Steel

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Imports of steel and aluminum are under the spotlight these days, as the Trump administration in April opened Section 232 investigations into the metals to determine if they posed threats to national security.

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According to a recent report from the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), steel imports were up by 2.5% in May. According to the report, collected from U.S. Census Bureau data, the U.S. imported a total of 3,434,000 net tons (NT) of steel in May 2017, including 2,574,000 NT of finished steel — up 2.5% and 1.8%, respectively, compared with final data for April.

Comparing the first five months of the year with the same time frame in 2016, total imports jumped by 14.4%.

The top five countries sending the most steel to the U.S., in descending order, in May were: South Korea (329,000 NT), Turkey (154,000 NT), Germany (142,000 NT), Japan (127,000 NT) and India (86,000 NT). South Korea was also the biggest supplier in the year to date, despite export totals to the U.S. being down 3% from the same period in 2016. Japan (8%) and Germany (1%) also posted declines in their year-to-date export totals to the U.S. compared with 2016.

However, Turkey and Taiwan posted major increases. Steel imports from Taiwan saw a 67% leap compared with January-May 2016.

Meanwhile, domestically, the AISI’s monthly steel report noted domestic raw steel production was as estimated 1,729,000 new tons for the week ending June 24, good for a capability utilization rate of 74.2% (compared with 75.1% for the same week in 2016).

Zooming out a bit, year-to-date production is actually up compared with the same point last year, up by 2.3%. So far this year, there has been a capability utilization rate of 74.4%, up from the 72.6% rate to the same point last year.

Of course, the country that is at the center of the 232 investigations has not even yet been mentioned here: China.

The Trump administration launched investigations using Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, a little-used clause that gives the president authority to act if certain imports are deemed threats to the country’s national security. The last 232 investigation took place in 2001.

But as the recent Department of Commerce hearings regarding the steel and aluminum investigations — held May 24 and June 22, respectively — indicate, China is the main focus of the Trump administration, and the domestic steel and aluminum industries. Among other concerns, the U.S. says Chinese excess capacity has flooded the markets worldwide with cheap products subsidized by the Chinese government, making it difficult for U.S. producers to compete.

According to Section 232, the Secretary of Commerce has 270 days from an investigation’s announcement to provide the president with a formal report and recommendations. That 270-day mark is well down the road, but many reports have indicated the administration could be close to announcing its verdict in the two cases. While uncertainty is the only certain thing these days, many expect the administration to act by imposing tariffs, quotas, or a combination of the two against China.

Potential Blowback From Tariffs?

What effect will the imposition of tariffs have? Well, it might have some unintended consequences, namely negatively affecting trading partners like Canada and the European Union. In fact, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said Monday the 28-member bloc is preparing for retaliatory measures if the EU is unfairly impacted by prospective trade tariffs from the U.S. In other words, a series of trade wars could happen on numerous fronts.

As is often the case, this is not a situation of U.S. versus China — far from it. Many other nations, including those considered friendly to the U.S. and considered market economies, are caught in the web of the forthcoming 232 verdicts. The aforementioned top exporters — South Korea, Turkey, Germany, India and Japan — could also be affected by Section 232-related trade policy readjustments.

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Based on President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, both on the campaign trail and as president, it seems likely that tariffs or quotes are forthcoming — but, of course, they’re no sure thing. Less clear is what exactly would happen in the aftermath of the institution of tariffs or quotas.

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This morning in metals news, the global metal fabrication robot market is set to grow a great deal in the next four years, congressmen are asking President Donald Trump to limit the scope of any potential aluminum tariffs (stemming from the administration’s Section 232 investigation) and the president is reportedly growing increasingly frustrated with China, which could lead to — as many expect — steel tariffs.

Metal Fabrication Robot Market to Grow by CAGR of 18.51%

The global metal fabrication robot market is going to grow in a big way in the coming four years, according to a report from Research and Markets.

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There is an “increase in focus by vendors to improve manipulation, navigation, cognition, and perception of metal fabrication robots,” the report states. From 2017-2021, the market is expected to grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.51%.

There is growing interest from manufacturers for robot manufacturing technology. According to the report, purchasing managers around the world are looking to buy from metal fabricators which can keep prices low, even during economic downturns.

Of course, this isn’t great news for human beings who hold these manufacturing jobs, but automation is not going anywhere, whether on the manufacturing side or the usage side (for example: driverless, automated vehicles).

