Author Archives: Stuart Burns

Bizarrely, although zinc prices have soared this year on the back of demand for galvanized steel for construction, further strength this week may have been heightened by a loss of investor appetite for those same steel products.

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Following booming steel prices this year, the Shanghai exchange increased trading charges last week in an effort to curb speculative activity. Steel prices have consequently slumped by 3.5% as investors got out of steel and into steelmaking raw materials with lower transaction charges, such as zinc.

Surging Shanghai zinc prices have in turn encouraged a rise in the London Metal Exchange price, hitting a peak of $2,994 per metric ton — not seen since October 2007, Reuters reports.

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Unlike the steel mergers of the mid-noughties, the mergers currently in the news are born out of weakness, not strength, a recent Financial Times article suggests.

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According to the piece, profitability among the continent’s steelmakers plunged from a peak in the third quarter of 2008 — when each ton shipped delivered on average €215 in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization — to just €46/tonne in the first quarter of 2016, according to calculations by UBS.

The figure has recovered since to about €83/tonne in the first quarter of 2017, but at the cost of 86,000 job losses since the financial crisis and years of losses contributing to the bankruptcy of the continent’s largest steel production plant, Ilva, in Italy.

Source Financial Times

Despite years of suboptimal capacity utilization, there has been limited rationalization of production continentwide, with governments fiercly opposing job losses in their backyard and steelmakers hoping the other guy will make the cuts. Even Ilva is now being taken over by ArcelorMittal rather than closing completely, and following a major investment will be back in production next year.

Source Financial Times

Although the industry acknowledges Europe will never need as much steel as it once did, ArcelorMittal is quoted as saying the industry is looking to governments to do more to stem imports from Russia and China, and facilitate the planned and phased closure of persistently loss-making plants. Less foreign competition and more consolidation is the agenda in the hope fewer more-consolidated steelmakers can achieve greater clout with buyers in a more constrained market, forcing through higher prices.

Source Financial Times

When ArcelorMittal’s takeover of Ilva is complete, the combined entity will control some 30% of European flat-rolled steel production, up from 26.5% for ArcelorMittal now. While Tata Steel’s proposed and much-delayed merger with ThyssenKrupp’s steel division — currently Europe’s second-largest steel producer — would raise their combined market share for hot-rolled flat products to over 20%.

Steel prices are already up nearly 60% from the bottom in 2015 on the back of improved recovery in steel demand and a gradual increase in anti-dumping legislation restricting some types of steel imports into Europe. Producers would like to see this go a lot further, of course, but consumers are fighting to keep the import market open, fearing — with some justification — that more action will reduce competition and result in significantly higher prices.

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For the first time in years, steelmakers at least seem to have a plan and are actively pursuing it. Whether that plan is to the eventual benefit or detriment of consumers remains to be seen — but a healthier domestic steel industry must certainly be advantageous to all.

AdobeStock/Stephen Coburn

Two articles in the Financial Times this week give polar opposite views on the direction for oil prices next year.

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The first is a report on bets taken by the highly successful hedge fund manager Pierre Andurand on the direction for prices. Andurand is predicting prices will rise above $100 per barrel by 2020 as demand growth exceeds the ability of the U.S. shale industry to meet demand at current prices.

The article quite reasonably points out investment in the oil industry has fallen dramatically as prices have declined, saying on average 40 new developments were approved annually between 2007 and 2013 by the oil majors. That number fell to just 12 last year, as the low oil price left only the most simple and straightforward projects viable.

Furthermore, Andurand believes the U.S. shale industry will find it increasingly difficult to justify new investment if prices remain at current levels — as new fields will become more expensive to develop and maintain, the industry is surviving on the low-hanging fruit at present.

The second article reports on the International Energy Agency (IEA) announcements last week that, despite robust consumption, the current level of cuts is failing to curtail commercial inventories fast enough and still stand at some 3 billion barrels.

Noncompliance from some oil producers exempted from the supply cuts agreement and widespread cheating by others have failed to deliver the level of constraint needed to counter rising U.S. shale output.

