Author Archives: Belinda Fuller

The Chinese government frequently mandates steel production cuts, especially for environmental reasons. But the cuts have also aimed to cut production volume in support of maintaining higher steel prices and, therefore, a healthier domestic industry.

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A recent goal of cutting 150 million metric tons of steel production capacity by 2020 was achieved by the end of 2018, according to the Chinese government. (By the way, no such purely production-focused reduction goal exists for 2019).

According to a recent Reuters article, on the other hand, in June 2018, China’s State Council banned new capacity development for steel, among so2me other primary commodity products, in some key geographic areas, such as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Yantze River Delta Regions.

The Chinese government mandated that blast furnace steel operations in Tangshan and Handan, China’s largest steelmaking cities, continue production cuts, but at a reduced rate of 20% of total capacity for April-June (compared to the 30% capacity reduction ordered for the November-March period).

These cuts target improvement in air quality by reducing the concentration of PM2.5 particulate matter by a minimum of 5% this year, when compared to 2018. Some production facilities must even leave the region as the government seeks to improve the quality of life in pollution-affected areas, such as Beijing, which is surrounded by Hebei province (the location of multiple steelmaking cities, including Tangshan and Handan).

When prices rise, however, these mandates become more difficult to enforce.

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The Raw Steels Monthly Metals Index (MMI) fell by one point this month to 81, a 1.2% decline from the previous month’s MMI value.

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Price weakness in the index came from the U.S. HRC 3-month futures contract, with a 6.3% decline in price this month, while Chinese Dalian coking coal prices declined by 7.2%. The declining prices pulled the index down, in spite of the 16.2% increase in Korean scrap steel prices.

U.S.steel prices generally trended gently upward after stabilizing earlier in the year. CRC prices increased by around 3% on a month-on-month basis, while HDG increased by nearly 3%. HRC prices edged up by just over 1% while plate prices held steady month on month.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Overall, prices stayed firm, in line with seasonal supply and demand factors at work in construction, in particular. Generally stronger-than-expected industrial performance in both the U.S. and China provided price strength.

Similarly, and in line with more positive economic data than generally anticipated, Chinese steel prices increased so far this year, leading the U.S. price increase (as generally expected by technical analysis of steel prices since Chinese prices tend to move first).

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Based on a basic visual comparison of Chinese steel prices with the China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) trendline, as the PMI crosses the threshold over 50, steel prices tend to increase while they tended to fall during months of contractionary sub-50 readings. As we can see the PMI trending upward, we can expect steel prices to rise.

Source: Analysis of data from MetalMiner IndX(™), Yahoo.com and Investing.com

On the other hand, the comparison of trendlines between steel prices and China’s FXI, a large-cap ETF index, shows a relationship that appears weaker, with values moving in opposite directions at times (although still typically following a similar movement).

Given that China’s PMI reading increased recently, this indicates the potential for steel prices to show strength.

A Comparison of U.S. and Chinese Steel Prices

The spread between U.S. HRC and China HRC prices flattened out for the last couple readings after falling for a few months now, with a price differential in early April of $181/st.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

This month, U.S. CRC prices outpaced China CRC prices. The spread once again trended slightly upward between the two after trending more or less downward since July 2018, with the current price differential of around $255/st.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Iron ore prices increased again this month, after some moderation in price increases from earlier this year. Weather issues stemming from Tropical Cyclone Veronica in Australia last month kept prices higher, in addition to a general improvement in the industrial outlook in China, which could support higher iron ore prices, and therefore higher steel prices. Coking coal prices, on the other hand, have generally fallen so far in 2019, which may exert downward pressure on steel prices.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Even with the lower index value this month, some forms of steel still showed upward momentum, indicating prices could be on the rise once again; that is, at least for the short term, supported by stronger-than-expected economic performance in the U.S. and China.

Like last month, plate prices continue to sit at high levels. Plate prices sit near $1,000/st, rising again after briefly falling back to $993/st in late March.

With prices still somewhat higher and other factors indicating some potential to increase further, buying organizations need to watch the market carefully for the right time to buy.

For more specific pricing guidance, try our Monthly Metal Miner Outlook Report on us – free for the first two months.

Actual Raw Steel Prices and Trends

U.S. shredded scrap prices stayed flat during March while the U.S. HRC futures contract 3-month price fell 6.3%.

Chinese Dalian coking coal prices were down 7.2%, falling the most of all the metals tracked in the Raw Steels MMI basket.

The price of Korean scrap steel increased the most, jumping 16.25%. Other price movements in the basket were much more modest, oscillating around the plus or minus 1% mark.