Congressmen Hope Trump Can Be Flexible on Aluminum

As the domestic steel and aluminum industries — and their counterparts around the globe — await the announcement of the administration’s Section 232 investigation findings, some congressmen are asking the president to limit the scope of any proposed punitive measures on aluminum imports.

According to letters obtained by Bloomberg, several congressmen have written to the administration to state their concerns about the potential effects of tariffs on aluminum imports. In letters addressed to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Defense Secretary James Mattis, the legislators argue that tariffs could increase costs for consumers and industrial users of aluminum.

One letter, signed by 44 members of the House, indicated a hope for the scope of the 232 ruling to be limited to “only products that are used for national security applications.”

Whether that will end up being the case remains to be seen. In recent weeks, other countries have expressed concern about the impending 232 rulings, particularly the European Union. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström even said that tariffs will adversely affect the EU producers, and that the EU is considering options for retaliatory measures. Now, even U.S. aluminum companies are expressing concern about rising prices and potential supply-chain disruptions.

Politics, Steel Converge As Trump Administration Prepares for 232 Announcements

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that Trump is growing “increasingly frustrated” over what he perceives as China’s inaction with respect to North Korea.

That political football could find its way into the arena of commerce, as Trump is considering trade remedies against China, according to officials. According to the Bloomberg report, Trump is considering a “range of actions,” including tariffs on steel, a well-publicized option which was already on the table as part of the Section 232 investigation launched in April.

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Like with aluminum, it’s unclear exactly what the Trump administration will do, even if Trump’s rhetoric indicates tariffs are on the way.

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This morning in metals news: copper slides slightly but is still near its recent 11-week high; shares of a U.S.-based aluminum company fell after a Reuters report that the company knowingly supplied flammable panels for use in Grenfell Tower and the European Union is considering retaliatory measures if the U.S. places tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

Copper Hovers Near 11-Week High

Copper fell on Monday but still hung around its previous 11-week high, Reuters reported, hanging tough amid good news about Chinese demand and potential supply shortages.

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On Friday, LME copper reached its highest price since April 7. According to a report cited by Reuters, a seasonal rise in electricity usage in China is likely to contribute to a rise in demand for the metal.

Arconic Shares Fall After Report Linking Company’s Products to Grenfell

On the heels of the deadly June 14 fire at Grenfell Tower in London, metal company Arconic‘s shares are falling after a report indicated the company knowingly provided flammable panels for use in the tower.

According to a Reuters report, emails sent to and from an Arconic sales manager include questions about why the company provided combustible cladding material for use in the building of the tower.

Arconic argued that while it knew the panels would be used for construction of the tower, it was not its role to decide what materials are or aren’t compliant with building codes, the Reuters report says.

Shares of Arconic dropped 6% early Monday, CNBC reported.

EU Considers Response to Potential U.S. Tariffs

While China is the primary target of the U.S.’s Section 232 investigations into steel and aluminum imports, other countries are preparing for the effects of potential U.S. tariffs.

EU nations are among those concerned about a trade policy readjustment from the Trump administration.

Cecilia Malmström, EU trade commissioner, said the bloc was “making preparations” to respond to the imposition of U.S. tariffs, USA Today reported. She added U.S. tariffs would “unjustifiably hit” EU nations.

The Trump administration launched the investigations in April. The U.S. Department of Commerce held public hearings on the subjects of steel and aluminum imports May 24 and June 22, respectively.

Chinese excess capacity has been the main talking point for U.S. producers, who argue that China is flooding the market with the metals and leading to depression of prices and, as a result, job losses and plant closures in the U.S.

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The trade commissioner also said the EU would study any actions by the Trump administration to determine if they are in line with World Trade Association rules.

In the week when the world pensively awaits the U.S.’s Section 232 judgement — a move promised by President Donald Trump during his election campaign and aimed largely at China — a recent Reuters report on Chinese steel exports makes interesting reading.

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Source: Reuters

China’s steel exports have been sliding for months.

According to Reuters, China’s January-May export total was 34.2 million tons, down 26% from last year’s equivalent period and the lowest level since 2014. The year drop in export tonnage amounted to 12.1 million tons — roughly equivalent to Canada’s production over a full 12-month period, Reuters reported.

Yet bizarrely enough, China produced 72.78 million tons of steel in April, an all-time record Reuters says. The following month, China tallied the second-highest monthly total at 72.26 million tons.

