Author Archives: Stuart Burns

ThyssenKrupp

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German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp must be desperate to get rid of its steel business.

The steelmaker makes a great range of products of world-class quality. The brand has undeniable strength as a result.

However, it has not and cannot make money from it.

ThyssenKrupp steel division posts losses

The ThyssenKrupp steel division lost money last year.

Quite how much is difficult to say.

However, the Financial Times reported last year the firm predicted losses of a billion Euros for 2020. That is a not inconsiderable proportion of total group losses of more than €5.5 billion reported by the Financial Times this week.

The same article reports the group’s proposal to spin off the steel division as a separate entity, apparently in the expectation it would be easier to raise investment as a standalone unit.

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Previous efforts

Efforts to sell or merge the steelmaking division with competitors in recent years have failed repeatedly.

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copper coils stacked

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China has had a fraction of the deaths and hospitalizations from the COVID-19 pandemic that Western societies have had. Furthermore, China had an economic bounceback that saw its GDP rise 2.3% last year.

China’s bounceback

The rebound has been impressive.

Construction of new high-speed train lines to smaller provincial cities and new motorways connecting remote cities left behind in previous plans in part drove the recovery.

The housing sector has also boomed. Overseas demand has boosted manufacturing, particularly PPE and electronic goods, even as other exporters have suffered by lockdowns in those markets.

In the longer term, further debt and a swing back to manufacturing from the earlier pivot to consumption will not do the economy or China any good.

For now, however, the economy is humming. Tailwinds from both stimulus and pent-up savings should keep the economy growing strongly in the first half of 2021.

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Jaguar Land Rover sign

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Although auto plants were among many industries closed in the U.K. during the first lockdown last year, closures gave companies time to prepare working environments to be safe for workers.

By the end of the first lockdown, most automakers were back in at least partial production with reduced manning.

Auto sales have since been poor, although electric and hybrid sales have been up. The industry in the U.K. experienced one of its worst  years on record. However, there were signs demand had started to pick up before this latest U.K.-wide lockdown in response the country’s current so called third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Jaguar Land Rover faces production stoppage

Automakers, along with most other manufacturing companies, have, on the whole, managed both a return to normal output and worker safety remarkably well. In the process, they’ve showed considerable innovation and adaptability.

But a recent post in BirminghamLive, the online portal for the local Birmingham Mail newspaper, reports how a shocking outbreak of infections has ripped through Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) plants in the U.K.’s Midlands. The outbreak led to the temporary cessation of Jaguar XE and XF saloon production at the company’s Castle Bromwich plant. Furthermore, the firm is relocating staff to its larger Lode Lane plant in Solihull to keep it operating.

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London Metal Exchange

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Steel is the world’s second-largest commodity after crude oil. It is 15 times the size of all other metals markets combined in terms of metric tons. Furthermore, it is worth twice their value.

Yet, until recently, it was an industry that saw little use for a futures market. That is primarily because major steel participants enjoyed stable long-term prices for the materials they needed.

Price material volatility

Prices for iron ore and coking coal, two of the essential raw materials for steel production, have become far more volatile in recent years. That volatility has sent price shocks rippling through the supply chain. In turn, it has created volatility in finished steel prices that consumers are desperate to contain.

Enter the major futures exchanges. For over 200 years, the London Metal Exchange (LME) has provided the trade – producers, traders and consumers – the opportunity to hedge their risk across a growing range of base metals.

However, only recently have exchanges such as the LME, the U.S.’s CME and the Shanghai Futures Exchange (SHFE) in China introduced products allowing the trade to hedge raw material and finished steel price risk.

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electric vehicle charging

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Automotive producers the world over are facing challenges, but the U.K. automotive industry is arguably in the most challenging environment of all.

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U.K. automotive sector faces headwinds

Over the last year, COVID-19 restrictions have closed showrooms. Furthermore, Brexit has raised the prospect of trading tariffs with Europe. In addition, the government has repeatedly moved the goal posts on the sale of internal combustion engines toward the end of the decade.

A new trade deal with the E.U. allows tariff free access to the U.K.’s largest automotive export market. The announcement of the new deal on Christmas Eve proved a massive relief for the industry, according to Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), an industry body, as quoted in the Financial Times.

However, tariff-free does not mean barrier-free. Additional safety certification and much more onerous paperwork involved in the movement of goods between the U.K. and the E.U. will increase complexity for a U.K. supply chain intimately entwined with the E.U.

New clarity in 2021 for U.K. automotive industry

Nevertheless, the U.K. automotive industry is at least starting 2021 with better clarity than it endured through much of last year.

But one looming crisis the SMMT identified is the incomplete nature of the U.K.’s electric vehicle supply chain.

Specifically, the FT reports, the U.K. is going to need far more battery factories if it is to sustain a switch to electric vehicles in the decade ahead.

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iron ore

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Iron ore — or at least iron ore producers — have had a pretty good pandemic.

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Recovering iron ore output

In Brazil, historic environmental restrictions and, at least in Q1 2020, heavy rains hampered Vale’s operations. In addition, the miner faced an ongoing impact on its workforce due to the spread of the virus in South America.

However, output came back as 2020 progressed.

Output averaged 4.48 million tons per month in the first half of 2020. However, output increased to 6.10 million tons per month in the second half, according to SPG Global estimates.

Australia’s iron ore sector and China tensions

 

Meanwhile, Australia had fewer environmental and pandemic-related challenges.