The Copper Monthly Metal Index (MMI) came in again at 79. Nearly all of the prices in the copper basket fell this month, with price declines in the range of 0.3%–1.9%.

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LME copper prices moved sideways during the month and oscillated around $6,424/mt, struggling to hold on to the $6,500 level (despite hitting that price at multiple points throughout the month).

On the other hand, the price generally stayed above the longer-term resistance point of $6,380/mt. The price briefly dropped back later in the month before surging again, then sliding once again into early April.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

LME copper prices trended upward rapidly at the start of 2019 on concerns over supply.

While the correlation between actual warehouse stocks and pricing generally falls outside of the factors driving actual LME copper prices, as pointed out in the most recent Monthly Metal Buying Outlook Report, recently traders traded on this information as warehouse stocks dwindled to historical lows.

Another key factor driving the perception of a potential shortage of the metal could be that supply and demand factors do not presently balance, with a multiyear production deficit of refined copper, as reported by the International Copper Study Group (ICSG).

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

While the bullish copper run ran out of steam by March when the price traded sideways, some of the increase in price from earlier in the year held, with prices now oscillating around a higher short-term level.

However, the market remains in a sideways trend.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

Actual Copper Prices and Trends

In March, most of the prices in the basket dropped, with the exception of Korean copper strip, which increased by 3.6%.

The Chinese prices in the basket showed the largest declines, albeit modest, in the range of 0.3%-1.9%.

Japanese primary cash and Indian copper cash prices declined as well, by 0.8% and 0.9%, respectively. U.S. prices for copper producer grades 110, 102 and 122 were down by 0.5%.

It’s important for buying organizations to understand how to react to copper price movements. The MetalMiner Monthly Outlook report helps buyers understand the copper marketplace.

The Stainless Steel Monthly Metals Index (MMI) held steady this month at 71.

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LME nickel prices mostly ended up moving sideways as March progressed after hitting a six-month high early in the month, with the price peaking at $13,750/mt during trading.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

SHFE nickel prices climbed back up to higher levels as well during the first quarter of 2019, currently at a higher year-on-year price as of April.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

SHFE nickel prices showed strength on the back of the strong performance of the Caixin China General Manufacturing PMI, which hit 50.8 this March (its highest level since July 2018). The March PMI surpassed expectations and was up from 49.9 the previous month. The increase seems to come from Chinese state stimulus measures now impacting the economy, according to press reports. Additionally, other sources cite recovered export demand as the impetus behind the upbeat PMI reading.

The availability of cheaper pig nickel iron — an innovation created in China, which uses laterite nickel ores instead of pure nickel — helps mitigate nickel price increases by serving as an alternative to standard nickel as an input in stainless steel production.

In order to produce pig nickel iron, raw material, in the form of nickel laterite ore, generally must be sourced from outside of China, with Indonesia and the Philippines accounting for most nickel laterite ore production globally.

The mining of nickel laterite ore reserves out of Indonesia increased quite a bit as a result, with several notable Chinese joint ventures in operation or planning operations within Indonesia.

Recently, China’s Tsingshan Group, for example, partnered with GEM Co Ltd for the buildout of additional nickel-related production facilities in Sulawesi, a nickel mining hub in Indonesia. The recent project, which just broke ground in January, aims to develop nickel sulphate for export, slated for use in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).

An earlier 2017 joint venture between Tsingshan and ERAMET formed around the nickel deposit at Weda Bay — said to house 9.3 million tons of nickel — focuses on nickel ferroalloy production.

Domestic Stainless Steel Market

This month, the 304/304L-Coil and 316/316L-Coil NAS surcharges remained the same as last month. Surcharges sit at higher levels than in the recent past, but are still down somewhat from the recent high point in July 2018.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Stainless steel prices stayed flat this month overall, with some declining prices reported among Chinese and Korean basket prices.

The Allegheny Ludlum 316 and 304 stainless surcharges did not move this month, while nickel prices in the basket showed mixed movement. LME nickel prices moved up slightly.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

Therefore, with prices essentially flat but somewhat high, industrial buyers may want to watch the market carefully in the coming weeks and adjust course as needed in case weaker Chinese prices offset typical seasonal price increases as we move into peak construction season.

Actual Stainless Steel Prices and Trends

This month, only a few of the prices in the stainless basket increased.

In particular, China FeCr (or Ferro Chrome) lumps increased in price by 6.2%, bucking the trend among the other Chinese prices in the basket, which otherwise declined.

Of the Chinese prices that decreased, 304 stainless coil dropped the most (by 3.5%), while the other price decreases were smaller, ranging from 0.3% to 1.2%. The Korean prices for 430 stainless steel coil and 304 stainless coil decreased as well (by less than 1%).