Meanwhile, profits on products like steel rebar have surged to $162 dollars per ton this month, as inventory levels have fallen and demand has remained robust (particularly from the construction sector). Investment in real estate is running at an annual growth rate over 6%, Reuters reports. Although there are fears of overheating in some regions, real estate has been stronger for longer than analysts outside the market expected.

As we noted in a piece yesterday reviewing the 232 probe, China’s share of the U.S. import market for steel products has been falling for the last couple of years, mainly due to successful anti-dumping cases. China no longer appears even in the top 10.

So, what exactly is going on in China with respect to steel production and demand? Can we take it that Beijing’s actions to tackle excess steel production have finally resolved China’s deflationary impact on global steel markets?

First, Reuters notes that China has been quite successful in permanently closing previously shuttered steel plants, as well as in in tackling older and more environmentally damaging mills. Those actions combined has resulted in the removal of some 100 million tons of capacity.

In addition, Beijing’s focus on environmental issues has hastened the closure of induction furnaces, which use scrap rather than iron ore as their input and are often labelled as producers of sub-standard products (and, hence, unapproved). Unapproved equates to illegal by Beijing — as such, their production and their closures does not figure in the normal statistics. A significant proportion of China’s rebar production came from these mills, which explains the record profits being earned by surviving state-owned manufacturers of the same products as they capitalize on the removal of these scrappy competitors.

Unfortunately, nobody expects China’s construction market to continue at the current pace and a slowdown is in the forecast for the second half of the year.  Replenishment of low inventory levels will maintain steel mill production runs for a while, but as Reuters notes, China’s mills have a notoriously poor record in adjusting output to demand. So, we should expect that as demand eases, inventorying levels will rise, prices will fall, and access production may well begin to leak through exports onto the international market.

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While America’s anti-dumping legislation will largely protect that market from Chinese material, the rest of the world may find itself under pressure next year from greater availability of Chinese steel at falling prices, further fueling an already rising tide of protectionist sentiment in both developed and emerging markets.

A magnifying glass is on steel, particularly Chinese steel.

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The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Section 232 steel and stainless steel investigation appears to be under the watchful eye of European leaders.

In that vein, newly released Chinese data has not gone unnoticed.

Read more

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This morning in metals news, the biggest aluminum smelter in China is cutting back on outdated capacity, New York State’s governor and legislative leaders announced a “Buy American” deal for state purchases of iron and steel, and the European Union’s trade commissioner says the European bloc “will have to respond” if President Donald Trump imposes trade tariffs on steel imports from China, the EU and other nations.

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China Targets Aluminum Capacity

China Hongqiao Group Ltd. will be cutting back on outdated aluminum capacity, Bloomberg reported.

The cutback comes at the same time as the Chinese government focuses on illegal production, according to the report.

Chinese overcapacity is a main talking point for metals producers around the world, especially in the U.S. A Department of Commerce hearing on the government’s Section 232 investigation of aluminum imports is scheduled for 9 a.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, June 22.

Analysts expect further Chinese aluminum production cutbacks throughout the year.

N.Y. Pledges to ‘Buy American’

As the U.S. aluminum and steel industries await the Department of Commerce’s Section 232 investigation findings, New York politicians agreed on a proposal for buying American iron and steel.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders announced a “Buy American” agreement, which calls for the use of American iron and steel for some state road and bridge projects, Newsday reported.

According to the report, the proposal gives preference to American producers for iron and steel contracts worth more than $1 million.

Although the proposal is a scaled-down version of the initial bill — the result of objections from neighboring Canada — the bill fits well in a climate dominated by talk about the potential outcomes and ramifications of the Section 232 investigation.

European Union Strikes Back?

As the U.S. Department of Commerce gets set to announce the findings and recommendations of its Section 232 investigations, trading partners abroad are keeping tabs on the process.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said the EU “will need to respond” if President Donald Trump places tariffs on steel from the EU (and other nations), POLITICO reported.

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She mentioned Chinese overcapacity and market distortions as sources of the U.S.’s concerns about steel imports. Even if tariffs applied to Chinese steel don’t directly affect EU nations, Malmström said they will still be hit “very hard.”

In an increasingly interconnected world, rarely does a trade policy targeting one country — whether formally or in spirit — only affect that country. As the U.S. is expected to take aim at China with any trade policy readjustments that come as a result of the Section 232 investigation, other nations could very well be affected.

