Author Archives: Belinda Fuller

(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.

Zerophoto/Adobe Stock

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series examining Chinese flat-rolled steel prices. The first part examines historical steel price trends. The second part, which will be published Tuesday, will cover the economic outlook for China.)

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Chinese steel prices started to weaken in late May and continued to decline into the second week of June (after generally increasing this year).

A seasonal steel price change typically happens at the start of the summer due to the change in weather, which impacts construction and, therefore, steel demand.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Looking at the longer-term pattern since 2016, prices have dipped around the June time frame and tend to correct or show a clear change of the longer-term direction in July.

Theoretically, demand starts to pick up again as fall seasonal restocking picks up, supporting prices. However, in some years, demand may fail to pick, vis-a-vis available supply (as in 2015, when prices kept falling).

In 2018, the seasonal pickup did not last long. Prices turned down again by October, although they stayed relatively flat overall.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

From a longer-term perspective, prices continued to increase overall when considering the period since mid-2015, as shown in the chart above. Considering January 2017 forward only, prices have moved sideways overall.

HRC, CRC and plate prices mildly increased in the first quarter, but the rate of increase looked weaker during 2019 than in previous years. More recently, all three prices have grown weaker; CRC for example, only increased into March and grew weaker by April.

Chinese HRC prices dropped slightly in early June after generally rising since the start of the year and into late May. Government stimulus measures have not provided price support lately, although additional support measures, especially continued fiscal stimulus measures and tax cuts aimed at providing support to the economy during the second half of 2019 and into 2020, could provide support.

CRC prices dropped again between May and early June, by 3%, to CNY 4,111/mt, down by around 5% from the short-term April high of CNY 4,331/mt. With CRC prices dropping more steeply of late, the China HRC-CRC spread narrowed to CNY 191/mt.

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

As pointed out in MetalMiner’s June Monthly Metal Buying Outlook, CRC prices suffered from a supply glut due to blast furnace restrictions that led producers to invest in downstream production, like CRC and HDG, instead of HRC.

The Raw Steels Monthly Metals Index (MMI) came in at 76 this month, a 5% drop, after several months of sideways movement and a May reading of 80.

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U.S. steel prices formed a clear downward price trend. A mix of factors led to the weakness: sluggish demand, companies working off inventory and macroeconomic uncertainty.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Even plate prices dropped this month after stubbornly sticking at around $1,000/st for a lengthy stretch after rising longer term. This month the price dropped by nearly 7%, from $962/st at the start of the month to $902/st in early June.

Similarly, the Chinese economy has shown weakness lately in steel-intensive sectors. However, government stimulus measures still generally kept HRC prices supported, with some weakness in the other form of flat-rolled products.

Recently, the China Caixin Manufacturing PMI held flat for the May reading, but the industrial and manufacturing production readings both declined by several points.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Meanwhile, U.S. steel prices dropped more steeply than Chinese prices, which edged down slightly this month. Looking at a price comparison of U.S. and Chinese HRC prices, the price gap continues to close.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

The chart above shows the spread between U.S. and Chinese prices dropped to just over $100/st. In December, the price gap held at over $300/st, so U.S. products look more affordable based on a greater price drop, while Chinese prices stayed relatively flat.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Plate prices finally dropped this month, joining HRC, CRC and HDG in a downward price trend.

Given the shifting price dynamic, industrial buying organizations seeking more pricing guidance should try a free two-month trial of our Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report.

Buying organizations will want to read more about our longer-term steel price trends in our free Annual Outlook.

Actual Raw Steel Prices and Trends

This month U.S. prices registered the largest price drops in the index with the U.S. Midwest HRC futures spot price down 11.3% to $580/st and the 3-month price down 10.4% to $586/st. U.S. shredded scrap prices dropped 8.1% to $295/st.

Korean standard scrap steel prices fell by 6.8% to $127/st. Korean pig iron prices fell by 1.2% to $333/st.