LME nickel and Indian primary nickel both increased in price by 0.8%.

The Allegheny Ludlum 316 and 304 stainless surcharges held flat this month.

Interest in cobalt increased recently as the price fluctuated widely during the past year.

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One reason for the increased interest comes from the metal’s uses in advanced applications, such as in aerospace and biotech. Interest also surged due to cobalt’s use in electric vehicle (EV) automotive battery production.

In addition to strong demand, the supply portion of the cobalt story has also spurred price volatility. Cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where a majority of the world’s cobalt is mined.

The London Metal Exchange (LME) cobalt contract launched in February 2010 and the exchange recently launched a new cobalt contract tied to Fastmarkets’ standard-grade cobalt price (the go-to benchmark on cobalt pricing for industrial buyers).

In this analysis, we take a look at the dynamics of the established LME cobalt contract to see if it offers a suitable hedge for industrial cobalt buyers. The LME Cobalt FM contract does not yet have a long enough track history to warrant analysis, as the price has stayed flat since the contract’s launch.

LME Cobalt Contract May Offer a Hedge Against Pricing Volatility

Based on the long-term price trend for the contract, prices fluctuated in keeping with press reports on general market conditions for cobalt pricing:

LME Cobalt daily price trend since February 2010. Source: Fastmarkets

Price fluctuations may indicate enough volume and interest behind the scenes are creating pricing dynamism.

Let’s take a closer look at the underlying trade dynamics. The vertical lines early in the timeline suggest a lack of trading activity on some days and, therefore, no reported closing price.

LME Cobalt Contract Volumes Increased Annually (Especially Since 2016)

After some occasional volume spiking in the contract’s early years, trading increased again, especially around November 2016:

Chart 2: LME Cobalt daily contract volumes since February 2010. Source: Fastmarkets

To see the long-term trend more clearly, this chart shows annual volumes, including 2019 year-to-date numbers:

Chart 3: LME Cobalt annual contract volumes since February 2010. Source: Fastmarkets

Should trading in the contract continue at the same volume as this past Q1 quarter, the contract could see a record year.

This chart shows both volume and price together on a monthly basis:

Chart 4: LME Cobalt annual contract volumes since February 2010. Source: Fastmarkets

As contract volume began to surge, pricing became more dynamic, especially into 2016.

Even though prices fell since their peak last year, contract trading volumes remain relatively high (although not quite as high as at other points).

Open Interest in the LME Cobalt Futures Contract Waned Recently

Open interest in the contract recently flattened out, which appears as a contrary indicator compared with the increased dynamism of pricing and volumes:

LME cobalt contract open interest since April 2018. Source: Fastmarkets

Still, the open interest numbers remain higher than last year.

LME Cobalt FM Contract Launched March 11, 2019

Interest in cobalt price discovery continues to grow due to new uses for the metal combined with recent wide price fluctuations.

The older LME Cobalt contract requires physical settlement by approved LME brand providers. On March 11, a new non-physically settled cash contract launched based on FastMarkets’ standard-grade cobalt price: the LME Cobalt FM contract.

So far, it’s early days for the contract and prices appear flat. The price for this new contract, however, uses the arithmetic  average of Fastmarkets’ twice-weekly price for the currently expiring contract month.

What Does This Mean for Industrial Buyers?

Given the increasing volatility of cobalt prices during the past year, industrial buyers may want to consider adding the existing metal-based LME cobalt futures contracts to the mix of buying strategies.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

Buyers of cobalt looking for a price hedge mechanism could consider tracking the LME Cobalt FM contract as well. However, like most newly introduced futures contracts, it may take some time until the efficacy of the measure becomes validated through active trading and dynamic pricing.

The April Aluminum Monthly Metals Index (MMI) held steady this month, again coming in at a value of 88.

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Within the MetalMiner IndX(™) aluminum price basket, Korean semi-finished aluminum prices weakened the index score again this month, while the LME price fell by 0.2%.

However, semi-finished products from other regions showed more pricing strength despite flat LME prices. European commercial 1050 sheet led the basket with a 1.5% increase. Chinese aluminum billet and bar prices both increased by around 1%.

After gaining some momentum early in the year, LME aluminum prices continued to move sideways this month, ending the month of March at $1,911 compared to $1,905 on the last day of February.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

LME aluminum prices continue to move sideways below the long-term resistance point of $1,970 into early April. Over the course of the year, the price seemed set to rise, then intermittent short-term sideways pricing dominated the trendline, keeping prices more or less flat since February.