The findings of the 232 investigation are expected to be announced in the near future. Thursday morning’s Department of Commerce hearing on aluminum should shed additional light on the government’s thinking.

The landmark North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect 23 years ago — unsurprisingly, many in the metals industry are eyeing reforms to modernize the long-standing agreement signed by the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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In late April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order focusing on trade-agreement violations and abuses, directing the Department of Commerce and the United States trade representative (USTR) to study the U.S.’s free-trade agreements. One month ago, the office of the USTR notified Congress of the administration’s intention to renegotiate NAFTA.

In recent months, Trump has indicated he is willing to terminate the agreement if renegotiation efforts don’t go anywhere. In April, the president said he was “psyched” to terminate the deal, but ultimately had a change of heart after speaking with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, per media reports.

That came three months after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), negotiated by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

When will renegotiation actually happen? The timeline isn’t clear. On Monday, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told reporters renegotiation might not happen until next year.

As uncertainty clouds NAFTA’s future, domestic metals organizations have weighed in on the ways in which they believe the 23-year-old agreement can be improved.

Metal Industry Hopes to Keep Positives, Target Problem Areas

Players in the metals industry have spoken out about how they want to see 23-year-old trilateral trade agreement modified for this new age.

In a filing June 12, The Aluminum Association, addressing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, urged that NAFTA should be renegotiated in a way that modernizes it without compromising the benefits of the original agreement.

In the letter to Lighthizer, The Aluminum Association underscored three ways to strengthen the agreement:

  • Improving and strengthening customs procedures and cooperation to facilitate the movement of aluminum and aluminum products among the United States, Canada, and Mexico
  • Working with the Canadian and Mexican governments to ensure that “NAFTA preferences are available only to aluminum articles that truly originate in the territory of a NAFTA party” and that “unscrupulous producers and exporters operating outside the NAFTA region are not improperly claiming preferential treatment under NAFTA by either making fraudulent country of origin claims or incorrectly classifying the article at issue”
  • Negotiating common disciplines on the operations of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which “often benefit from favorable government policies and subsidies that create significant market distortions”

Regarding the third point, the release specifically zeroed in on China, noting “massive overcapacity” encourages unfair trading practices.

In addition to the aluminum industry, steel groups are weighing in on a potential NAFTA face-lift.

The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), like The Aluminum Association, stressed in a letter to Edward Gresser, chair of the Trade Policy Staff Committee, that NAFTA has yielded “significant benefits” but could be modernized after nearly a quarter of a century since its passage.

NAFTA has been critical to the steel industry, as 90% of all U.S. steel mill product exports went to Canada or Mexico in 2016, according to the June 12 AISI letter.

U.S. steel exports to Canada and Mexico grew rapidly following the passage of NAFTA. Source: American Iron and Steel Institute

Like The Aluminum Association, the AISI cited rules-of-origin issues, global overcapacity and conduct of SOEs as issues needing assessment in a revamped agreement.

In addition, currency manipulation was a point of emphasis.

“Currency manipulation makes exports more expensive, imports cheaper, and can subsidize cheaper prices for exports to third-markets,” the AISI letter states. “The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has provisions against currency manipulation, but the lack of an enforcement mechanism has limited their effectiveness.”

The AISI also suggested possible improvements to “streamline” customs procedures and “to ensure that manufacturers can ship and receive steel in an efficient manner.” Part of that streamlining, AISI argues, includes updating border infrastructure.

So, in many ways, U.S. steel and aluminum seem to be on the same page with respect to NAFTA — that is, that there’s room for improvement.

NAFTA Renegotiation a Hot Topic

The USTR sent out a notice May 27 seeking public comments on the topic of NAFTA renegotiation. The period for public comments closed June 12, but not before 1,396 comments were submitted.

Clearly, NAFTA is a very important subject to many people and industry organizations. While the minutiae of free-trade agreements can sometimes make the subject seem opaque, the outcomes are decidedly human, as jobs and livelihoods are often at stake.

Leo Gerard, international president of United Steelworkers, submitted a public comment in support of renegotiating NAFTA, provided it is “along the lines identified in the comprehensive approach identified in the negotiating framework document submitted on behalf of the USW and other unions by the AFL-CIO.”