However, the country has been fighting an ongoing trade war with China. The conflict stems from Australian suggestions that China should investigate and publish details on the cause and early spread of the COVID-19 virus from Wuhan.

Beijing has reacted negatively to those suggestions. In turn, it has applied sanctions on Australian thermal coal and other commodities in a bid to get them to retract the demand.

As a result, China has tried to dissuade purchases from Australia. However, with supply out of Brazil hampered, Australia still secured the lion’s share, amounting to some 60% of Chinese iron ore imports.

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Brexit

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After four and a half years and unprecedented social and political discord, it has finally happened: the United Kingdom has left the European Union with the bare bones of a free trade agreement.

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Bare bones free trade agreement

It took until Christmas Eve — ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline exit date for both sides to make the final compromises necessary to reach an agreement.

However, to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s credit, after all of the lies and disinformation around the benefits of leaving the E.U., he did finally get it done. Even the normally neutral and sober Financial Times acknowledges it is but the bare bones of a deal, with much left uncovered and much still to be agreed.

The deal covers goods, exports to the E.U. of which make up just 8% of U.K. GDP. However, the deal leaves out services. According to The Guardian, services account for around 80% of the U.K.’s economic activity and about 50% of its exports by value to the E.U.

There will be a lengthy process of ongoing negotiation around how much access the City of London is allowed to E.U. business. Similarly, there will be discussions regarding what constitutes the required “equivalence” for which the E.U. is looking.

This means the previous passporting agreement allowing automatic access to the E.U. is replaced by so-called equivalence. That is, each side unilaterally permits companies from the other to conduct certain financial activities in its territory.

That’s hardly a stable position. E.U. countries like France and Germany have made no secret of their desire to challenge the U.K.’s historical dominance in financial services post-Brexit.

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The oil price is caught between a short-term recovery and the medium-term prospect of peak oil, as countries ramp up programs to decarbonize by switching power generation sources and banning internal combustion engines (ICE).

The oil price has been seesawing between vaccine optimism and pandemic pessimism. Yet, it has managed a gradual recovery from its lows last year to around $50 a barrel now.

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Oil price recovers … but outlook remains muted

However, the oil price is nowhere near where most OPEC+ members would like it to be. It’s also not where shale producers need it to be to sustain capital raising for a return to growth.

However, the oil price could arguably have been a lot less. The price owes its current position to stoic management by OPEC+’s leading producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Consumption still hasn’t recovered to a pre-pandemic level. Furthermore, it doesn’t have any prospect of reaching the levels projected for 2021 global consumption this time last year.

Demand destruction

Demand destruction has come from three main areas, the Financial Times notes, none of which are likely to turn around anytime soon.

The first factor is jet fuel. Air travel is severely depressed and is unlikely to fully recover for several years. Current consumption is some 2.5 million barrels per day below pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, the second factor is gasoline and diesel consumption, which will likely recover more quickly. Even so, it will likely not see 2019 levels this year.

The final hit is from a wider loss of industrial activity and lower levels of goods shipped by sea.

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coronavirus

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Could the coronavirus pandemic bring about more reshoring in the U.S.?

The question is not just of interest in the U.S. By many measures, Europe has been hit as severely by the pandemic. If anything, Europe is even more reliant on global supply chains than the U.S.

The political philosophy that underpinned the Trump administration’s efforts to slow China’s advance — that is, to bring jobs back to the U.S. and “level the playing field” — is also prevalent in Europe. However, in the more fragmented political environment of the E.U., that philosophy is arguably taking longer to come into focus.

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Supply chains, reshoring and a ‘great reset’

Disruption to supply chains due to lockdowns was a relatively short, albeit very sharp, shock.

Automakers temporarily shut down Japanese production lines due to a shortage of parts from China in Q1. Furthermore, there is ongoing chaos at European, particularly U.K., ports due to a host of pandemic-related factors.

Supply chains far and wide have struggled during 2020. These challenges are prompting many to ask: is this the jolt needed to stimulate a great reset?

As The Economist notes, there can be a business case for it, too.

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There has been quite a bit of analyst chatter about the likely impact of China’s return to the steel scrap market next year.

In 2019, the authorities essentially banned steel scrap imports. The move came, in part, because many of the grades were classified as waste. However, of late the rumor is China will be moving to reclassify ferrous scrap as a recyclable resource and could lift the import ban (probably in Q1 2021).

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Steel scrap imports plunge

According to Platts, China has 184 million tons of EAF steelmaking capacity at the end of 2020. Furthermore, the country will likely have 197 million tons by end of 2021.

The totals are up from 175 million ton at the end of 2019, when scrap imports had plunged to just 180,000 tons due to the ban.

Domestic steel scrap production has been on the rise, generating some 240 million tons in 2019. As such, the 2014-18 average annual imports figure can be seen as minuscule by comparison.

But while they may be small, they are not insignificant.

Normally, imports rise and fall relative to the premium arbitrage of domestic prices over world prices. Currently, domestic steel scrap prices in China are said to be about $60/mt or Yuan 400/mt over Southeast Asian seaborne scrap prices on like-for-like grades (when freight and taxes are included).

Should imports be relaxed, there is, therefore, the potential to suck in considerable imports.

Platts suggests this would not top the record 13.7 million tons imported in 2009. Some, however, disagree, saying it could reach 20 million tons.

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