Still, the pricing lows rose, and the price hit a 2019 high later in March when the closing price peaked at $1,940/mt.

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[Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on steel supply and prices. Revisit Part 1 here.]

Actual Chinese Steel Prices

Looking at longer-term trends in Chinese steel prices, we can see after hitting a low during mid-to-late 2015, prices trended upward overall (with some ups and downs along the way). For example, prices dipped in summer 2016, in spring 2017 and somewhat less so in spring 2018.

More recently, prices dropped off last fall:

Includes partial March price data through the 12th. Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

HRC and CRC prices trended very similarly, with the price gap narrowing over time. In fact, Chinese CRC prices stood higher in August 2014 than today’s prices. However, prices for CRC have remained above 4,000 RMB since August 2017.

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HRC prices increased slightly, while plate prices started out lower but trended higher than CRC. Over time, the price differential for HDG increased; however, the price trends reliably with HRC and CRC, especially since August 2017.

U.S. HRC Versus Chinese HRC Prices

Chinese HRC prices turned around in February and have gained momentum in March.

Includes partial March price data through the 12th. Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Prices moved similarly for both U.S. and Chinese HRC late in February and into March.

Meanwhile, the price gap between Chinese and U.S. prices narrowed into the early months of 2019:

Source: Analysis of MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™), including price data through March 12

U.S. CRC Prices Versus Chinese CRC Prices

China CRC prices have also increased in the early months of 2019.

Includes partial March price data through the 12th. Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

The price gap between Chinese and U.S. prices narrowed, but still remains wider than prior to imposition of the U.S.’s Section 232 tariffs of March 2018.

However, with the shrinking price gap, U.S. purchases of U.S. domestic CRC, like U.S. domestic HRC, became relatively more attractive again:

Includes partial March price data through the 12th. Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Implications for Buying Organizations

What can we expect from the Chinese government in terms of production reductions?

Why do high-level goals, such as reduced production, fail?

“The profit gained from selling one ton of steel is less than the profit from selling one dish of fried pork,” Shen Wenrong, chairman of the largest private steel company in China, was quoted as saying in a 2015 Bloomberg article. This points to a lack of actual willingness of Chinese domestic producers to throttle production.

China’s stated policy of production reduction has not happened on a net basis, even after environmental protocols paused production at times. At any rate, production and export figures continue to rise out of China, even as the domestic economy apparently weakens.

Given that global production capacity for steels continues to increase, we can expect this to have a depressing effect on steel prices overall.

On the other hand, if Chinese production moves upstream, it is realistic to expect price increases that stick as production becomes more advanced.

Even with China’s continued increase in production, U.S. imports of steel from all global markets decreased by 11.5% in 2018 over the year prior, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. Revenue also improved overall for U.S. steelmakers, according to government data.

However, what happens in China price-wise, will not stay in China.

Pricing impacts in China continue to affect global prices given the country’s consistent global share of production numbers at around the 50% over the past few years.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

As the Chinese government pushes the steel industry toward more advanced production, we can expect no less from domestic industry players in the U.S. As newer production facilities come online, we can expect to see closures of older production facilities. On a net basis, that is a good thing. If the U.S. industry continues to revitalize itself toward building long-term sustainable competitive advantages, it could avoid the so-called “Steelmageddon.”

According to Bank of America Research Analyst Timna Tanners, Steelmageddon looms on the horizon due to massive planned capacity increases in the U.S. steel industry.

Her analysis indicates the equivalent of around a 20% capacity increase when aggregating investments across companies and production methodologies over the next few years. Due to the massive ramp-up, the Steelmageddon theory predicts 2022 or so as the time when we may see greatly suppressed prices, and therefore rampant mill closures, due to a steel supply glut in the U.S.

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Meanwhile, in recent years, the Chinese government policy for the steel industry focused on capacity reduction and shutting down outdated plants. These closures resulted in an estimated reduction of 300 million metric tons of China’s steelmaking capacity.

In addition to these outdated blast furnace steelmaking facilities closing during the past few years, others still in operation face ongoing production restrictions during pollution alert periods. While some outdated capacity closed, other facilities with the latest technology brought new capacity onstream.

This “upgrade strategy,” if we could call it that, could have profound ramifications.

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The Copper Monthly Metals Index (MMI) increased by 3.9% this month, reaching an MMI value of 79.

With a seven-week sustained increase in prices, the rally may be over for the metal.

Trading volume dropped off in late February and the price moved sideways once again in early March.

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With week-on-week price gains for seven straight weeks, LME copper prices reached a high of around $6,500/mt before retreating back to $6,477/mt in early March trading, finally exceeding the $6,380/mt price point around which it oscillated since July.