Chinese steel slab prices were down by 5.9% to $489/st and steel billet dropped by 3.2% to $482/st.

Chinese iron ore PB fines for both high- and low-priced 58% Indian iron ore dropped by 2.4%, both at $59 per dry short ton.

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

Chinese coking coal prices increased this month by 1.6% to $278/st, the only price in the index to increase this month.

The Stainless Steel Monthly Metals Index (MMI) dropped two points again this month, now down to 67. The index stayed relatively flat during the past few months since jumping in February from 61 to 68.

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Several prices in the index dropped significantly this month. Most prices declined more moderately, in the 1% to 3% range, with a couple of prices holding steady.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

The LME nickel price declined 2.5% between May and June. During the first week of June, LME nickel prices dropped further but still managed to hold above $11,600/mt as of press time.

According to the International Stainless Steel Form (ISSF), stainless steel melt shop production increased by 5.4% to 50.7 million metric tons in 2018, up from 48.1 million metric tons in 2017. The organization forecasts continued growth in 2019.

In 2018, China accounted for 52.6% of global stainless steel production, according to ISSF. The U.S., meanwhile, accounted for 5.5% of global production. In absolute terms, the United States produced approximately 2.8 million tons of stainless steel last year, including slab and ingots.

Nickel pig iron production from China and Indonesia will increase in 2019, as it did during 2017 and 2018, which will contribute to lower prices, according to ISSF.

As reported by Reuters, the nickel market deficit narrowed during the first two months of the year, dropping to 5,700 metric tons from 24,400 metric tons during the same period of 2018.

However, LME and SHFE nickel stocks remain at historically low levels.

Domestic Stainless Steel Market

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Stainless steel surcharges gave up some of their recent gains but still remain higher than at the start of the year.

Prices also remain higher from a longer-term perspective when compared with 2016 lows of around $0.40 per pound for 316/316L-Coil and $0.32 per pound for 304/304L-Coil. Nickel ore prices remain lower, causing the recent price weakness.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Like other steel prices, stainless steel prices showed weakness this month, following from weaker global demand combined with lower input prices.

For buying guidance, including resistance and support levels by metal, industrial buying organizations seeking more pricing guidance should try a free two-month trial of our Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report.

Buying organizations will want to read more about our longer-term steel price trends in our free Annual Outlook.

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

Actual Stainless Steel Prices and Trends

This month, Chinese non-ferrous FeCr lumps decreased by 12.5% to $1,644/mt, the largest drop in the index.

The 316 Allegheny Ludlum stainless surcharge fell from $0.95/pound to $0.89/pound this month, a 6.3% decrease. The 304 Allegheny Ludlum Surcharge dropped back to $0.61/pound from $0.68/pound last month, a 7.8% decrease.

Chinese primary nickel decreased by 4.9% to $14,057/mt.

China 304 CR coil dropped 3.5% to $2,158/mt.

The remaining price declines ranged between 1.0% and 3.0%.

The exceptions were Indian primary nickel, up by 0.9% to $12.52/kilogram, and Chinese non-ferrous FeMo lumps, with flat pricing this month at $17,956/mt.

Bombardho/Adobe Stock

This month’s Copper Monthly Metals Index (MMI) reading for copper dropped to 73 from last month’s reading of 78, the new low for the year.

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LME copper prices continued to trend downward, but technically still remain in a long-term bull market.

In the shorter term, daily chart prices recently came close to dropping back to start-of-the-year lows.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

On the other hand, the longer-term outlook indicates hints at some upward momentum still, given that pricing bottoms have continued to move progressively higher since 2016.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

In the second part of 2018, price momentum shifted downward, but support levels held at higher levels than during the 2017 period when copper prices traded around $5,600/mt. Prices remain at a critical point.

Chinese Copper Scrap vs. LME Copper

The price gap between Chinese copper scrap and LME copper narrowed recently due to the steeper LME price drop.