Impacts of Oil Price Fluctuations on Metal Prices

True, oil prices have rallied some 8% since July as stockpiles have eased and reports of global demand rising have encouraged the market — but here is why this is relevant for more than just the cost of a tank of gas.

Oil prices are one of the key drivers, along with GDP and the strength of the U.S. dollar, in determining metal prices. A continued weak oil price would help constrain rises in metal prices next year, at a time when stock markets show no sign of falling and the U.S. dollar has remained persistently weak this year. Metal prices are on a rise this month and many consumers fear we are in for a period of sustained price increases through the end of this year.

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Let’s hope the IEA’s more pessimistic forecast is closer to the truth than Andurand’s bullish bets.

The demise of the iron ore price has been repeatedly predicted but has failed to materialize over the last few months. Miners line up to announce strong sales and yet repeatedly voice notes of caution that excess supply could overwhelm the recovery.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Yet the market continues to be confounded by not just a rising iron ore price, but continued strength in Chinese steel prices and a wider strength in metals prices.

Several factors are feeding this robust performance and it will take a reversal of one or more factors to spark a change in direction of metal prices.

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Popular wisdom suggests a currency devaluation results in a boost to exports and the economy. The devaluation of the currency allows manufacturers, in particular, to sell their products at lower prices in export markets and therefore achieve growth at the expense of their competitors.

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Many countries have been trying to quietly engineer just such a devaluation.

Some have done it overtly, like Japan, and others simply by being part of a bloc, such as Germany – it being widely accepted that the Deutschmark, if it still existed, would have Germany at an exchange rate like Switzerland or Norway, rather than the more competitive Euro.

So when Britain inexplicably voted to leave the European Union and the Pound sterling dropped in minutes on the news, many held the near 17% devaluation as a panacea for Britain’s economic ills, as the onset of a renaissance for manufacturing companies able to aggressively export to the world while simultaneously undercutting competitors.

The reality has proved somewhat otherwise.

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An interesting report by Reuters explores the vagaries of supply from Indonesia and the Philippines, the world’s two largest nickel producers — and, unfortunately for the nickel price, it would seem two of the least reliable suppliers.

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Source: Reuters

By far and away the most volatile supplier has been the Philippines.

Former Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources Regina Lopez’s mining crusade and resulting export ban last year had a cataclysmic effect on output from which the country has not recovered, despite her replacement in May by Roy Cimatu, Reuters reports.

The latest assessment by the International Nickel Study Group (INSG) notes the country’s nickel production fell by 15% to 101,000 metric tons in the first five months of this year. Shipments of nickel ore to China have also been flowing at a reduced pace. Chinese imports from the Philippines slid by 6% over the first half of the year, according to Reuters.

Indonesia’s supply constraint, on the other hand, was driven by a policy to achieve greater value add in-country, started by a 2014 export ban on unprocessed ore which has only recently seen a partial rollback, as progress has been made in setting up nickel pig iron plants in the country. There are now multiple nickel “smelters” producing nickel pig iron or equivalent intermediate product in Indonesia, Reuters reports, quoting INSG estimates that mined production has surged 89% to 122,000 tons in the January-May period.

Meanwhile, the market has been responding to these political proclamations and about-turns with dramatic changes in short and long positions.

Reuters quotes LME Commitment of Traders figures to support price movements and investor position taking. The 18% nickel price rally over the last month to $10,445, a five-month high, followed investors flocking back to the market driving net long positions to 32,363 lots, compared with a net short of 887 lots on May 15. The return to the market seems to have been on the back of the nickel price’s fall to a year’s low of $8,680 and the widespread belief — supported by the closure of half of Indonesia’s processing plants — that refining becomes uneconomic below a nickel price of $9,000 per metric ton.

If $9,000 is the price floor based on current technology, what is the upside, stainless consumers will be asking?

In part, that depends on the potential for constraints to supply.

