Articles in Category: Ferrous Metals

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.

Free Download: The July 2017 MMI Report

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.

Our July MMI report is in the books, and it paints a more positive picture than our June report.

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Last month, four sub-indexes posted no movement. This month? Just one.

On top of that, the number of sub-indexes posting upward movement increased from four to six.

It was an especially good month for the Raw Steels MMI, which shot up 4.4%.

The Stainless Steel MMI — stainless is also part of the Section 232 investigation – also rose, while the other 232 investigation subject, aluminum, fell by a point.

The Department of Commerce is expected to announce the results of the Section 232 steel investigation in the near term. Will the Trump administration opt for tariffs, quotas, or a combination of the two, to combat excess capacity from China? Will China make good on talk of cutting production, particularly in light of what was a record June for Chinese steel and aluminum production?

Once the first 232 domino drops, the metal markets will feel the ripple effects — it’s only a matter of when.

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You can read about all of the above and much more in our July MMI report, which you can download below.

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Defining the root cause of Britain’s predicament is not as simple as a sweeping “foreign competition” argument. But there’s no doubt that is part of the problem, as Britain’s steel industry has been decimated over the last 25 years.

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A House of Commons report last year said output from the UK steel industry was £2.2 billion in 1990, compared to £1.6 billion in 2015, a 30% fall (in 2013 prices).

Source: House of Commons Library Briefing Paper No. 07317, Oct. 28, 2016

The decline has left the U.K. producing just 11 million tons of steel, compared to 166 million tons for the EU as a whole and 804 million tons from China. A combination of global excess supply and lackluster government support has left the U.K. as the fifth-largest steel producer in the EU, after Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

In line with most European producers, surviving U.K. steelmakers have had to move up the value chain in order to remain profitable. Inevitably, however, the market for more value add, niche product areas is smaller than the bulk commodities end of the market.

The U.K., in turn, is a relatively small consumer of steel products, as medium to heavier industry has also declined over the years. As a result, the U.K. has lost the ability to make some of the grades or forms necessary for more demanding or critical applications.

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The Stainless Steel MMI inched one point higher to 55 for our July reading, finding itself at the level as the July 2016 reading.

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This is the first increase for this sub-index since March 2017, when the Stainless Steel MMI reached 63 points after a four-point increase.

Surcharges in the U.S. mill surcharges have decreased sharply this month. Reductions have been recorded on a month-to-month basis, resulting in a 17.8% reduction for ATI’s 316 surcharge and 19.9% for their 304. MetalBulletin also reports a reduction in the alloy surcharges in Europe. Deliveries of grade-304 cold rolled stainless steel sheet have fallen by €52-62 ($58-69) per ton month-on-month.

Global prices of ferrochrome, one of the raw materials used to make stainless steel, has dropped to lowest levels this year. This reduction is caused by weaker demand from stainless steel mills in China, currently the top producer of stainless steel, as reported by Reuters. Two of the largest stainless producers in China (Taiyuan Stainless and Tsingshan Group) blame weaker demand on increased stocks of ferrochrome in Chinese ports.  

The U.S. manufacturing PMI fell to 52.1 in June from 52.7 in May. This indicator has fallen below market expectations of 53, revealing a slowdown in business growth. Manufacturing PMI is at its lowest value since September 2016.

Chinese economic indicators, meanwhile, point to a moderation in Chinese growth.

China’s GDP is also expected to fall 0.1% this quarter. The Caixin Manufacturing PMI in China has increased this month to 51.70 points, 2.1 points above its previous value. This growth has beaten the market expectations of 49.5, caused by the faster rate of exports and output in the Chinese manufacturing industry.

The Section 232 investigations for both aluminum and steel (including stainless steel) have created additional price uncertainty. Europe is now beginning to express its concerns about the possible outcome of the investigations. A report on the investigations is due by January 2018, though there is speculation that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will release his recommendations in July.

Nickel prices have also shown weakness this month, reaching an 11-month low of $8,680/metric ton. Recently, nickel saw a stabilization in its supply. The export ban has eased in Indonesia, allowing the country to maintain its position as the world’s largest nickel producer.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

The boost in stainless steel prices that comes from China counters the reduction of stainless steel surcharges this month. Political and macroeconomic indicators should also be watched closely.  

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Actual Stainless Steel Prices, Trends

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In the week when the world pensively awaits the U.S.’s Section 232 judgement — a move promised by President Donald Trump during his election campaign and aimed largely at China — a recent Reuters report on Chinese steel exports makes interesting reading.

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Source: Reuters

China’s steel exports have been sliding for months.

According to Reuters, China’s January-May export total was 34.2 million tons, down 26% from last year’s equivalent period and the lowest level since 2014. The year drop in export tonnage amounted to 12.1 million tons — roughly equivalent to Canada’s production over a full 12-month period, Reuters reported.

Yet bizarrely enough, China produced 72.78 million tons of steel in April, an all-time record Reuters says. The following month, China tallied the second-highest monthly total at 72.26 million tons.