According to press reports, copper smelter treatment charges dropped to a 6 1/2-year low in China. China continues to add capacity, with projected growth of 1 million tons expected for 2019. The increase in supply suppresses treatment charges (TCs) for copper.

Global Copper Supply Deficit Forecast for 2019

The International Copper Study Group (ICSG) recently forecast a copper metal deficit of 190,000/mt in 2019. However, according to a recent Reuters report, the projected forecast refined metal deficit totals 270,000 mt due to ongoing supply issues in Peru and Zambia, with concentrates looking tight. Supply disruptions could total around 1,200,000 mt, or around 5% of typical supply levels.

Industrial metals respond to global economic conditions, given that players tend to be large international entities that trade extensively cross-border.

Therefore, we can generally expect copper prices to respond to macroeconomic factors like the dollar and global GDP growth rates; even a small percentage change in global growth rates can impact the price of copper.

According to a recent presentation by global miner Rio Tinto, macro headwinds have impacted demand this year.

For the longer term, expectations remain positive, with the company projecting global annual growth to average 3.5% over the next 10 years. Ninety percent of Rio Tinto’s total mining output across metals moves cross-border.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

With macroeconomic uncertainty at hand, industrial buying organizations should watch the copper market carefully for shifting momentum.

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.

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

Actual Copper Prices and Trends

Copper prices showed weakness globally this month.

The Japanese primary cash price dropped by 10% to $6,035/mt. The LME primary 3-month dropped by 9.6%, with the price falling to $5,820/mt. India’s copper cash price dropped 8.3% to $5.89/kilogram.

Chinese prices also dropped steeply, with all the Chinese prices in the index down by 7.6%. China’s primary cash price dropped to $6,717/mt.

Chinese scrap copper #2 decreased by 2.4% to $5,560/mt. Korean copper strip declined by 0.4% to $8.32/kilogram.

U.S. prices dropped in the 6-7% range. U.S. copper grade 110 dropped to $3.43/pound, down from $3.87/pound last month, marking the third straight month of price declines.

This month the Aluminum Monthly Metals Index (MMI) decreased, with weakness coming from all the prices tracked globally. The index value dropped back two points to 86, back to February levels after holding at 88 for three months.

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LME aluminum prices occasionally spiked in May. Prices showed some sideways price movement, yet continued to trend down overall. In early June, the closing price hit a new low for the year at $1,773/mt.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

Looking at the past six months on the chart above, it’s a little easier to see that prices recently also dropped below January 2019 levels, signaling further price weakness could be on the horizon should relevant industries continue to slow at major growth engine points.

Aluminum Supply Deficit Forecast for 2019

According to a recent investor presentation prepared by Alcoa, the primary aluminum deficit will be between 1.5 million and 1.9 million metric tons. The Chinese market will remain supplied or slightly in surplus at 0.2 million mt of overage, with the deficit projected for the world ex-China.

Global inventory days continue to trend downward overall. After topping out at 119 days in 2009, they now hold at a projected 59 days of global consumption for the 2019 (down from a 70-day average last year).

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets data

In the chart above we can see LME-held aluminum stocks have oscillated just above 1 million metric tons for roughly a year and a half. LME worldwide stocks measured at roughly 1.1 million metric tons in early June. These levels are drastically lower than stocks held between 2009-2015.

Automotive Innovation Continues to Tighten Aluminum Supplies

The automotive pull on aluminum supplies will continue to impact aluminum prices over the longer term. This impact will continue to increase as more automotive companies innovate with the metal and push for lighter overall vehicle weight.

Novelis, the producer of aluminum automotive body sheet for the popular Toyota RAV4 and NIO ES6, recently announced its first aluminum sheet battery enclosure solution, which it calls “a more sustainable mobility solution in battery electric vehicles, a market that is expected to more than triple globally by 2025,” it said in a recent company statement.

An industry chief from Constellium Bowling Green, the company’s automotive unit, cites the automotive market as the biggest growth opportunity for the aluminum industry in years. The company expects demand for automotive aluminum to hit 1.4 million tons annually by 2025.