Demand remains solid. Reuters states Chinese imports of Indonesian “ferronickel” (nickel pig iron) broke through the 100,000-ton barrier in May and stayed there in June, while cumulative imports in those two months were 270,000 tons (bulk weight), exceeding total imports in 2015.

Demand, therefore, remains solid, but so too does supply. Netted between them, the two countries produced 223,000 tons of nickel in the first half of this year, up from 184,000 tons in the  same  period of 2016, according to the INSG. China’s imports of nickel raw materials, ore and concentrates, were also up in the first half of this year by 4% (not counting the separate flow of Indonesian ferronickel).

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Providing Cimatu continues with his conciliatory approach to miners, the market is likely to conclude exports are going to continue. The market has a floor at $9,000 per ton, but according to Reuters it could also be capped by rising supply as both countries ease restrictions and supply remains adequate.

With the oil price under pressure from excess supply and a growing percentage of the North American market’s oil and natural gas demand being met from domestic sources, the last thing you would expect is a surge in oil and natural gas tanker construction.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

But according to the Financial Times, that is exactly what Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), the world’s largest shipbuilder, is experiencing.

HHI has reported a 70% jump in first-half operating profit, to Won 315 billion ($280 million) in the first six months of this year from Won 186 billion a year earlier.

Even more impressive is the surge in the order book.

The group won orders to build 81 vessels worth $4.5 billion so far this year, compared with 16 vessels worth $1.7 billion in the same period last year led by a rebound in oil tankers and gas carriers, the Financial Times reports.

Source: Financial Times

It may be counterintuitive that shipping demand is surging so dramatically. Demand is positive but hardly growing robustly.

One explanation is as older vessels are retired for oil storage, stimulated by the current relatively low oil price environment, demand is increasing for more efficient, new vessels to replace them.

Apparently, both Samsung Heavy Industries and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering are going through a similar uptick in demand.

Samsung Heavy’s first-half operating profit swung to Won 48 billion from an operating loss of Won 277.6 billion a year earlier. Daewoo Shipbuilding is also expected to report an operating profit of up to Won 800 billion for the first half after narrowly avoiding bankruptcy in April on a $2.6 billion bailout by state-run lenders, the Financial Times reports.

For the big three, this turnaround must be very welcome after years of losses and poor sales. The news will also bolster Korean steelmakers and the rest of the shipbuilders’ supply chain.

The only country building much the last few years has been China, a shipbuilding market served almost exclusively by its domestic steel mills.

However, Korean steel mills have a well-established positon as producers of high-quality, shipbuilding-grade steel.

According to Clarksons, the Financial Times reports new orders for ships worldwide rose more than 40% in the first half of this year, with South Korea taking  one-third of them, closely trailing behind China. Continued strength into next year will depend on global growth continuing in a broadly positive direction and the longer-term trend of greater reliance on liquefied natural gas for power and chemicals feedstock.

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Liquefied natural gas shipbuilding construction has been a speciality of the Korean shipyards and should remain a core offering, despite growing competition from China’s shipyards.

Zerophoto/Adobe Stock

The damage to brand is extending far beyond Volkswagen.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

The whole German car industry, once held up as the paradigm of quality and professionalism, is feeling the aftershocks of Volkswagen’s emissions testing deceit (popularly dubbed Dieselgate).

The challenge for the German auto industry is made all the more severe because of the industry’s reliance on the diesel engine.

According to a Financial Times article, Germany’s carmakers will upgrade 5.3 million diesel vehicles to reduce their harmful emissions as they scramble to save the country’s manufacturing image and the technology so badly tarnished by the Volkswagen test-rigging scandal.

The 5.3 million cars to be upgraded include 3.8 million Volkswagen vehicles — 2.5 million of which had already been recalled over the emissions issue.

Some 900,000 Daimler cars are involved, plus 300,000 BMWs, as well as a few Opel vehicles, the report states.

The urgency is compounded by reports that a number of German cities, fed up with high levels of air pollution, are contemplating driving bans on diesel vehicles — a move that would devastate the auto sector, the Financial Times reports.

