according to 2015 figures.

Meanwhile, there are rumors Ansteel Group Corp., the country’s fourth-biggest producer, could merge with regional peer Benxi Steel Group Corp. but, apparently, the firms are not confirming discussions are ongoing.

What About Those Steel Closures?

The aim is to close 150 mmt of capacity by 2025 but that will hardly put a dent in the 400 mmt of excess capacity in the country, more importantly for Beijing it may take the worst of the basket cases out of the public eye swallowed up by larger, state-directed groups.

The FT, though, offers a cautionary note: The drive to preserve and promote high-end, coastal steel production capacity while cutting off low-end, inland capacity is present throughout the restructuring plans, including the headline Bao-Wu merger.

“Coastal capacity is growing, and that’s the main trend of the next two years,” the FT reports. “Baosteel has a plant in Guangdong. Wisco has one in Guangxi, and they are ramping up to just under 10 mmt of capacity a year each by the end of 2017. What international steel producers really should be asking is what’s happening with the extra 50 mmt of capacity being commissioned on the Chinese coast in the next two years.”

That new capacity is better placed to service export markets than the plants being closed inland, how much of this drive is really to address overcapacity and how much is it to improve profitability and avoid the trauma of bankruptcies.

Let’s set aside Donald Trump’s one-track talk on China as a currency manipulator for just a sec, and focus on a slightly less understood, and arguably bigger, issue — the role of Chinese state subsidies and state-owned enterprises.

Using the steel industry as an example:

Top 10 Chinese Steel Companies in 2014

top 10 list china steel companies

With the exception of Shagang Group, China’s biggest steel companies are owned — therefore subsidized and otherwise supported — by Beijing. Courtesy of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI).

Because nine of the top 10 steel companies in China are SOEs, which get special support (read about it in our new project,China vs. the World,” here) — it ultimately spurs trends like these:

growth-china-steel-industry-vs-US-2000-2015

Almost immediately after China joined the WTO in 2001, the country’s steel industry began its exponential rise. Courtesy of AISI.

china-steel-exports-2005-to-2015

The Great Recession nipped Chinese exports a bit, but state-owned enterprises continued to be incentivized to produce by the Chinese government while domestic growth stagnated within the last few years, leading to a flood of Chinese steel being pushed outside the country’s borders. Courtesy of AISI.

A Special MetalMiner Project: Learn why China getting market economy status may just be the biggest trade issue of our time – and how it impacts the U.S. steel industry – in “China vs. the World.

china shipping port title

Copper has been on a bit of a roll this month. After a quiet summer, investors have been looking at growing concentrate imports in China and increased refining to pure copper as signs that Chinese demand is picking up.

MetalMiner Price Benchmarking: Current and Historical Prices for the Metals You Buy

A recent article by Reuters throws some light on what is going on behind the scenes that suggests while demand from refiners is robust, it does not mean demand from China’s consumers is equally as strong and rising imports should not necessarily be seen as a bullish sign for copper.

Copper Price

Source: Kitco.com

The metal had hit a four-week high last week, approaching $4,800 per metric ton after better-than-expected Chinese data lifted sentiment. Read more

China is importing record numbers of North Korean coal in violation of international sanctions and the shipping industry is still suffering under its worst downturn ever.

China Ignores Sanctions, Imports Record North Korean Coal

It appears that China is interpreting the “people’s well-being” as meaning North Korea should be able to export record amounts of coal in defiance of sanctions against the rogue nuclear-armed state.

MetalMiner Price Benchmarking: Current and Historical Prices for the Metals You Buy

China imported 2.465 million metric tons of coal from North Korea in August, the highest on record, and 61% above what was bought in April, the month sanctions were supposed to take effect.

Shipping Downturn Claims Hanjin

The shipping industry is suffering its deepest downturn ever as trade slows. Around 90% of world trade is transported by sea.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

South Korean container line Hanjin, which filed for receivership on Aug. 31, is the latest casualty in a crisis exacerbated by a glut of ships, many of which were built before the financial crisis when the global economy was healthier. It did, however, gain a reprieve when its ships were allowed to unload cargo that had been sitting around waiting for a resolution.

Welcome back to the MetalMiner week-in-review! This week we’ve got in-depth reporting on China and market economy status, India getting tough on aluminum imports and Canada… well, you’ll see what happened in Canada.

We Know Gold Prices Have Gone Up… Butt This is Ridiculous

The theft of about $140,000 worth of gold ($180,000 in Canadian dollars) from the Royal Canadian Mint, was supposedly an inside job… in more ways than one.

