Similar to copper, nickel is not metal investors’ favorite child right now. While oversupply is still and issue, only a weaker dollar and further Chinese stimulus could lift prices. However, that wasn’t the case during the month of May, driving prices down. Our Stainless MMI was no exception, falling 4%.
For the past six months, every time three-month London Metal Exchange primary nickel approached $9,500 per metric ton, prices fell short. It happened in March and again in May.
Recently, Russia’s Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest nickel miner, said that in order for a sustained recovery to happen, more cuts will have to materialize. That’s a very unusual statement for a metal producer as they tend to talk up the market. According to the company, over 20% of the global nickel supply needs to be cut if we want to see a sustained recovery in prices.
If Norilsk has it right, it will take some time until we see a significant recovery in prices since, so far this year, there hasn’t been any supply cut announcements. The latest significant production cut was announced late in 2015. Despite its non-optimistic outlook, the company is moving ahead with the development of new projects. Norilsk Nickel is still profitable, aided and abetted by co-mined minerals and the depreciation of the Russian Ruble.
U.S. Prices Buck Global Trend
Not only Norilsk but producers that are loss-making at current prices seem redundant to shut down capacity. Glencore and fellow Australian miner BHP Billiton have recently said no more than they “may” close capacity at Murrin Murrin and Nickel West, respectively.
Here in the U.S., however, anti-dumping actions are having an effect and stainless, cold-rolled prices have been steadily rising this year. The three base price increases for 2016 have been firmly implemented on spot business. Although contractual business may have been protected from immediate base price increases, the next contract periods will definitely reflect the higher base prices.
U.S. mills have been trying all year to recoup unrealistically low base prices from 2015. The anti-dumping and countervailing duty actions filed by U.S. stainless mills against China have solidified the base price increases as well as disrupted the supply of several niche products.
All 200, 300 and 400 series alloys have been impacted by the 2016 base price increases. The three stainless base price increases for 2016 have cumulatively impacted 304 stainless base prices by at least $0.10 per pound on base gauge and almost $0.13 on 22 gauge. 430 stainless has risen by close to $0.08 per pound. 409 has risen by $0.06 per pound. Several sources speculate that there could be another round of increases on the horizon because U.S. cold-rolled stainless supply is tight.
U.S. Supplies Tighten
Mill lead times remain extended with North American Stainless (NAS) maintaining a controlled-order-entry mechanism. Some service centers also report that the light gauge stainless is limited and available only for customers who also place base gauge volumes.
Buyers of metal need to have well-established supply chains for all of their cold-rolled stainless products. NAS and Outokumpu Coil Americas remain the core suppliers of austenitic commodity products.
Two Producers Inherit Commodity Stainless Market
AK Steel is not focused on nickel-bearing commodity stainless grades. Allegheny Technologies’ Flat-Rolled Products segment continues to seek higher-value stainless and has limited its exposure to commodity stainless.
In theory, Allegheny and AK Steel could relieve some of the long lead times metal buyers are experiencing, but their mill capacity is focused on supplying other products or has been idled. The anti-dumping and countervailing lawsuits against China have impacted the Asian supply of cold rolled stainless. For instance, Taiwanese rerollers using Chinese hot band for bright annealed have limited new offers.
POSCO, which has South Korean and Vietnamese stainless mills, is being cautious with offers into the U.S. market. Bright annealed and light-gauge, cold-rolled stainless remain the product categories most impacted by the trade cases.
Stainless flat-rolled pricing remains poised for further base price increases. Stainless demand is expected to remain around the same volume in the U.S. The trade cases against China are proceeding in a multitude of steel products, not just stainless. Although domestic mills are capable of producing more stainless volume, the appetite for AK Steel and Allegheny does not appear to be there yet. Until then, NAS and Outokumpu will be the core commodity stainless producers. Metal buyers will need to look to alternative sources for niche products and perhaps should look to European mills such as Aperam or ThyssenKrupp AST as Asian importers are spooked by the trade cases against China.