Meanwhile, profits on products like steel rebar have surged to $162 dollars per ton this month, as inventory levels have fallen and demand has remained robust (particularly from the construction sector). Investment in real estate is running at an annual growth rate over 6%, Reuters reports. Although there are fears of overheating in some regions, real estate has been stronger for longer than analysts outside the market expected.

As we noted in a piece yesterday reviewing the 232 probe, China’s share of the U.S. import market for steel products has been falling for the last couple of years, mainly due to successful anti-dumping cases. China no longer appears even in the top 10.

So, what exactly is going on in China with respect to steel production and demand? Can we take it that Beijing’s actions to tackle excess steel production have finally resolved China’s deflationary impact on global steel markets?

First, Reuters notes that China has been quite successful in permanently closing previously shuttered steel plants, as well as in in tackling older and more environmentally damaging mills. Those actions combined has resulted in the removal of some 100 million tons of capacity.

In addition, Beijing’s focus on environmental issues has hastened the closure of induction furnaces, which use scrap rather than iron ore as their input and are often labelled as producers of sub-standard products (and, hence, unapproved). Unapproved equates to illegal by Beijing — as such, their production and their closures does not figure in the normal statistics. A significant proportion of China’s rebar production came from these mills, which explains the record profits being earned by surviving state-owned manufacturers of the same products as they capitalize on the removal of these scrappy competitors.

Unfortunately, nobody expects China’s construction market to continue at the current pace and a slowdown is in the forecast for the second half of the year.  Replenishment of low inventory levels will maintain steel mill production runs for a while, but as Reuters notes, China’s mills have a notoriously poor record in adjusting output to demand. So, we should expect that as demand eases, inventorying levels will rise, prices will fall, and access production may well begin to leak through exports onto the international market.

Free Download: The June 2017 MMI Report

While America’s anti-dumping legislation will largely protect that market from Chinese material, the rest of the world may find itself under pressure next year from greater availability of Chinese steel at falling prices, further fueling an already rising tide of protectionist sentiment in both developed and emerging markets.

China is far from alone in worrying about an investigation by the U.S. Department of Commerce into the impact of imported steel on the U.S. steel industry (due to be announced this week).

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The Section 232 investigation is the result of a campaign pledge by President Donald Trump to protect domestic steelmakers against foreign steel imports. Section 232 uses as its test whether imports have been detrimentally harmed the U.S. ability to produce steel for its defense industry, and while it is not country-specific there was little secret at whom it was primarily aimed.

The worry in Europe, generally, and in the U.K. in particular, is that supplies from the region will be caught up in a blanket Section 232 ruling, applying onerous duties that could hit some local steelmakers disproportionately hard.

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The landmark North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect 23 years ago — unsurprisingly, many in the metals industry are eyeing reforms to modernize the long-standing agreement signed by the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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In late April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order focusing on trade-agreement violations and abuses, directing the Department of Commerce and the United States trade representative (USTR) to study the U.S.’s free-trade agreements. One month ago, the office of the USTR notified Congress of the administration’s intention to renegotiate NAFTA.

In recent months, Trump has indicated he is willing to terminate the agreement if renegotiation efforts don’t go anywhere. In April, the president said he was “psyched” to terminate the deal, but ultimately had a change of heart after speaking with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, per media reports.

That came three months after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), negotiated by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

When will renegotiation actually happen? The timeline isn’t clear. On Monday, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told reporters renegotiation might not happen until next year.

As uncertainty clouds NAFTA’s future, domestic metals organizations have weighed in on the ways in which they believe the 23-year-old agreement can be improved.

Metal Industry Hopes to Keep Positives, Target Problem Areas

Players in the metals industry have spoken out about how they want to see 23-year-old trilateral trade agreement modified for this new age.

In a filing June 12, The Aluminum Association, addressing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, urged that NAFTA should be renegotiated in a way that modernizes it without compromising the benefits of the original agreement.

In the letter to Lighthizer, The Aluminum Association underscored three ways to strengthen the agreement:

  • Improving and strengthening customs procedures and cooperation to facilitate the movement of aluminum and aluminum products among the United States, Canada, and Mexico
  • Working with the Canadian and Mexican governments to ensure that “NAFTA preferences are available only to aluminum articles that truly originate in the territory of a NAFTA party” and that “unscrupulous producers and exporters operating outside the NAFTA region are not improperly claiming preferential treatment under NAFTA by either making fraudulent country of origin claims or incorrectly classifying the article at issue”
  • Negotiating common disciplines on the operations of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which “often benefit from favorable government policies and subsidies that create significant market distortions”

Regarding the third point, the release specifically zeroed in on China, noting “massive overcapacity” encourages unfair trading practices.

In addition to the aluminum industry, steel groups are weighing in on a potential NAFTA face-lift.

The American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), like The Aluminum Association, stressed in a letter to Edward Gresser, chair of the Trade Policy Staff Committee, that NAFTA has yielded “significant benefits” but could be modernized after nearly a quarter of a century since its passage.

NAFTA has been critical to the steel industry, as 90% of all U.S. steel mill product exports went to Canada or Mexico in 2016, according to the June 12 AISI letter.