The company also features aluminum battery enclosures for vehicles and makes crash management systems, side impact beams, decorative trims and emblems in aluminum, according to the company’s website. According to the company balance sheet, revenue from sales of packaging rolled and automotive rolled products increased by 12% in Q1 2019 compared with Q1 2018.

Braidy Industries‘ Atlas Mill, the first greenfield aluminum rolling mill in the U.S. in 37 years, according to the company, will open around 2021. According to its company chief, the next five years will be the best in the past five decades. Russian aluminum giant Rusal plans to take ownership of 40% of the project, but the deal presently faces congressional scrutiny.

On the other hand, some automotive lines may never end up making the shift over to aluminum if presented with other options, given the costs of white body production line conversion.

Nippon Steel, of Japan, understands the business threat and opportunity, responding recently by developing a new lightweight car body of steel with a 30% weight reduction.

In Japan, benchmark aluminum premiums increased to $115-$120 mt for Q3. According to press reports, the 10-14% increase follow tighter supply.

Chinese Aluminum Prices

SHFE aluminum prices continued to maintain upward momentum overall so far this year.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets

Constrained capacity growth could support prices.

On the other hand, some capacity expansion plans for primary ingot are being reported independently by region, according to press reports. This includes the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region’s plan to boost production of aluminum to 4.8 million metric tons by 2025, from the present annual amount of around 2.25 million metric tons in 2018 and an estimated 2.6 million tons for 2019, according to its Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

Shortage of scrap material also constrains China’s domestic production due to China’s tightening of its scrap import policy. 

U.S. Aluminum Premiums

The U.S. Midwest Premium finally dropped slightly but still rounded to $0.19/lb in early June.

The higher premium indicates supply shortfalls remain.

As indicated by a recent Reuters report, suppliers may be holding the premium higher to cover the 10% import costs on materials. With Canadian and Mexican tariffs now removed, we might expect some drop in the premium.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

However, looking at the chart above, the premium already increased a great deal in the year prior to the implementation of the tariffs, with the premium then sticking at that higher level.

U.S. imports of aluminum totaled $24.3 billion dollars, a drastic increase of 41.7% since 2014. Import growth leveled off after 2017, with domestic production already largely shut down due to poor margins.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

With industrial metal markets still down, including aluminum, on an uncertain economic outlook, and as the U.S. Midwest Premium remains high, buying organizations need to watch the market carefully.

Looking for more pricing guidance? Request a free trial to MetalMiner’s Monthly Metal Buying Outlook.

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

Actual Metal Prices and Trends

Chinese aluminum prices dropped in the 1.7% to 3% range. Chinese aluminum scrap dropped 1.7% to $1,868/mt, while the primary cash price dropped 3% to $2,042/mt. Billet and bar prices decreased by 2.5% to $2,113/mt and $2,210/mt, respectively.

European prices showed the largest decrease in the index, with commercial 1050 sheet prices down 4.6% to $2,497/mt, while 5083 plate dropped 4.4% to $2,953/mt.

India’s primary cash price dropped 3.7% to $2.07/kilogram.

Other price drops in the index registered at less than 2%, including the LME primary 3-month aluminum price hitting $1789/mt following last month’s larger drop of 5%.

In spite of their status as precious metals, the automotive industry accounts for a high percentage of platinum and palladium demand annually, making the pair essentially industrial metals.

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Given that a high percentage of demand generated from the automotive industry relates to the use of the metals within the catalytic converter, as the automotive market moves more fully toward electric powered vehicles, demand will likely decline for both metals.

Meanwhile, according to Reuters, even though palladium- and platinum-heavy fuel cell technology in the electric car market is on the rise, the growth in this area is unlikely to offset falling autocatalyst demand.

Given that prices for palladium soared of late, let’s take another look at palladium price trends, along with its close substitute platinum.

