Since the beginning of March, steel prices in China have fallen sharply while prices in the U.S. have risen. That is simply not sustainable.
These price divergences happen once in a while but they don’t last long. Over the next few weeks we’ll either see a rebound in Chinese prices or weakness in US steel prices.
Why do we say this? Well, China’s output accounts for more than 50% of world steel production. Currently, China isn’t a major exporter to the U.S., but it is the biggest exporter to the rest of the world. Therefore, Chinese prices put a floor under international steel prices.
Since prices peaked in February, China’s hot-rolled coil prices have fallen nearly 15%. During the same period, U.S. HRC prices have risen nearly 8%. Interestingly, we saw a similar divergence last summer, when the U.S. imposed strong anti-dumping measures against imports. Such a wide international price arbitrage didn’t last long, as we predicted last year, this price arbitrage narrowed after that summer.
U.S. steel prices are now expensive again relative to Chinese prices. In the case of cold-rolled coil, the price spread stands now at $344 per metric ton, quite high compared to historical levels and not far from last summer’s peak of $420 per mt. A level that has proven unsustainable before.
What This Means For Metal Buyers
We continue to be long-term bullish on steel markets. However, buyers should closely monitor the recent divergence between Chinese and US prices. We should see a recovery in Chinese steel prices soon, otherwise US steel mills will have a hard time justifying further price hikes. Remember that we are in a global world and although US steel prices can temporarily move apart from Chinese prices, they will eventually move in tandem because otherwise, buyers will start looking to buy steel overseas.