Ferrous Metals

The price you pay for your steel pretty much depends on two things:

  1. Prices in China, since they set the floor for international steel prices.
  2. How much of a premium U.S. mills are able to justify over that price.

 

Graphic: Raul de Frutos/MetalMiner.

Prices in China are moved by supply and demand dynamics. We’ve explained in previous posts that overall, things are setting up for Chinese prices to continue to trend higher. While demand has been better than expected, China met its 2016 capacity cuts goal and further cuts are expected to take place this year as the country tackles its pollution issues.

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However, in this post we’ll focus on the premium that U.S. customers pay. This price spread between U.S. and international prices is also very important and could make your purchases more expensive in the coming months.

Spread between HRC US and HRC China. Source: MetalMiner IndX.

Spreads have fallen sharply over the past few months. The spread between U.S. and Chinese hot-rolled coil (HRC) prices is now $97/ton. To put this in context, consider that this spread was $276/ton just seven months ago. Read more

By anyone’s reckoning, iron ore and coking coal had a stellar year in 2016. Driven by infrastructure investment and a robust construction market, Chinese imports of our iron ore could top 1 billion metric tons for the first time in 2016. Prices more than doubled in the space of 12 months and the supply-demand situation seemed to be largely in balance for much of the year.

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After topping $80 per mt in early December, prices eased back a little toward the end of the year prompting many to ask “have we seen the peak in iron ore prices?” Mills typically cut output during the quieter winter months when construction demand slows. Many steel mills have already curbed output due to chronic smog alerts across northern China.

Chinese Demand

Seasonally, it would not be unusual if iron ore prices remained subdued up to the Chinese New Year and then picked up in preparation for the peak production months of late spring and summer. But, while Chinese demand defied many expectations of a slowdown in 2016, the recent softening of both iron ore and coking coal raw material prices, and the price of some finished steel products over the last week or 10 days, has lent support to some analysts’ predictions that we could be seeing markedly lower Iron ore prices throughout this year and next. Read more

What will 2017 bring for the steel industry?

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At the beginning of the year, it’s always fun to look forward and pick out some of the themes for the year. 2016 was certainly volatile as hot-rolled coil pricing went from $360 a ton to $600/ton, then back to the low $400s/ton before recovering to $600/ton. Phew! Read more

Our Stainless MMI fell by two points in December after a mixed performance.

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On the one side, surcharges for 304 and 316 stainless steel rose by 34% and 25% respectively, as the chrome portion of the benchmark jumped month-on-month. The mill-announced price increase, combined with higher surcharges, marks the largest month-on-month increase seen in recent history.

On the other hand, nickel prices retraced in December on profit-taking across the industrial metals complex. Nickel prices are now at attractive levels wherein we could see investors pushing prices back up. That will depend on upcoming news that will either boost them or send prices lower. One thing is for sure: volatility is guaranteed in the weeks ahead.

Will Indonesia Relax its Export Ban?

Indonesia banned raw ore exports in 2014 to stop mineral wealth disappearing overseas. The country was the top supplier of nickel ore to China for use in (nickel pig-iron) stainless steel before the export ban. Indonesia hoped that the band would encourage smelter investment, but investments haven’t exactly progressed as quickly as expected.

In recent months, rumors are that the Indonesian government is relaxing its export ban. In October, Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s then-acting mining minister, said that Indonesia was reviewing its mining rules and that the country could could give companies up to five more years to build smelters, and reopen exports of nickel ore banned since 2014. However, soon after he was quoted saying Indonesia would “almost definitely” keep in place a ban on nickel ore and bauxite exports. Which is it?

Many smelters were hoping that they could temporarily export ore to raise funds for downstream investment. Nobody knows what Indonesian’s final decision will be, but the consensus in the market now seems to be shifting towards Indonesia permitting some exports. This fear might explain why nickel prices haven’t really picked up like metals such as zinc or tin.

Others think that there won’t be any relaxation of exports of nickel ore and bauxite. Investors have already spent billions of dollars on smelters in Indonesia. Easing the ban would risk risk flooding the overseas market and undermining prices. Those investors wouldn’t be very happy about that, as it would contradict promises by the nation’s president.

I personally think it would be an unwise move to ease the ban but any outcome is still possible. Stainless buyers need to keep in mind that a relaxation of the ban could put downward pressure on nickel prices while Indonesia keeping the ban in place would have the opposite effect.

Filipino supply

When Indonesia introduced the ban in 2014, the Philippines ramped up production to fill the gap, but the country’s mining industry is now facing a raft of closures for environmental reasons. The Philippines and the still relatively new Duterte administration have already halted the operation of 10 mines and another 20 face suspension.

