Spot iron ore prices hit a fresh 10-year low after falling below $40 per metric last week.
Weakening steel demand is causing a slump in finished products and raw materials prices. Our Raw Steel MMI didn’t take a break in December, falling 4.2% to 46 points, yet another all-time low.
Early this year, many believed that the steel industry would recover during the second half of the year, even steel companies’ 2Q15 better-than-expected-earnings results raised optimism of a possible recovery. We didn’t subscribe to this view. The slump in steel prices continues and the fiscal 3Q15 financial results of most steel companies failed to cheer up investors.
The market has seriously underestimated the demand erosion that the economic rebalancing in China has created.
Overcapacity Still an Issue
Steel producers are still waiting for demand to meet the overcapacity built over the past few years. In addition, almost a decade with borrowing costs near zero has lead to a situation where there is still new capacity yet to be built and also existing capacity that doesn’t close. Low-cost credit has permitted even unprofitable production to be maintained, and while production levels are well off their peaks, there have been few permanent capacity closures.
The excess of production is still a concern in China, given the high levels of debt that producers there are dealing with. While many steel companies are able to cover debt costs out of operating profits, other companies are still borrowing from one bank to pay the older debt to another.
In November, Chinese steelmaker Tangshan Songting Iron and Steel, with an annual capacity of 5 million metric tons, said it would cut output due to debt pressures. Despite China cutting interest rates, as demand and prices collapse, banks are starting to tighten lending to the steel sector and losses are stacking up. Many mills are having a hard time extending their loans while they lower steel prices in competition to get contracts. The plunge in Chinese steel profits and and prolonged worries over weak demand might force more and more Chinese producers to close, removing exports from the global market before we see a recovery in prices.
Steel prices, like the rest of base metals, were impacted in November by a strong dollar and the bearish sentiment that this adds to commodity markets. There are few to no indicators pointing to a recovery in steel prices anytime soon.
Actual Raw Steel Prices
The US HRC futures contract spot price fell 5% from $397 per short ton to $376/st. US shredded scrap ended at $167 a metric ton, down 7% from $179/mt while Korean scrap steel fell 42%. China slab prices declined 9% to 278 CNY/mt from 207 CNY/mt.