Palladium, Platinum Price Trends Compared with the Dollar Index (DXY)

Given that metals and the dollar index (DXY) tend to move in opposite directions, we can see that palladium prices gained quite a bit more value than expected when looking at the DXY trend line against the palladium trend line in light blue below.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™) and Yahoo.com

On the other hand, platinum’s price movement in the U.S. looks much more in line with what we might expect when compared with the relative performance of the U.S. dollar. Therefore, although platinum prices historically exceeded palladium prices, platinum prices still trend fairly close to the expected (recent) value, while palladium prices started to look inflated. Platinum prices peaked in 2008 at more than $2,000 per ounce.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Looking at the price difference in the U.S. between the two metals, or spread, as shown by the purple line in the chart above, we see that the spread between the two flip-flopped in late 2017 to early 2018. The spread surged since last year, hitting a peak around March 1, 2019. More recently, the spread has moved sideways at around $500 per ounce.

Do Chinese Palladium and Platinum Prices Drive U.S. Prices?

Given that China consumes a high percentage of palladium, we could expect that Chinese prices lead U.S. prices.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

A look at the price trend lines between the two countries does in fact show a high correlation in prices between the two countries, especially long term.

More recently, U.S. and Chinese platinum prices continued to move in a tight band together.

Chinese palladium prices, on the other hand, trend above U.S. prices, with the gap growing in 2019 – not surprising given that China leads demand for the metal globally.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

The zero line in the chart above indicates where the two countries’ prices are equal. At points above zero, the Chinese price is higher. The price difference tended to amount to U.S. $25-$50 per ounce, but increased into 2018. During the past few months, the difference decreased again slightly, but still looks somewhat high historically.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

The chart above shows the spread between Chinese and U.S. prices. When the spread value is under zero, U.S. prices are higher.

The spread between U.S. and Chinese platinum prices tends to lean toward the U.S. having the higher price. However, since 2016, the prices trended very close together. U.S. prices started to look relatively more expensive again in 2019.

What This Means for Industrial Metal Buyers

For industrial metal buyers looking to track palladium prices, the Chinese price offers a solid proxy of what we might expect with regard to the future behavior of palladium prices.

While the price indicates slightly weaker Chinese demand of late, prices for palladium remain at historically high levels.

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Platinum prices, however, remain somewhat low historically. The recent performance against the DXY does not necessarily suggest the metal is undervalued. However, given that platinum can serve as a substitute, it’s doubtful the price will stay suppressed long term, as high palladium prices will drive a push toward substitution.

alfexe/Adobe Stock

In recent weeks, the Chinese yuan (CNY) has weakened against the U.S. dollar (USD). A weaker yuan makes imports cheaper, all other things holding equal.

As we can see in this chart, during the past couple of weeks the yuan weakened back to roughly December levels.

Will this currency change result in surging steel imports due to the increased attractiveness of Chinese steel prices?

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Yahoo.com data

The Price Spread Still Remains Fairly High, Apples to Apples

The chart below shows the spread between U.S. and Chinese CRC prices since January 2018.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Around the time the U.S. tariffs took effect, U.S. prices increased, while Chinese prices started to move lower.

Fast forward to mid-May 2019 and the differential still remains higher than during the pre-tariff period. The differential is down to just over $200/st — from around $400/st, the 2018 peak — as shown by the spread line in purple, which measures the straight arithmetic difference between the two prices.

Why should we look at Chinese prices? It’s certainly not because China serves a major trading partner for steel. Looking at the statistics, in fact, only around 1% of China’s steel exports come to the U.S.

The reason to study Chinese steel prices owes to the fact that China drives global production, with over 50% of global steel produced in China. In pure price trend analysis, we know it remains a key to future pricing for the U.S., as it will be for all country-level analyses.

As such, examining the Chinese CRC price offers value, regardless of whether or not an organization plans to actually import from China.

A Tactical Examination of the CRC Price Differential

In terms of a more hands-on assessment for buyers looking at importing steel from China, a second look at the spread below takes into account the 25% tariff and $90 per ton in estimated import charges (e.g., freight, trader margin, etc.).

