Cliffs-AK Steel merger not likely to leapfrog EAFs

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merger and acquisition
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Vertical integration may play well in classic corporate HBR (Harvard Business Review) circles, but steel industry observers may have a hard time envisioning the synergies Cliffs outlined in its merger announcement and presentation Dec. 3, creating a best-in-class, EBITDA-maximizing combined Cliffs-AK Steel entity!

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To us, the best rationale for the deal appears on slide 14, outlining AK Steel’s short-term debt position:

If you buy the notion that Cliffs can swallow AK and convert that company’s debts to its own and save on interest expense, then score one for the deal!

So why would Cliffs buy AK Steel?

A compelling reason appears on slide 11:

Despite AK Steel’s relatively improved financial performance under the leadership of CEO Roger Newport, if AK Steel represents ~30% of Cliff’s annual iron ore sales, Cliffs faces significant “customer concentration risk.” In other words, the health of AK Steel would significantly — negatively — impact Cliffs.

Forget about “renewal risk” — let’s just call it “customer risk.”

Cliffs would be hosed without a healthy AK Steel!

What about AK’s Ashland Works?

We continue to see different public announcements from AK Steel about the cost of Ashland Works. The Ashland Works facility today operates a hot-dipped galvanizing line (the blast furnace was idled nearly four years ago).

According to comments from AK Steel directly, “…the company announced it would close the ‘largely-idled’ Ashland Works facility by the end of 2019 to ‘increase utilization’ at its other U.S. operations. The plant employs 230 people and the closure would yield approximately $40 million in annual cost savings, according to the company.”

But by keeping it open, as detailed by Cliffs, the Ashland Facility, “Eliminates up to $60m of closure-related costs.” The Ashland facility will instead undergo a conversion, which it says, “Potentially provides a compelling, low-capex, high-return opportunity to be a significant merchant pig iron supplier in the Great Lakes.” (We presume U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal will avail themselves of this compelling offering.)

So, we’re not sure if keeping Ashland Works open saves money or if closing it does.

We won’t pontificate over the “AK Steel best-in-class position in non-commoditized steel” for a variety of reasons that we have previously covered here in our GOES MMI series. (Or the fact that the rise of electric vehicles will start to make a dent in the need for the kinds of automotive exhaust grades, such as 439 and 441, produced by AK Steel.) We acknowledge AK does have a strong position in ultra-high-strength steels.

So, the real question comes down to the “synergies” outlined by Cliffs.

Does the margin Cliffs generates — approximately $30/$40 per short ton for every pellet produced and sold to AK — translate to an EBITDA jump of that same amount for steel products sold by AK, such that they leapfrog the EAF producers, as Cliffs suggests?

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Well, now isn’t that the $1.1 billion question?

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