Is Cooling China Steel Demand a Sign of Market Slowing?

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Iron ore and coking coal prices have been driven up by insatiable demand from China. Steel producers the world over, but especially in Europe and Asia have suffered margin pressure due to rising iron prices driven not by their own regions’ demand but largely due to China’s. So it is perhaps a little ironic that just as European mills announce price increases to accommodate rising raw material costs, Chinese imports of iron ore and Chinese domestic steel prices begin to come off. As the following chart shows with data taken from MetalMiner IndX, Chinese domestic prices of steel products have been drifting lower since the beginning of this month.

According to Credit Suisse, iron ore prices have also weakened over the period in response to lower demand from traders on the China spot market:

Source: Credit Suisse

In addition, producers are increasingly turning to exports to maintain capacity utilization, although not yet to the levels seen in 2006-7, but certainly an about-turn from this time last year when China briefly returned to being an importer on the back of high domestic demand for steel products.

As further evidence of cooling demand, the bank reports that steel inventories in China have increased with a build-up of both long and flat products.

Source: Credit Suisse and MySteel

One could point to a weakening of steel scrap prices in the US as evidence the recovery is going through a global dip but we are reminded of the perversion of the old saying which goes, if China sneezes the world catches a cold. For the US or Europe to pause in its recovery is to be expected and the impact is limited, but if China (the world’s engine of growth at least for metals prices) to slow could have a significant impact on iron ore and coking coal prices, finished steels and non-ferrous metals. It would pay to track China’s steel prices, inventory and iron ore spot market buys over the next few weeks to see if this is a temporary lull or part of a longer term trend of cooling growth.

–Stuart Burns

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