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

The chart above depicts $90 in importing costs added to the Chinese CRC price only, plus the 25% tariff rate, with the extra 25% added on top only after March 23, 2018.

Adding the import tariff decreases the spread, as shown by the purple line. Subsequently, the tariff triggered a drop in the spread.

At the arrows, we see the differential shift after March 23, 2018, when Chinese prices effectively rose to around $900/st. At that point, the spread dropped significantly, as expected, as shown by the sudden drop in the purple line.

While a spread in China’s favor still remained throughout 2018, into 2019 one could say tariffs leveled the relative price difference. Additionally, U.S. steel prices dropped in line with Chinese prices (plus the tariff and import costs).

With the spread essentially flat, tariffs look to essentially “level the playing field,” as prescribed by their use.

What Does This Mean for Industrial Buyers?

With the Chinese currency weakening once more against the U.S. dollar, MetalMiner expects Chinese imports will start to look increasingly attractive to would-be U.S.-based importers.

However, once we account for the tariffs and import costs, the spread between U.S. and Chinese prices looks effectively negligible.

The fact that U.S. prices for CRC dropped very recently also offset some of the would-be increase in the spread following the weakening of the yuan against the dollar.

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Given that Chinese imports only account for a small percentage of U.S. steel imports at this time, and given the flattening of the spread, the Chinese yuan must depreciate more significantly or U.S. prices must begin to rise once more before we can expect to see a major uptick in imports of Chinese CRC steel.

While industrial metals started 2019 in an upward trend, the complex showed weakness as 2019 progressed.

In fact, all of the industrial metals hit down around current support levels — and lower at times — during the past few weeks.

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With industrial metals down across the board, are we moving into bear market territory? Or have we witnessed a temporary blip resulting from less certain macroeconomic conditions?

To examine the situation in more detail, let’s have a look at some of the key industrial metals and recent prices.

The DBB Trended Back Down to Mid-January 2019 Values

After a bullish start to the year, the DBB peaked on a short-term basis in early April, then trended back down once more.

Compared with July 2018’s larger drop, this one appears milder, but the short-term downward trend remains.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of NASDAQ.com data

The DBB tracks three key industrial metals: aluminum, copper and zinc. Let’s take a look at each metal to assess price performance using the LME 3-month futures price.

LME Aluminum

Looking at weekly trading volume, it looks like the downtrend in price is played out (based on recent positive trading volume). Also, both positive and negative weekly volumes looked weak recently, with a lack of momentum in prices.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets.com

This indicates continued sideways movement on the LME aluminum price.

Given that the aluminum market moved largely sideways during the course of 2019, the Moving Average Convergence/Divergence (MACD) can also indicate where the market is at this time.

The MACD tracks the difference between two exponential smoothed moving averages (using the 12- and 26-day averages); it’s the black line in the graph below, which sits along the bottom edge below the price line. The red line, or signal line, uses the nine-day exponentially smoothed average of the MACD.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets.com

When the values hold above zero, this indicates the market is overbought. When they are below zero, this indicates the market is oversold. If the lines continue to trend downward, then the downtrend is still in process.

By this indicator, the aluminum market looks oversold and a buy signal emerged recently when the longer-term line turned up after a couple of days of upward market momentum and edged past the signal line. The signal line followed a day later, indicating the downtrend lost steam.

Based on this analysis, aluminum prices may have already hit bottom and turned around; therefore, the aluminum market itself does not look bearish at present.

LME Copper

LME copper prices lately have showed clear weakness. However, they found support again recently in daily trading, stopping a further slide in price.

With negative trading volume still registering on a weekly basis, the price dynamic for copper still looks weak.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets.com

Looking at volume on a weekly basis, we can see that it trended up again last week. Through the first few days of this week, volume registered as negative on the partial week’s data.

Copper prices still look weak.

