In a rising price steel market, every manufacturer feels the squeeze but perhaps none more than the small manufacturer sourcing semi-finished and finished components and assemblies from China.
The Chinese have recently taken to a number of tactics with smaller manufacturers. By sharing some of these tactics, buying organizations can begin adapting their sourcing strategies. Here are some of the tactics we have recently heard of:
- Mills have begun demanding immediate cash payment for all open orders in which buying organizations secured lower costs previously. If the buyer does not pony up an up-front payment, the customer loses the material and must pay the inflated market price.
- The small manufacturer must now pay a higher trade price.
- Scrap prices have risen in China and, in fact, Chinese manufacturers have begun stockpiling scrap materials until further notice because scrap prices are trading at a steep discount to what they had traded for a year ago. We will explore a possible “why” momentarily.
What do each of these tactics suggest to us? I had a brief exchange with MetalMiner Co-Founder Stuart Burns who offered plenty of insight.
In terms of payment up front for open orders, Stuart suggested mills want to limit distributors and end users from taking speculative advantage of rising prices. Although it appears extreme, Stuart tells us despite the practice not occurring in recent years, it is indeed a fairly common Chinese business practice to demand advance payment for open orders.
Scrap Fetching “Only” RMB 720/mt?
This is perhaps the most significant Chinese steel news event at the moment. On the one hand, much of Chinese steel production is done via basic oxygen furnace, with fewer scrap requirements vs. electric arc furnaces, but, still, scrap is needed for all steelmaking. Furthermore, iron ore, coking coal and steel prices have all risen within China. So, why hasn’t scrap? Certainly if all factories are under strict orders to stockpile scrap materials, we can anticipate a potential glut of material during the summer months.
Our best guess would tell us that perhaps the mills had previously stocked up on scrap and are simply de-stocking.
Finally, Chinese Construction Activity
One of the most significant macro-economic factors we look to in determining price direction involves China. And the recent Chinese stimulus programs suggest that lax lending and stimulus have, indeed, spurred a new infrastructure economic boom.
Again, Stuart believes that speculative building has started again and has sucked steel into the market largely contributing to the point mentioned above: prepayment on open orders.
JP Morgan Chase & Co. believes the demand uptick from the program will taper off by the second half of this year because China doesn’t want to create an additional property bubble. But we remain skeptical. China has shown that shot-in-the-arm stimulus programs often turn into prolonged addictive habits and, therefore, this demand uptick could last longer than many anticipate.
What This Means for Small Manufacturers?
As we say in tight supply markets, all manufacturers will do better by making themselves a desirable customer to their suppliers. The negotiation dynamics have changed. Surety of supply may become a more critical issue than cost savings. Regardless, small manufacturers will want to evaluate current global sourcing strategies, particularly for steel products coming from China.
An earlier version of this story referred to increased premiums paid by small manufacturers. In actuality, they were not premiums but rather an increase in price. We regret the error.