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Before the month ends, the country is expected to determine which of these 20 mines will be suspended. Last month, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez was confident that more mines will be suspended.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

Nickel prices fell in December but remember that the overall sentiment in the metals complex is still bullish. If Indonesia keeps its export ban in place and The Philippines suspend more mines, investors will significantly lift prices from current levels.

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Our Raw Steels MMI fell by two points, dragged down by a sharp drop in coking coal prices. Chinese coking coal prices have been quite volatile over the past few months. But despite the recent decline, prices are still well above last year’s levels.

On the bullish side, we saw a big increase in steel flat product prices, both domestically and internationally.

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Hot-rolled coil and cold-rolled coil prices in the U.S. have risen 13% and 17% respectively since they hit bottom in mid-November.

Additionally, steel prices in China continued to climb in December. We already noted, that one of the reasons to expect higher steel prices in the U.S. was rising Chinese prices. Prices in China set the floor for international prices and the spread between U.S. and international steel prices has narrowed so much in some steel product categories, like HRC, that there isn’t much incentive for domestic steel buyers to look for import offers.

While prices in China have risen, Chinese steel exports have fallen, suggesting that the country is absorbing more steel. In November, Chinese steel exports fell 16% compared to last year. For the first eleven months, exports are down 1% compared to the corresponding period in 2015.

The real estate sector is among the world’s largest steel consumers. Total investment in real estate in China during the first eleven months of 2016 rose 6.5% compared to the same period of last year. China’s passenger car sales rose 17.2% compared to the same month last year and it’s the seventh consecutive month were car sales rise in the double digits.

China’s Steel Supply to Fall In 2017

While China’s better-than-expected demand was a key driver to higher steel prices in 2016, we believe that China’s supply might be the key to higher steel prices in 2017.

For years, Chinese cities have been choking on the smog spewing from China’s industrial production sector, but things have gotten much worse lately. In December, authorities asked 23 cities in northern China to issue red alerts as inspection teams scoured the country. The scale of the red alert measures shows that the Chinese government is taking air pollution seriously this time.

China’s energy consumption is mostly driven by its industry sector, the majority of which comes from coal consumption. Coal burning is the biggest contributor to air pollution in China. One of the principal users of coal, and therefore most polluting, is its steel industry.

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China has previously applied stricter anti-pollution rules and supply-side reforms designed to cut capacity in the coal and steel sectors, which helped push prices up. Now that the situation is getting unbearable for citizens, China has no choice but to get tough in its self-declared “war on pollution.” The result is that we could see significant supply disruptions in China’s metal production sector, particularly in steel.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

The expected boost in infrastructure spending in US will help support steel prices. However, the main driver to steel prices continues to be China. In 2017, steels buyers need to monitor if China is able to spur demand growth rates and whether its steel supply falls amid pollution issues.

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You probably wouldn’t be the first to nominate the Daily Mail or its owner, the Daily Mail and General Trust, for an award for cutting edge journalism but a recent article from Daily Mail Australia certainly grabs your attention.

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It underlines why China has such an intractable problem with pollution. It also suggests how Chinese steel mills are managing to have such a disruptive effect on global steel prices apparently bereft as they are of the legislation imposed on the rest of the world.

Unlicensed Steel Mills

In a series of graphic photographs (please click through to the link above, MetalMiner cannot republish the photos due to copyright) the paper illustrates the appalling state of many private steel plants on the fringes of the Chinese steelmaking industry. Certainly, the industry is dominated by major state enterprises, but it is also riddled with hundreds of smaller steel plants operating almost entirely outside the law.

Paying little more than bribes to buy off investigating officials, these mills not only ignore worker’s rights and safety but compliance with air and soil pollution legislation is non-existent. When you pay peanuts, ignore environmental requirements (and hence costs) and operate on the fringe the dividing line between profit and loss is blurred. These mills not only pollute the environment not just to the detriment of their workers and the local community, they also, when it suits them, dump excess capacity both domestically and for export.

The photos, taken by photojournalist Kevin Frayer in an arid region in the country’s north called Inner Mongolia show images of steel mills we have not seen in the west since the days of Charles Dickens.

Not surprisingly, after several years of a “war on pollution” Beijing was again suffering from a yellow smog alert recently with hundreds of flights cancelled and highways closed across northern China as average concentrations of small breathable particles known as PM 2.5 soared about 500 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing and surrounding regions, according to Reuters.