U.S. steel exports to Canada and Mexico grew rapidly following the passage of NAFTA. Source: American Iron and Steel Institute

Like The Aluminum Association, the AISI cited rules-of-origin issues, global overcapacity and conduct of SOEs as issues needing assessment in a revamped agreement.

In addition, currency manipulation was a point of emphasis.

“Currency manipulation makes exports more expensive, imports cheaper, and can subsidize cheaper prices for exports to third-markets,” the AISI letter states. “The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has provisions against currency manipulation, but the lack of an enforcement mechanism has limited their effectiveness.”

The AISI also suggested possible improvements to “streamline” customs procedures and “to ensure that manufacturers can ship and receive steel in an efficient manner.” Part of that streamlining, AISI argues, includes updating border infrastructure.

So, in many ways, U.S. steel and aluminum seem to be on the same page with respect to NAFTA — that is, that there’s room for improvement.

NAFTA Renegotiation a Hot Topic

The USTR sent out a notice May 27 seeking public comments on the topic of NAFTA renegotiation. The period for public comments closed June 12, but not before 1,396 comments were submitted.

Clearly, NAFTA is a very important subject to many people and industry organizations. While the minutiae of free-trade agreements can sometimes make the subject seem opaque, the outcomes are decidedly human, as jobs and livelihoods are often at stake.

Leo Gerard, international president of United Steelworkers, submitted a public comment in support of renegotiating NAFTA, provided it is “along the lines identified in the comprehensive approach identified in the negotiating framework document submitted on behalf of the USW and other unions by the AFL-CIO.”

“We have felt the negative impact of the NAFTA first hand since it entered into force more than two decades ago,” Gerard wrote. “Tens of thousands of plants have shut down, millions of workers have lost their jobs and many other workers have seen their compensation stagnate or decline as a result of NAFTA.”

Looking Ahead

What’s next for the process? A public hearing will be held at 9 a.m. Tuesday, June 27, in the Main Hearing Room of the United States International Trade Commission, 500 E Street SW., Washington D.C.

As demonstrated by the volume of public comments, there is a wide range of suggestions being offered with respect to NAFTA renegotiations.

One thing, however, is clear: Many of the interested parties want change of some kind.

Free Download: The June 2017 MMI Report

Our June MMI Report is in the books, and there’s a lot to unpack.

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

Out of 10 MMI sub-indexes, four posted no movement from our May MMIs. That wasn’t true for all, though, as the report shows promising signs for construction (compared with last year). Like the Construction MMI, growth in the automotive sector slowed a bit, but still performed better than at the same time last year.

In terms of policy, several things happening around the world will have macroscopic effects on these industries.

Domestically, the Trump administration’s ongoing Section 232 investigation into steel imports will have ripple effects at home and abroad (namely in the Chinese steel market).

In the U.K., the recent shocker of a parliamentary election leaves question marks regarding the way forward — is it going to be a “hard” or “soft” Brexit? Does Theresa May have the political capital to make a hard Brexit happen? It seems unlikely now, but that situation continues to develop. In terms of business and metal markets, whichever iteration of Brexit takes hold will have effects on the ways in which British companies do business with Europe.

In China, many analysts expect growth to slow in the second half of 2017 as the government aims to put the squeeze on credit growth. (Moody’s recently downgraded China’s credit rating for the first time since 1989.)

While several MMI sub-indexes did not go up or down this past month, there was still quite a bit going on in each sector. You can fill yourself in by downloading our June MMI Report, which offers all of the storylines and trends for our 10 MMI sub-indexes, presented in one convenient place.

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An article this week in Bloomberg catches the eye with a title announcing “hard-to-believe” steel shortages in China.

After years of excess supply, over-capacity and atrocious levels of resulting pollution, it would be a bit much to hear the country was short of steel — but that is what Fortescue’s CEO Nev Power is quoted as saying in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Beijing on Monday.

The gist of his claims? Closures of induction furnaces are creating a shortage of rebar, not because market demand is strong but because supply has become constrained, Power explained.

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

Actually, the story is not a new one.

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The June Stainless MMI follows its prior three-month trend, dropping 3 points again this month to end up at a value of 54. With the 5.3% loss, the sub-index is coming back to the same levels as one year ago.

The steel (and stainless steel) industry has always been strongly influenced by political issues. Now that the trade cases have largely been decided, the Trump administration’s Section 232 investigation will likely have an impact on domestic steel markets, including the stainless steel sector. Recommendations will likely be released in July.

Steel capacity utilization has increased this past month, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI). We’ve also seen a healthy manufacturing PMI, indicating positive industrial development.

Notwithstanding, the Chinese Caixin manufacturing PMI index hit an 11-month low. Despite strong growth indicators here in the U.S., steel market participants should carefully monitor the powerful link between the price of steel in China and that in the United States. A rebound in the Chinese economy — and consequently in the steel market — might result in increased steel (and stainless steel) prices. Conversely, the opposite is also true.

Nickel prices have also fallen this month due to Philippine mines reopening, together with increased Indonesian exports.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Stainless steel prices usually move drastically in one direction and then hold steady for a little while. While we watch a possible price correction, buying organizations might want to follow the market closely to identify possible buying opportunities should prices continue to decline.

Actual Stainless Steel Prices and Trends

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