MetalMiner Price Benchmarking: Current and Historical Prices for the Metals You Buy

After a trial that concluded in Ottawa on Tuesday, Leston Lawrence, a 35-year-old employee of the government mint in Ottawa, stood accused of foiling the facility’s high security and smuggling out 18 7.4-ounce pucks — this is Canada, after all — worth about $6,800 each. He sold most of the pucks, cooled into the size of a purity testing dipper used at the mint, to an Ottawa Gold Sellers retail store at a nearby mall. The accused criminal mastermind also had four more of the pucks in a safe deposit box.

AdobeStock_John_Takai_security_gold

“Go ahead, scan me with the wand. Nothing to see here.” Source: Adobe Stock/John Takai.

The question the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or the Mint, couldn’t figure out is how he got past the state-of-the-art security that featured full-body metal detectors and secondary screenings with a wand for anyone that tripped the first scan?

Before Lawrence was fired from the Mint and arrested in 2015, investigators also found a tub of Vaseline in his locker. While the wand scanners can pick up even small pieces of metal in a person’s clothes, security officials from the Mint said they probably would not detect dipper-sized gold pucks that were forced between someone’s buttocks using the vaseline.

Ewww, Canada. Read more

Oil prices fell as Saudi Arabia poured cold water on a potential deal with other Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members and other countries such as Russia. China is threatening to place tariffs on sugar imports.

Crude Oil Selloff

Crude prices are selling off today, aided by Saudi comments that a decision will not be forthcoming from next week’s Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting in Algiers.

MetalMiner Price Benchmarking: Current and Historical Prices for the Metals You Buy

Many had thought that OPEC was close to reaching a deal to curtail production for up to a year with its members and non-member producers such as Russia, but the Saudi announcement makes it highly unlikely that any deal will happen soon now.

Clipperdata_OPEC_Production_500_092416

Source: Clipperdata.

Saudi Arabia has made production by regional rival Iran an issue in any deal to constrain production. The Saudis say Iran must abide by any deal just like other member-states and Iran and its allies say Iran should be allowed to bring its capacity up to full production, as it just re-entered markets after decades of sanctions, before it starts to cut.

China Explores Sugar Tariffs

China has launched a probe into soaring sugar imports following complaints by its domestic industry, the government said on Thursday, the latest sign that trade tensions between major commodities producing nations is intensifying.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

The Ministry of Commerce said the probe will look at imports since 2011 and into possible protectionist measures provided by foreign countries for their producers. It will last six months, with an option to extend the deadline, it said.

china shipping port title

Whether you’re a regular MetalMiner reader, or have never heard of us before, you’re likely familiar with the outsize role China has played in trading with the Western world — and especially with the United States.

That’s why we’ve taken the opportunity to dive deep on a nuanced issue that’s central to the U.S.-China relationship, now and into the future. Our new project, China vs. the World: Why the Battle for New Trade Status is Such a Huge Deal, explores how China’s approach to global trade over the past several decades has affected American commerce (for better and worse), and how something called “market economy status” could change the rules of the game as we know it.

In the latest move, U.S. Representatives Tim Murphy (R-PA) and Peter J. Visclosky (D-IN), the chairman and vice-chairman of the Congressional Steel Caucus, respectively, introduced a House resolution calling on the current Administration to take action on this very issue. But resolving the issue will likely be a longer battle.

While the mainstream media has taken advantage of reporting presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s numerous references to China and his blunt stance on how he intends to change our relationship with that country, MetalMiner’s journalists and editors set out to unpack the tangible drivers behind these types of general sentiments, with a particular focus on — and for — U.S. manufacturing organizations.

Among the highlights:

  • The most comprehensive — yet easily understandable — exploration of what “market economy status” (MES) entails, why China is pushing the U.S. and Europe to grant the country MES, and what that would mean for trade, available today.
  • Our explainer video provides a quick ‘101’ on the topic, and an interactive timeline explores how China got from the dawn of Mao to WTO entry to today, step by step.
  • Personal video perspectives from key players across several different industries illustrate the China effect on American jobs, workers and approaches to business.

We hope you’ll find this type of project and its presentation refreshing and informative. If you like it, please share it with your networks! We welcome and value your feedback, so please feel free to send us a note at research@metalminer.com.

Thank you for reading,

Taras Berezowsky
Managing Editor

There has been considerable concern in the U.S. and elsewhere that China’s exports of primary aluminum are damaging global prices. China would maintain that it imposes an export duty on primary aluminum explicitly to prevent the export of primary metal, largely seen as exporting energy due to the high power cost associated with producing each metric ton of the metal.

