China

Nickel prices are, finally, on the move.

Owners of shares in nickel mines shouldn’t start popping the champagne corks just yet, it’s going to be a slow burn rise but the landscape appears to be shifting and it is because of, as usual, China. First and foremost, there is a trend among stainless producers this year, particularly in China, to produce more 300 series nickel-bearing grades than last year.

Real Demand is Up

Just as mills and consumers shifted wholesale from 300 to 400 series grades when nickel prices went through the roof in 2010-11, a prolonged period of falling prices has encouraged consumers and designers to switch back to higher-quality grades.

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Macquarie Bank is quoted by Reuters saying global nickel demand will grow by 4.4% this year, largely on the back of a predicted 4% rise in Chinese 300 series stainless production. Likewise, the INSG estimates the global market will fall into a small 600-ton deficit in Q1 of this year, although it must be said the market remains well supplied by huge global stocks. Read more

Anyone looking at the seaborne Asian Iron ore market? A cursory glance at China’s iron ore market and one has to ask, “what’s going on?”

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Iron ore prices have been on a roller coaster this year, yet reports abound of excess iron ore supply, excess steel production, excess steel capacity and falling property prices and, by extension, excess appetite for construction steel.

There is still mine oversupply. Source: Adobe Stock/nikitos77.

There is still mine oversupply. Source: Adobe Stock/nikitos77.

This week, reports of rising port stocks, up 1.6% to 100.45 million metric tons or five weeks of supply should have depressed prices, but the prevailing mood among traders seems to be one of cautious optimism that iron ore consumption and, hence, steel production will continue strongly this year, so much so that iron ore prices actually rose 2.7% to $54.98 per mt late last week. Read more

The scrapping of rare earths export quotas late last year resulted in soaring exports from China which produced 84% of total world rare earths output of 124,000 metric tons, but prices have fallen to multiyear lows in 2016 in response to low demand and oversupply.

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Oxide shipments more than doubled in Q1 2016 at 11,956 mt. March was the second best month on record. That was despite expectations that exports were expected to drop off dramatically this year after December when cargoes hit a record high of nearly 5,000 mt as users built up inventories ahead of the Chinese new year.

Exports Up, Demand Down

Exports of dysprosium surged five-fold while neodymium shipments jumped more than 300%. The Chinese government plans to complete the consolidation of its rare earth industry under six large state-owned firms — Chinalco, Northern Rare Earth, Xiamen Tungsten, China Minmetals, Southern Rare Earth and Guangdong Rare Earth — by the end of June, deputy industry and information technology minister Xin Guobin said.

Free Download: The May 2016 MMI Report

Much of the expected consolidation in China was slowed in the first two quarters by the weak market and stimulus at home that has led miners and domestic producers of smartphones and cars to increase production despite demand not moving much at all. If rare earths are to make a comeback in the second half of the year, actual end user demand will have to increase independent of government stimulus.

Last week, we briefly covered the decision by European Union lawmakers to vote against the application by China to be considered a market economy, a recognition China says it is due automatically by December following an agreement in 2001 set to mature this year.

We also published an in-depth look at what China market economy status would mean for U.S./E.U relationship with China.

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The European Parliament’s decision was overwhelming, 546 votes in favor and only 28 against, with 77 abstentions so, while the vote is non-binding, it raises the stakes for the European Commission, which will decide shortly whether China deserves to have its status upgraded.

Terrible Timing For Europe

For both sides the debate is at the wrong time. Europe’s steel industry is being decimated by cheap imports from China, raising the stakes for politicians otherwise inclined toward a more free-market approach. The British, in particular, find themselves (not for the first time) somewhat isolated in wanting more open engagement even though their domestic steel industry has been hit harder than most.

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

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

In reality, the decision is much more political than practical. Market economy status matters when it comes to deciding whether a country is “dumping,” exporting goods at below cost price. Nations deemed to be market economies can resist anti-dumping measures if they can show that domestic prices are no higher than the price at which goods are sold overseas. Read more

US Steel plant in Granite City wide

The U.S. Steel Granite City Works captured by Google Street View in September, 2014 — a year and two months before the latest idling of the mill.