While higher prices indicate bullishness, falling trade volumes appear as bearish; therefore, with mixed signals, the price has begun to move sideways overall.

LME copper prices. Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets

From a longer-term perspective, LME copper prices remain within their historical trading range.

In 2011, copper reached $10,000/mt and higher prior to a long-term downtrend. The market bottomed out in 2016 around $4,600/mt before retracing and oscillating at around $6,000/mt during the first half of 2017.

LME weekly copper prices and volume. Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

We can see that a previous eight-week rally preceded a longer-term sustained price uptrend during 2017. On this basis, perhaps we could see more pricing upside, but the rally appears to have softened as of press time, turning around at $6,500/mt. The price has no soared quite as high as it did previously.

Here is a one-year analysis of LME copper trading volume and open interest:

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

Based on current mixed signals, as monthly open interest dropped in February and monthly volume only edged up very slightly, there may not be as much upward momentum as might otherwise be expected for copper prices.

Chinese Copper Scrap vs. LME Copper

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

While LME copper and Chinese copper scrap prices both increased in February, the latter increased only slightly. The price differential increased as LME price increases outpaced copper scrap price increases.

LME warehouse stocks trended downward throughout the year, supportive of higher copper prices. According to Reuters, LME-registered warehouse stocks fell to 21,600 tons and remain at their lowest point since 2005. However, some of this decline may be attributable to new LME warehouse rules that make it more difficult to generate a return; therefore, excess available stocks might not get deposited into LME warehouses.

Additionally, stocks of the metal in SHFE warehouses hit 227,049 tons in late February, following cyclical restocking at the start of the year, which more than doubled the volume available following a recent low of around 100,000 tons in late 2018.

According to the International Copper Study Group (ICSG), refined copper production has fallen short of demand for multiple years now. Supply shortages are bullish for prices, which may have also pushed LME copper prices higher in early 2019.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Following the recent seven-week price rally, copper prices finally breached the $6,380/mt level, signaling that copper could be heading back into higher pricing territory.

On the other hand, lower trading volumes signal bearishness. It’s possible that significant LME shadow stocks, buoyant Chinese supplies of the metal and weak domestic demand in that country may act as price moderators, keeping prices in check.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

Actual Copper Prices and Trends

In February, like January, the Copper MMI basket increased, with the sole exception of Korean copper strip, which fell by 3%.

India’s copper cash price saw the biggest gain at 6.5%, closely followed by Japan’s primary cash price, which increased 6%. Most of the remaining metals in the basket increased in the 4-5% range, with the exception of China’s copper #2 scrap price, which was up 0.47%.

The Stainless Steel Monthly Metals Index (MMI) increased again this month by 4.3% to 71, up again after last month’s 11.7% gain.

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Once again, nickel price increases provided an impetus for rising prices. This month, prices increased for all the metals in the stainless steel basket across the board, ranging from 0.2-10%. U.S. stainless steel surcharges increased slightly.

LME Nickel

LME nickel prices. Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

LME nickel prices started to rise again following a brief downward trend in the first part of February; however, uptrend volumes are weaker than during recent price increases.

Despite weaker volume, prices finally surpassed the $13,300/mt price point, surging past $13,600 in a single day of trading and potentially signaling an underlying bullishness in the nickel market.

However, the price retraced once more toward the well-trodden $13,300/mt level in the days following the price surge.

Domestic Stainless Steel Market

This month the 304/304L-Coil and 316/316L-Coil NAS surcharges increased by 0.3% and 1.96%, respectively, reversing the previous downward trend dating back to July 2018.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

It remains to be seen whether this is a seasonal adjustment or a reversal in trend as we move into the last month of Q1, which is when prices tend to cyclically rise.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Stainless steel prices are rising — but is this a new change in direction or a temporary price increase based on the annual cyclical business cycle?

With some weakness reported in the global economy by the OECD last week, it will be interesting to see whether this is the start of a new trend in higher prices or just a flattening out from previous price declines.

Actual Stainless Steel Prices and Trends

All of the metals included in the Stainless MMI increased in price this month.

Chinese Ferro Alloys FeMo Lumps registered the greatest increase at 10.14%, while Chinese Ferro Alloy FeCr Lumps increased 0.2%.

Korean stainless steel coil (430 CR 2B) increased in price by 5.92%.

The three nickel prices included in the MetalMiner IndX(™) also increased across the board again this month, with increases ranging from 4.5–5.5% for LME, Chinese, and Indian prices. However, the increase this month dropped from high rates of change last month, which were in the 14.76-17.39% range.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

Chinese stainless steel 304 and 316 scrap prices registered increases of 0.2%.