MetalMiner Price Benchmarking: Current and Historical Prices for the Metals You Buy

Many outside China believe a considerable amount of metal leaks out of the country in the nominal form of semi-finished products which avoid the export duty, and, indeed, attract a value-added tax refund, only to be subsequently remelted. Large volumes of exports from China make their way to Vietnam, and it is believed much of this material is remelted in the country before being sold.

The Impact of Chinese Aluminum

However, our concern in this article is not so much the impact of primary metal leakage, considerable as it may be, but rather the growing threat of Chinese value-add product manufacturers and the impact they are having on western firms that had previously had the field cornered for automotive and aerospace — to name but two high-tech applications for aluminum — applications.

Chinese material at the end of the last century was considered a joke in terms of quality, but over the first 10 years of this century the country has invested heavily in European and Japanese extrusion, rolling and heat treatment plants and equipment. By the beginning of this decade, Chinese extrusions and commercial sheet/plate were being given equivalence to material from many other sources such as Russia, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan and other locales.

Are aluminum slabs welded together really "deep-processed extrusions?"

Are aluminum slabs welded together really “deep-processed extrusions?”

Such material is still sold at a discount to European or North American semi-finished products, but its growing penetration and the willingness of major distributors to hold a proportion of their inventory as Chinese material, speaks volumes for its growing acceptance, particularly in terms of quality.

The Lucrative Automotive Market

Still, while China — and to a lesser extent mills in places like Malaysia, Turkey and other locales — gradually ate into western mills’ commodity products, those same western mills moved upstream, investing heavily to meet growing demand for automotive sheet and castings, aerospace sheet, plate and extrusions. Read more

There are conflicting messages out there.

MetalMiner Price Benchmarking: Current and Historical Prices for the Metals You Buy

Last month, Business Insider ran a piece saying “Recent movements in copper inventories highlight the lack of significant demand for the metal, particularly in the ever-important Chinese market.”

Shanghai Futures Exchange inventories are falling while, London Metal Exchange inventories are rising, suggesting metal is flowing out of Shanghai bonded warehouses into local Asian LME sheds. The contango has grown, allowing traders to store and hedge metal on the LME supporting the move but the fact that refined metal is flowing out China suggests industrial demand is weak. BMI calls the move a red flag and says it expects imports of refined metal to fall in the coming months.

Copper_Chart_September-2016_FNL

Copper supply in LME sheds might be up, but our copper MMI is down.

Yet, just last week, better-than-expected official industrial PMI numbers unexpectedly rose to the highest level since 2014, according to Bloomberg, resulting in a bounce in copper prices, share prices in Hong Kong  and London and a fall in bond prices.

What’s Up With Copper?

So, what does this mean for copper? Was the export surge a temporary phenomenon prompted by the market moving into contango? Or is this truly a sign of an underlying weakness in demand?

China imported a record amount of refined copper in the second half of 2015, partly fueled by a relaxation of credit controls and encouraged by Beijing’s stimulus plans. Domestic refined production also increased significantly, but refiners are now cutting back and appear well supplied with concentrate in what remains an oversupplied market. Read more

Will Europe’s more collaborative approach to stemming China’s steel exports to the region have more success than the U.S.’s downright combative use of anti-dumping legislation?

MetalMiner Price Benchmarking: Current and Historical Prices for the Metals You Buy

Both Europe and China are trying to portray this summer’s moves — to form a joint team to monitor bilateral steel trade data and to supervise China’s moves to address overcapacity — positively as the European Union engages China in a constructive dialogue rather than publicly berate the People’s Republic.

Steel mills creating Chinese steel overcapacity

No matter where China closes mills, there will be pain for those displaced as overcapacity is finally dealt with. But is any pace, at this point, fast enough? Or are import barriers the only remedy? Source: Adobe Stock/zjk.

Behind the scenes, the E.U. is every bit as desperate — arguably more desperate — than the U.S. to stem the flow of cheap steel imports. European steel producers are constantly berating their own governments — and particularly the E.U. — for not doing more to reduce the threat. At the recent G20 Summit, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker pressured China to address its steel overcapacity saying at a press conference in Hangzhou last week that the summit “must urgently find a solution to the problems facing the steel industry,”  according to the South China Morning Post.

G20 Frustration Over Steel Overcapacity

Juncker wasn’t finished. He went on to say China’s steel exports to the E.U. increased 28% in the first quarter while prices fell 31% in the same period. He said steel overcapacity in China was twice the output in the E.U. and this was “a serious problem” adding the European steel sector had lost 10,000 jobs in recent years. Read more