Dan Simmons has seen a lot during the 38 years he’s worked at U.S. Steel’s Granite City Works in Illinois, just outside St. Louis.

From starting out as a general laborer, to swinging hammers on the track gang, to “feeling like Mr. Haney from Green Acres” while trucking around the mill, Simmons took it all in. There were days “you were whistling when you came in, and whistling when you left,” he said.

But nothing compares to what he’s seeing now.

“I have grown men coming into my office, crying,” said Simmons. “You see the pain, the ‘what ifs,’ the blank stares…”

Simmons, who just turned 56, is now the president of the United Steelworkers Local 1899, and some of the grown men coming to him are pipefitters just like he had become during his long tenure, which began in 1978.

However, those men and women aren’t coming to him because they’ve been hurt on the job. They are coming to plead for help, because they have lost their jobs, and in many cases still don’t know when they’ll land their next one.

Cyclicality in steel production is nothing new, but it wasn’t until 2008 — when the global markets began crashing — that USS Granite City Works endured its first indefinite idling in its history.

“We had the unemployment office cycling 400 people through at a time,” Simmons told MetalMiner. “The biggest fear is not knowing. If I could have given them a definitive timeframe, they would’ve said, ‘OK, I can handle that.’ But after two to three months, people come to me and don’t know what to do with themselves.”

And now, after the mill went idle a second time in December 2015, some of those workers have been without a job for nearly half a year. Last December, 1,500 people were laid off — 75% of the mill’s total workforce. Across the country, a total of 13,500 steel workers have been laid off over the past year.

Simmons knows what it’s like to feel that fear firsthand. “I got a brother that works here, a brother-in-law that works here, so it’s personal. You worry about where your whole family will be.”

So what’s different today, compared to 2008?

For Simmons and scores of others in the country’s steel sector and other manufacturing industries, much of the pain can be traced back to one main source: China.

A History of Unfair Trade?

The world may have never encountered a more crucial Year of the Monkey than 2016.

That is, at least as far as global trade between China and the Western world is concerned. At the end of this year, China believes it ought to receive Market Economy Status (MES). This would allow China to enjoy the same market status as the U.S. and European Union when it comes to anti-dumping investigations before the World Trade Organization.

In its quest to grow its economy over the past two decades, China has become the leading producer — by far — of steel, aluminum, cement and other industrial materials. Read more

CME Group recently said it will expand its base metals offering with the introduction of a new Aluminum A380 Alloy (S&P Global Platts) futures contract to begin trading on June 6.

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Pending relevant regulatory review periods, the new contract will be available for trading on CME Globex, for submission for clearing through CME ClearPort, and will be listed with and subject to the rules and regulations of COMEX.

“This new contract will provide our customers and market participants with an effective and transparent solution for hedging aluminum alloy price risk,” said Young-Jin Chang, CME Group Executive Director of Metals Products. “Aluminum A380 Alloy futures will complement our diverse suite of physically delivered and financially settled aluminum futures and responds to commercial customer demand for a North American exchange-cleared hedging tool for managing their aluminum alloy risk.”

China Admits Steel Overcapacity’s Not Falling

Massive overcapacity in China’s bloated steel industry is not yet falling, but protectionism is not the solution for problems facing the global steel industry, the country’s vice minister for industry said on Monday.

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China is facing understandable anger and calls for trade penalties to block its exports from steel producers around the world, who say it is dumping cheap exports after a slowdown in demand at home.

European lawmakers overwhelmingly voted against the European Union recognizing China as a market economy later this year, a nonbinding move that emphasizes political resistance to a further opening of the bloc’s economy to Beijing.

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Beijing has taken a policy stand saying that a 2001 agreement allowing it to join the World Trade Organization means it should receive market-economy status by December 2016. Such recognition would make it harder for the bloc to protect its industries from unfair trading practices by Beijing.

European industries, however, say Beijing uses government subsidies to boost exports and undercut overseas competition. They say China’s economy is still controlled by the state, and governments must consider that when weighing up whether to award it market status.

