A Better Future for Europe’s Steelmakers (If Their Unions Will Let Them)

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AdobeStock/Vladimir Gerasimov

No one factor has led to the turnaround in the fortunes of Europe’s steelmakers. While still not spectacular, global growth is certainly broader-based and better distributed that it was a few years ago. The fortunes of the European steel industry have improved markedly since their low point in late 2015, with prices rising some 45%, according to Reuters.

As with virtually every ferrous and non-ferrous metal, China has been a key component. Responsible for over 50% of global production capacity, China’s steel industry was undoubtedly a contributor to low prices around the middle of the decade. Beijing’s decision to cut capacity while boosting infrastructure spending has certainly resulted in increased domestic demand and reduced Chinese exports.

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China announced its intention to cut 100 to 150 million tons of steel capacity by 2020 in part to tackle pollution. It was also to address a rising tide of protectionism around the world fearful of the impact China’s excess supply was having on producers in home markets. According to Reuters, China cut 60 million tons of steel capacity last year and plans to cut another 50 million tons this year. There remains considerable debate as to how much of last year’s capacity closures really curtailed production and how much was simply the permanent closure of already mothballed or idle plants.

But either way, in conjunction with the $700-billion stimulus package targeted mostly at infrastructure and construction, Chinese steel prices jumped over 70% last year, while exports fell 3.5%. Even better news for overseas producers has been exports dropped a further 25% this year in part many would argue due to some 39 anti-dumping and anti-subsidy measures introduced in Europe over recent years of which 17 are directed at China and some 150 similar duties in place in the U.S.

Reuters reports that China’s exports to the United States fell 56% last year. And as imports into Europe from China continue to fall, domestic manufacturers enjoy better prices and improved capacity utilisation as they take up the slack. Hot rolled coil imports into Europe have been consistently in the region of 5 million tons a year this decade, a substantial reduction in that would provide a welcome break of domestic producers with capacity to fill.

Against such a background, it is understandable that trade unions that were supportive of almost any measure that kept steel producers viable just a year or two ago are now not so supportive of mergers that would create a more viable industry but could result in some rationalisation of production capacity. According to the Guardian, Germany’s largest trade union, IG Metall, confirmed this week that it was opposed to the proposed tie up between ThyssenKrupp’s German steelmaking operations and those of Indian Tata Steel’s European operations.

Discussion between the two companies have been ongoing since summer 2016, and it is fair to say authorities in the UK have reservations about how to resolve £15 billion in liabilities in Tata Steel’s UK pension fund. But talks remain ongoing.

Unions wield considerable power and influence in Germany. So when IG Metall’s Detlef Wetzel, who is a member of ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe’s supervisory board, said the deal isn’t going anywhere as it stands, then it probably isn’t. According to a Wales Online article covering the ramifications for Tata’s Port Talbot steel works in Wales, IG Metall has already signed up to a cost-cutting program that could lead to losing 4,000 out of 27,000 jobs in ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe. They are clearly not willing to allow further job losses if they are not matched or exceeded by job losses in the UK.

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Whether Tata and ThyssenKrupp make it to the alter now remains to be seen, but they weren’t the first and will not be the last of a wave of consolidations, divestments and plant upgrade investments that are sweeping through the European steel industry. After years of pain, Europe’s steel industry is seeing light at the end of the tunnel and are desperately trying to position themselves to take advantage of what they perceive will be better times ahead.

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