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The steel market is doing rather well, particularly in the U.S., but an improvement in demand is helping lift earnings in Europe, too.

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The phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats” is probably true of steel companies — it is also true to say it doesn’t lift all boats equally.

ArcelorMittal, part way through a major re-structuring program to re-focus the business on value add growth areas and exit less attractive market segments, is doing rather well judging by both the share price and recent reporting.

The Northwest Indiana Times reported last week that the world’s largest steelmaker grew its second-quarter profit by 19% to $1.3 billion, lifting its first-half profit to $2.3 billion (compared to just $696 million during the same period in 2016).

Demand in the U.S. — though it has been impacted by imports, the firm claims — was high, as the firm shipped 21.5 million tons of steel in the second quarter, a 2% increase over the first quarter. So far this year, however, its steel shipments in H1 declined by 2.4% to 42.5 million tons compared to the year before.

So, margins are up but volumes are down. North American shipments dropped 3.4% to 5.4 million tons and crude steel production fell 7.3% to 5.8 million tons, the Northwest Indiana Times reports. Yet, with sales prices up 5.7%, sales values were up 3.3% to $4.6 billion in North America, leading to much-improved profits.

Even U.S. Steel is doing better. CEO Dave Burritt said U.S. Steel saw “higher prices and volumes in all of our segments.” Burritt also said management believes that if the steel market continues going as it is currently, it could earn as much as $1.70 per share this year – adding the caveat that unfortunately it doesn’t see the market continuing in the same manner for the rest of the year.

Analysts are questioning whether the present share value is justified, suggesting after falling some 30% already this year it could have further to go.

Analysts such as Citi see major “downside” in 2018 and 2019 to U.S. Steel’s share price, predicting a loss for the year even though the first half has been relatively (for U.S. Steel) strong.

Waning Optimism and What Comes Next

Some steel sector share prices were boosted earlier this year by the hope President Trump would pump billions into infrastructure. Then, as hopes faded for that outcome, they got a sugar rush from the prospect of trade measures to curb imports of foreign steel.

But the Motley Fool, quoting the Wall Street Journal last week, reported comments by the president suggesting he was kicking trade action into the long grass.

Trump said he does not want to impose tariffs and quotas on imported steel “at this moment.” Objections from trade partners (who don’t want their exports curbed), and from domestic steel users as well (who like the idea of cheap foreign steel) are sapping the administration’s support for the trade action. It’s hardly surprising, but until recently the steel lobby had been putting a powerful case for action, and it took time for counterarguments to gain traction.

The president went on to say that instead of imposing sanctions “very soon,” as the steel industry was hoping, his staff will need to do “statutory studies … addressing the steel dumping” issue. And while the president promised action “fairly soon,” he also said the administration plans to address health-care reform, tax reform, and may even want to get an infrastructure bill passed by Congress before returning to the steel issue.

So, for the time being, forget about it — “he has other fish to fry” seems to be the position.

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Without curbs to imports, the view for steel companies’ profits remaining robust becomes less compelling.

Companies like Nucor and Arcelor will continue to do well, but others, like U.S. Steel and AK Steel, will struggle later this year and into 2018.

Life sometimes springs happy coincidences on us.

Benchmark Your Current Metal Price by Grade, Shape and Alloy: See How it Stacks Up

Sustainable supply chains have become increasingly important, as companies assess the economic damage to their brand of exposure to bad news from their supply chains.

Social media has made the dissemination of such information faster, easier and instantly global in nature, rather than being limited to those who read the papers or are industry insiders.

A chance introduction to Daniel Perry from EcoVadis one evening earlier last week was an education in how sophisticated the assessment and auditing of supply chains has become — and not just for Fortune 500s in the public eye. Supply chains have also become more complicated for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) keen on growing the bottom line, but also on building an ethical business.

Where was the coincidence, you may ask, apart from the one data point of meeting Perry?

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