China Flat-Rolled Steel, Part 2: Weaker Economy Could Dampen Steel Prices

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(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.)

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently lowered its 2019 growth forecast for China from 6.3% to 6.2%.

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China’s current economic slowdown shows in the FXI, a large-cap market index. After showing unexpected strength early in the year and rising through the first part of April, performance turned around and the index began to fall once more.

After falling back to nearly start-of-year values, gains managed to hold at around 40 points. This seems to coincide roughly with press reports that stimulus measures from early in the year had begun to wane.

Crude Steel Production Remains High as Prices Weaken

According to the monthly Caixin report numbers, steel production totaled 85 million metric tons, apparently the highest monthly production total on record and about 5 million metric tons higher than the previous month.

Demand from the construction sector remains robust, but Wu Jingjing, a deputy director for the China Iron and Steel Association (CISA), warned demand growth from the sector will wane during the second half of the year. CISA maintains its 2019 forecast for 1-2% demand growth. However, demand from the automobile, household appliances and energy sectors looks weaker.

CISA reported a 1% steel price drop in May and an iron ore price increase of 7%. Higher iron ore prices hurt operational profitability, with CISA’s members reporting a 19.38% year-on-year decrease in profits for the January to April period (despite an 11% increase in sales revenue).

Consolidation of the Steel Industry is Underway

According to Reuters, the Chinese government is seeking to consolidate its steel industry to some extent by 2020 in order to boost the industry’s efficiency.

If government plans to constrain production through consolidation succeed, this would support higher prices for the industry. U.S. prices would also benefit, given that China’s prices tend to lead U.S. prices by about one month.

China Baowu Steel Group, the second-largest steel producer worldwide in 2018, announced its intent to acquire a majority stake in Magang Group Holding Co Ltd, of which Maanshan Iron & Steel Co Ltd, the 16th-largest producer, is a listed entity.

Baowu Steel Group produced 67.43 million metric tons in 2018, according to the World Steel Association, while Maanshan produced 19.71 million tons in 2018.

Raw Material Inputs Continue to Face Supply Issues

Iron ore prices remain high as supplies remain tight. According to customs data, imports recovered to some extent during May, rising by 37% to 83.75 million tons. Overall, shipments dropped by 11% compared with May 2018. Imports for the first five months of the year dropped by 5.2% compared with the same period in 2018.

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According to the Xinhua News Agency, as reported by Reuters, all coke plants that do not meet special emissions standards slated to go into effect on Oct. 1 in Shanxi — China’s top coke-producing region — will be closed.

Additionally, the government is seeking to reduce capacity for 2019 by 10 million tons. The region failed to comply with similar capacity reduction goals in the recent past.

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