Shadow Steel Industry

Although Beijing has taken strenuous measures to control emissions with so much energy produced from coal and so many industries still failing to meet environmental standards, it’s no surprise progress is slow. While China is the world’s biggest polluter it is also, to its credit, a global leader in establishing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Yet, as these photographs show, a great deal more needs to be done. Until Beijing cleans up the production side of the equation, no amount of new renewable energy technology is going to solve the problem.

U.S. auto sales set a new record in 2016. Automakers sold 17.55 million vehicles last year, as sales continued at a hot pace in December and topped analysts’ expectations.

Automakers eclipsed the record year of 2015 by some 70,000 vehicles or 0.4%, according to tracking firm Autodata Corp. Light truck sales totaled 59.5% of all sales last year, with cars representing 40.5% of the record. A year ago those percentages were 55.8% to 44.2% and each were about half just a few years ago.

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Another new sales record looked like a longshot just a few months ago, but a strong holiday sales period helped U.S. automakers forge ahead. Our Automotive MMI increased a point last month closing out a strong year.

Automotive metals are not just seeing robust demand from U.S. consumers. Automotive purchases in China are helping the strong economic recovery there, too. Sustainable growth in the world’s largest consumer of commodities is a bullish trend for all industrial metals and automotive alloys are no exception.

Ford Motor Company‘s recent decision to reinvest in a plant in Michigan rather than open a planned facility in Mexico may be the first salvo in an automotive trade war that has long been promised by President-elect Donald Trump.

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China will impose higher power costs for steel mills operating outdated production equipment, the country’s economic planner said in a statement on Tuesday.

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The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) ordered utilities to raise power prices by 0.5 yuan ($0.0719) per kilowatt-hour on top of current prices for steel mills preserving equipment that ought to be eliminated.

AISI Hires Tax and Trade Policy Director

The American Iron and Steel Institute today announced the appointment of Raphael Goodstein as director of tax and trade policy.

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Goodstein has 15 years of Congressional and government affairs experience, including 10 years representing the common policy interests of the domestic auto industry as legislative director with the American Automotive Policy Council. He has also worked on Capitol Hill, for Senator Debbie Stabenow, and for a number of political and public affairs organizations.

In this most-read post of 2016, we look back at the steel scrap market on May 3, 2016. Steel-Insight‘s James May argued that, while North American scrap prices were up, they couldn’t stay up long.

The steel scrap market (and raw steels overall) would not fully recover until Fall. — Jeff Yoders, editor

U.S. shredded scrap prices started 2015 at $350 per long ton delivered to Midwest steel mills.

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Barring a very brief rally in June, the price fell every month over the year and dropped to $170/long ton in December. Indeed, if we look at the chart, U.S. ferrous scrap prices have been in a downtrend since late 2013.

U.S. Shredded Scrap Prices ($/long ton delivered US Midwest Mill)

steel_insight_scrap_300_050116

Source: Steel-Insight.

When prices fall every month, scrap yards and steel mills reduce their purchases to the bare minimum as they expect to be able to procure material at a lower price the very next month. Read more

China took action yesterday and filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the U.S. and Europe for not automatically granting China Market Economy Status.

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In fact, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker went on record specifically stating that the U.S. would not be granting China such status.

The granting of market economy status, of course, would make it harder for domestic companies to prove dumping against China. It all comes down to how price comparison data is calculated.

GOES_Chart_December_2016_FNL

According to Tim Brightbill, an attorney at Wiley Rein LLP, “essentially the only thing that would force the Commerce Department to formally confront the China/MES question is a trade lawsuit filed by China, or implicating China, in which the latter would be explicitly able to make that type of request.”

Alhough Europe appeared to be teetering with its decision not to provide MES, Japan also sided with the U.S. and denied China MES.

Why This Matters to GOES Markets

GOES has been the subject of international trade dumping cases for the past several years. The real challenge to MES will be the first trade case filed by any domestic industry against China. GOES will unlikely serve as that test case.

For readers interested in how China sees this issue (and uses the word protectionism to make its case), this post provides a good example.

We remind readers that MetalMiner is a banned publication within China because of all of our subversive anti-China rhetoric.

On that note, GOES industry observers should take note of a steel mega-merger within China. China’s Baoshan Iron & Steel (Baosteel) and Wuhan Iron and Steel Corp. (WISCO) have formed China Baowu Steel Group with a whopping 60 million metric tons of capacity (that is more than half of the entire U.S. steel-making capacity).

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The combined firm has publicly stated it would cut 16.6 million mt of capacity by 2018 to address the country’s over capacity concerns.

Baosteel is also major producer of GOES within China.

Grain-Oriented Electrical Steel M3 prices lost nearly all of last month’s gains dropping by nearly 3%.

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