“We have felt the negative impact of the NAFTA first hand since it entered into force more than two decades ago,” Gerard wrote. “Tens of thousands of plants have shut down, millions of workers have lost their jobs and many other workers have seen their compensation stagnate or decline as a result of NAFTA.”

Looking Ahead

What’s next for the process? A public hearing will be held at 9 a.m. Tuesday, June 27, in the Main Hearing Room of the United States International Trade Commission, 500 E Street SW., Washington D.C.

As demonstrated by the volume of public comments, there is a wide range of suggestions being offered with respect to NAFTA renegotiations.

One thing, however, is clear: Many of the interested parties want change of some kind.

Free Download: The June 2017 MMI Report

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Two significant developments on the steel front took place last week that will ensure that India continued on its chalked-out path of global dominance in steel production.

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Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) launched its 6 million ton per annum (MTPA) integrated steel plant at Angul in the Odisha province. The plant, one of the biggest in India, was dedicated to the nation on May 27, 2017. Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, said the plant would lead to an addition of 20% of steel to India’s ultimate goal of steel manufacturing capacity of 300 MTPA by 2030.

For JSPL, this was a major milestone, too. According to Chairman Naveen Jindal, the 6 MTPA steel plant at Angul was a major landmark in defining the future growth trajectory of JSPL. The latter is part of US $18 billion diversified O.P. Jindal Group.

Spread over 3,500 acres, JSPL’s integrated steel plant at Angul will provide direct employment opportunities to over 30,000 people and indirect employment to over 100,000 individuals.

JSPL’s capacity addition would further enhance the cost efficiencies of steelmaking — a continuous focus area of JSPL’s business philosophy, adding to its overall plan of debt reduction, said some of its top honchos.

In another development on the steel front, ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer, said it has agreed to make concessions to Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) to jumpstart a delayed US $897 million automotive joint venture.

ArcelorMittal and SAIL, according to a report by news agency Reuters, had agreed to a proposal to export a fifth of the auto-grade steel they aimed to make as part of the joint venture.

Incidentally, the proposal was one of several made by Indian government think tank NITI Aayog, which is mediating talks on commercial terms for the delayed venture.

At present, a bulk of the high-grade steel used by India’s vehicle industry was imported from countries such as Japan. With this new joint venture all set to take off, reliance on such imported steel would fall drastically, experts say.

The Reuters report quoted a company spokesperson as saying that in the interest of the strategic partnership, some concession from ArcelorMittal on technology had been extended.

Experts believe if the deal does come to fruition, it would help SAIL compete with local rivals, such as JSW Steel and Tata Steel, which have foreign partnerships to make steel for the car industry.

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Last month, China announced plans to build a new megacity from scratch. Since the city will be twice the size of New York City, analysts expect the project to require huge amounts of steel and other industrial metals such as aluminum and copper.

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According to Citi Research analysts, 12-14 million tons of extra steel will be required annually to build this new development. Since the country’s current domestic demand is about 700 million tons, that would lift Chinese steel demand by 2% per year over the next 10 years.

But are the analysts correct? Should we expect a steel demand boost over the next 10-15 years?

Although building this city from scratch will indeed require a lot of steel, analysts are making the mistake of missing the forest for the trees. The key driver for steel demand in China is the net migration from the countryside to cities. It doesn’t really matter whether China builds a new megacity or it expands its city limits. The key measure is the rate of urbanization in the country at a national level.

Urban and rural population in China. Source: China’s Economy book by Arthur R.Kroeber

China’s urban share has grown quickly over the past two decades since its rural population peaked in 1995. Last year, China’s urban population share reached 57.9%. The share, however, is still small given the country’s income level. Read more

This doubtful week, a Stanford economist made the bold proclamation that electric vehicles will completely displace their petrol and diesel counterparts by 2025, and India’s plan to triple steel production by 2030 was met with more than a few raised eyebrows.

Grand Plans

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Speaking of India, its ascent as a promising market for renewable energy has been truly impressive. Consultancy EY recently published its 2017 Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index (RECAI), and India took the number two spot, beating out the U.S., which slipped to third place.

India had been number nine in 2013, before Narendra Modi, who views developing renewable energy to wean India off coal as a top priority, became prime minister. Modi aims to boost India’s renewables capacity to 175 GW by 2022 (currently capacity stands at 57 GW).

India has similarly high ambitions for steel, as Sohrab Darabshaw reported earlier this week. The country aims to triple its steel production capacity by 2030, which would mean adding 182 million tons of capacity. Read more