Free Download: The May 2016 MMI Report

Thursday’s resolution said that unless China fulfilled the criteria to be a market economy its exports to the EU must be treated in a “nonstandard” way. It passed with 546 votes in favor, 28 against and 77 abstentions.

Chinese regulators remain adamant about keeping commodities from becoming speculative casinos there and Glencore is attempting to sell one of its biggest gold mines while prices are still high.

Chinese Regulators Tamp Down Speculation

Chinese regulators appear to have successfully popped a mini-bubble for now in steel and other commodity futures, scaring off speculators who piled in last month to drive steep gains in the prices of raw materials from coal to cotton.

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China has vowed that it won’t allow its commodity futures markets to become a hot-bed for speculators, fearing that price movements not based on fundamentals could skew investment decisions and hamper efforts to rein in overcapacity, Reuters reported.

Glencore Looks to Sell Mine

Mining company Glencore  is considering selling its Vasilkovskoye gold mine in Kazakhstan, sources close to the deal said on Tuesday, confirming an earlier report in the Financial Times. The sources said the assets were worth more than $2 billion. “A sale is one of the options,” one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Free Download: The April 2016 MMI Report

The sale of Glencore’s 70% stake in the mine would help the company pare down its near-$26 billion net debt load.

The top steel executives in the U.S. called the fight against cheap steel imports a “war” in the American Iron & Steel Institute‘s annual press conference at its general meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. The picture they painted was bleak.

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Domestic steel capacity utilization averaged just 70% in 2015. It’s still only at 71.3% capacity utilization for Q1 of this year. They also said 13,000 steel jobs have been lost in the past year. All pointed the finger at global overcapacity.

Crisis Level

“Global overcapacity has been a problem for a long time but, today, it is a crisis,” said John Ferriola, chairman, president and CEO of Nucor Corporation and the newly elected chairman of the AISI for 2016. “This overcapacity, combined with declining demand from countries like China is fueling continued high levels of dumped and subsidized imports into the U.S. market. China has subsidized the growth of its steel industry through grants, low-interest loans, free land, low-priced energy and other raw material inputs. Simply stated, the Chinese government is a company disguised as a country and they are waging economic war on the United States.”

steelexecs

Executives from major North American steel companies addressed the media at the general meeting of the American Iron & Steel Institute in Salt Lake City. Source: Jeff Yoders/MetalMiner.

Thomas J. Gibson, president and CEO of AISI, called upon other steel making nations to take action to eliminate global steel overcapacity. Gibson also said the U.S. government should vigorously enforce trade laws to fight against the dumping of cheaper steel products and the implementation of market-distorting policies and practices by other steel producing nations, particularly China.

China’s Still a Non-Market Economy

The executives also said that China must continue to be treated as a non-market economy for anti-dumping purposes according to the World Trade Organization. Read more

China has a dilemma.

On the one hand, popular protests due to increasing levels of pollution are an expression of growing unrest among China’s rising middle classes, all conscious of environmental issues.

Too Much Pollution

Pollution is a source of international shame that has prompted Beijing to take the drastic steps of closing down coal-fired power generation and coal-consuming heavy industry around cities hosting major events such as the Olympic games and flower festivals, so that the People’s Republic can show a clean face to the world.

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On the other hand, that same coal is mined by some 5 million coal workers who have already come onto the streets to protest loudly and publicly about proposed rationalization in the industry and Beijing is nothing if not sensitive to public protest.

Could 2015 be the beginning of the end for coal-fired power in the US? Source: Adobe Stock/Snap Happy

Coal-fired power continues to dominate Chinese power  generation. Source: Adobe Stock/Snap Happy

So, what to do? close coal mines and coal-fired power stations or keep them open and suffer the atmospheric pollution and health hazards that involves?

Pollution Exports

The answer, as with so much else in China, is export it so it’s someone else’s problem. In this case, the policy appears to have been to export the pollution and hence the problem westwards and centrally to less-affluent and less-populated areas.

According to the Financial Times, pollution has decreased in Beijing and Shanghai while it has increased in the interior. Beijing’s smog has been lifting, the average concentration fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) is down 28% year-on-year in the first three months of this year. Read more