LME Zinc

Like the other industrial metals, LME zinc prices trended downward in April.

Looking at weekly volumes for zinc, the price action looks mixed. (Note that the last bar shows only partial data for the week in progress.)

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets.com

Given the clearer trend when looking at LME zinc prices, we can use the 4-9-18 day moving average analysis to assess the state of the current downtrend. The result of the analysis shows the downtrend remains in process as the moving averages queue in the expected order, with the 18-day average on top (blue line), followed by the nine-day (purple line), then the four-day average (red line).

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets.com

Therefore, in the case of LME zinc (using this method) the downward trend continues. The red line, however, the shortest average and therefore most sensitive, has recently shown signs of turning back up.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets.com

Looking at a MACD analysis, based on the 12-, 26-, and nine-day periods, the downtrend continues with the signal line in red sitting above the MACD line in black, while both continue in a downward trend below the zero point of the MACD indicator bar.

Readings below zero on the indicator show bullishness in the sense that prices may turn around. However, in this case the lines continue moving in a downward trend, so we may not have seen the bottom of zinc prices just yet.

What this Means for Industrial Buyers

During recent weeks, the main industrial metals tracked by MetalMiner showed weakness. Will this be temporary or are we looking at a more cyclical movement into bear market territory?

While aluminum prices look relatively stable, copper and zinc prices appear weaker, with no clear signal given that the downturn has passed.

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Therefore, while it’s too soon to call a bear market, it’s also too soon to say we’ve avoided one.

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Chinese HRC prices increased again this month, while other forms of steel stayed flat overall.

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Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Looking more closely at HRC — along with CRC, HDG and plate — prices generally remain lower than a year ago on a year-on-year basis, with the exception of HRC due to the recent price increases. However, they all are generally hovering at similar prices levels, with HDG showing the biggest change.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

The spread between U.S. HRC and China HRC rests at $122/st, the lowest level since February 2018. However, recently the yuan weakened against the dollar, which will effectively increase the spread once more. A weaker yuan means Chinese prices will be cheaper.

China’s Economic Indicators Flattened in April

China’s Caixin Manufacturing PMI reading decreased unexpectedly for April, dropping to 50.2 from March’s eight-month high of 50.8. With the forecast value at 51.0, the drop surprised the market. Weakness came from decreased output and orders. Additionally, export sales dropped for a second straight month due to weaker overseas demand.

The FXI, an index of China’s large-cap companies, also showed flat growth recently after increasing since the start of the year.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Yahoo.com data

Crude Steel Production Increases Continued in March

According to the World Steel Association, China produced around 80.3 million metric tons of crude steel during March, an increase of 10% compared to March 2018. For the sake of comparison, the U.S. produced 7.8 million metric tons of crude steel in March, an increase of 5.7% compared with March 2018.

In late April, China’s Iron and Steel Association once again issued a statement indicating the industry faces risks due to ongoing excess capacity, sluggish demand and increased raw material costs.

According to the association, fixed asset investment in the sector increased by 30.6% during Q1 2019. Some of the capacity increase harks back to less environmentally friendly induction furnace production, as companies looking to boost output turned to cheaper production methods. The industry organization came out in a public statement advocating that companies refrain from illicit capacity increases.

According to a recent Reuters report, the organization warned against structural issues in the industry as demand weakens. In addition, profitability suffered due to rising iron ore prices.

China’s Baoshan Iron and Steel Co Ltd (Baosteel) recently announced that profits fell during Q1, the first such drop since 2015. The company cited higher raw material costs and weaker automotive demand as the key causal factors, while demand for steel for infrastructure remained strong.

The company expects to produce 45.46 million metric tons of iron and 48.18 million metric tons of steel in 2019, with an expectation of strong infrastructure demand. Baosteel also expects sales of steel for automotive production to remain a challenge due to the EV transition and due to the impact of tariff-related policy changes.

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China’s automotive sales declined by 11.3% during the first quarter compared with the same period of 2018, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM).