There’s an age-old adage that one thing is constant ” and it’s change. No, I’m not leading into politics and the 2008 presidential election in the States. Rather, let’s think beyond Super Tuesday and look to the metals industry. With all of the metals industry’s longstanding practices, are there really ways for metals and metals-related processes and purchases to become eco-friendly? Rest easy, because the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, the metals industry is the vibrant host to several new ecologically aware innovations, and they might be the key to sustainable growth and development. Read more
Articles in Category: Ferrous Metals
Several weeks ago, we published an article titled Industrial Economic Signals: Down But Not Out. At that time (January 4, to be exact) everyone was speaking the “R” word but the indicators weren’t saying it was so. We’ll know in a couple of days what the indicators are telling us for the month of January but if you pick up any local paper (I picked up Crain’s Chicago), you can’t go to far without reading headlines such as, “Winded City market mahem, recession darken local business mood”. The story goes on to describe a local castings company whose revenue has dropped by 15% while customers were demanding 15% cost reductions ‘or they would move their business to China or Mexico’ according to the article. (Have at it, we would say as the owner of that business….you aren’t going to get 15% savings out of China these days but we’ll leave that rant to another post.)
Back to the headline at hand. Wall Street, according to a recent Purchasing article, basically feels that prices of steel will increase sharply in Q1 “due to increased buying by service centers, benign imports, and increased export opportunities.” The article quotes Michael Willemse, the industrial products research analyst at CIBC World Markets, as saying, “these factors will offset weak end-market demand in North America” and allow the mills to get $660-$680 prices for March deliveries. The article goes on to say that many of the steel analysts in the last month believe the price of steel is set to rise.
But what goes up must come down. And in this case, we could see supply side cost increases pushing up prices in the first half of the year but weak demand would mean they wouldn’t stick. And we said that back in December when we first launched this blog. Read more
The recent power problems in China, largely caused by bad weather reported in our recent article, comes at the same time as widespread power problems in South Africa have affected Ferro-Chrome, coal and precious metal mining.
So much for mining companies, but what of the manufacturers? It is estimated that the Chinese power problems have idled up to 10% of the country’s steel production and several aluminum pot-lines. Power failures are particularly damaging to aluminum smelters because the molten aluminum rapidly solidifies in the cell, taking months to get the cell operating again at a very high cost. So if power is likely to be disrupted, smelters usually voluntarily take pots out of operation to reduce the demands on the grid and ensure reliable supply for those cells left in operation. That is what is happening at Southern Africa’s three smelters, Bayside 190kt, Hillside 709kt and Mozambique’s Mozal 564kt following warnings from South Africa’s power generator Eskom that due to heavy rains they can’t guarantee power supply for the next 4 weeks. We have heard that due to under investment there will be intermittent cuts for the next 4 to 7 years! In addition, expansion plans at Mozal and Hillside and the proposed new Coega smelter of 700kt are all in doubt according to Standard Bank, Leon Westgate, Base Metals Flashnote, 29 Jan 2008. Read more
To suggest that prices are going to remain firm let alone possibly rise in the face of a potential recession seems perverse but that is the prospect facing the US Tool Steel market in 2008. As predicted in a recent article on Cobalt the metal price has continued to rise with trading this week at $49/lb on the spot market, levels last seen in 1978. The price of a range of other tool steel raw materials have been driven upwards by a combination of tight supply and the changes in Chinese Ferro Alloy export taxes reported in MetalMiner. The Chinese authorities doubled taxes to 20% on a range of Ferro Alloys in an effort to husband domestic supplies and dissuade investment in what are seen as polluting industries. This week has seen increases in Ferro Moly, up $2/lb to $34/lb following 20% price increases during 2007.
Molybdenum has faced a squeeze as supplies reduced 5% during the year but demand increased by 4% per annum. Analysts expect production to slide by 20 million pounds this year due to reduced output from Kennecott Utah Copper, Codelco in Chile and reduced Chinese exports.
Ferro Tungsten rose $.50/lb this week to trade on the spot market at nearly $16/lb. With the exception of Nickel just about every ingredient in tool steel is on an upward trend driven by the same combination of global supply tightness and reduced Chinese exports following the recent tax changes. Even Natural Gas, a key cost component for North American Stainless Steel mills has been rising on the back of Oil. An additional cost driver, at least for the US market is the weakness of the US dollar, which will increase the cost of imported material. With so much of the US market traditionally supplied from imports, exchange rate weakness will force importers to raise prices and allow domestic producers to push through raw material cost increases that much more readily.
Where this will lead Tool Steel prices as the year unfolds would look to be a one way story. Universal Stainless & Alloy Products increased prices back in September, according to Platts.
Certainly in the short term we see H1 prices continuing to rise, so cover your short term requirements now to carry you through for 6 months but after that, all bets are off. If demand slumps enough (and it appears as though most think China is not immune from an American recession), tool steel will come off too.
While many of you were undoubtedly enjoying your weekend — those of us in Chicago were trying to stay warm in 5 degree weather — I stumbled across an interesting article from the New York Times on how overseas investors are scooping up US companies often at fire sale prices. This should not come as a shock to anyone. All one needs to do is head to a mall and listen to all of the foreign accents. The Brits think there is a two for one sale here on everything and many Europeans are flying to NYC for a weekend getaway and some bargain shopping.
So what does a weekend getaway in NYC have to do with metals? Well, according to the Times article, ThyssenKrupp Stainless just spent $3.7B to build a stainless facility in Calvert Alabama because “of the low cost production of the United States. But that news has been previously reported. What is interesting is the why and the when. Since imports are now so expensive, ThyssenKrupp did what any investor might do and establish a local presence. ThyssenKrupp will now be able to take advantage of NAFTA and position themselves for a larger chunk of the North American stainless market. The goal is a 5% US market share and up to 1M tons of flat rolled product according to the company’s press release on the same subject. According to an article by Recycling Today, “There are 15 prominent manufacturers of stainless steel flat products, three of which (ThyssenKrupp Stainless, the Acerinox Group and Posco) manufacture around 1.8 million metric tons.” This new investment is quite significant.
Perhaps ironically, ThyssenKrupp is pursuing this strategy in the face of sagging profits and sagging demand for stainless, according to this recent Forbes article. But no matter. It’s still a great buyer’s market and there are plenty of foreign firms sniffing around at both American acquisitions as well as greenfield opportunities.
Though some view foreign buying of US companies as a threat, we think it will be a boon to US buyers. From the buyers point of view, competition among suppliers is nearly always a good thing. This new plant will be state of the art if it is to compete in the decades ahead and not only will it increase supply, helping to keep down prices but it will also raise the quality expectations in the wider market place forcing incumbent suppliers to improve quality too.
How can buyers prepare for when ThyssenKrupp comes on stream in 2010? Well, given our 2008 stainless steel price predictions, consider locking in some longer term contracts as prices drop. And maybe, just maybe, buyers will see some better pricing for the longer term.
— Lisa Reisman
In the face of a slowing US economy, a mixed position for the European economies and a still strong Asian market, it is a particularly tough call this year to judge where prices will go. Our call is the US will teeter on recession. Europe though restricted by high ECB interest rates will still enjoy some (if reduced) growth providing the Euro/US Dollar exchange rate does not strangle exports. Asia in general and China in particular are still enjoying robust growth. China may well drop from the double digit growth of the last 5 years to high single digit figures but that is still a very significant driver for the world economy and particularly the world metal markets.
So here are the 2008 predictions:
I saw yet another tidbit of news this week that will further erode the savings coming from China’s steel exports. This Interfax news article reports a 5% export tax increase (from 20-25%) for all steel billet and long products coming from China. Long product refers to rebar and wire. There are no changes to the export tax on flat products such as hot rolled coil or cold rolled coil. This likely does not come as a surprise to many American buyers of China steel products.
The cost of imports has been slowly increasing both with the VAT rebate changes as we reported several months ago in conjunction with MFG.com and an appreciating RMB. So where is it all going? Our call is nothing but up. In addition to the currency changes and VAT, there does not appear to be any slowdown in China demand for metals products. In fact, some metals face supply shortages. On the face of it, we don’t see what will stem the rising China price. Add on top of all of this are two key underlying trends in American politics today – curbing the trade deficit and protecting US jobs. One can see how the China price is not going to get any lower.
But what the politicians and mass media fail to talk about is that trade with China is not just about Chinese jobs vs. American jobs (or the steel pipe producer in the US vs. the one in China) but also American jobs vs. American jobs. There are two American jobs at stake in these transactions….the steel producers’ jobs (who happen to have a far more effective lobbying campaign going) and the jobs of those who buy steel products…all of the value add assemblers and parts suppliers within every industry in the US. And unfortunately, they do not have a very effective lobbying campaign. Who ever said a rising tide lifts all boats?
It is not often that we would take issue with Purchasing.com. It’s a fine publication packed with useful insight for metal markets. However, I feel that a recent article predicting the rise of steel prices in 2008 is overstating the effects of the weak dollar and underestimating the likely downturn in the economy. True, the article is essentially reporting projections given by Bradford Research in New York, which sees reduced imports due to the weak dollar pushing the price of imported steel along with low service centre inventories combined. This enables domestic U.S. producers to increase prices in 2008 by a hefty 13 percent. Bradford proposes that increasing iron ore, coking coal, and scrap prices will put pressure on mills to increase prices next year. Somehow I don’t see it. The article cites service centre inventories as being a 2.6 month supply. Taken crudely, that is equivalent to 4.6 times annual turn. I would expect at least a five times annual stock turn, so stocks are not low. If the U.S. economy is not stalling yet, it will soon. Hit by falling house prices and rising oil and credit costs will lead to a downturn in consumer demand. Inevitably, it will mean less steel coil for auto manufacturing and less steel girders for construction.
It’s true to say that the producers are caught between a rock and a hard place in regards to raw material costs; the long-term nature of iron ore contracts and the continued strength of the Asian markets mean iron ore prices will remain high for some time. The weak U.S. dollar will also severely restrict the price dampening effect of imported steel. The U.S. mills have been very savvy over the past few years in adjusting production to meet demand and not flooding the market with excess supply. Despite all that, though, we still can’t see service centres or the major consumers taking on significant re-stocking in the face of the economic doubts in 2008. If service centres continue to live hand to mouth, demand is unlikely to be significantly different from the latter part of this year. I would be surprised to see much of this 13 percent price increase stick in 2008. No matter how much the producers would like price increases to reduce pressure on their margins, I just don’t see it happening.
— Stuart Burns
The Dubai Air Show ended recently, and already the papers are announcing the massive sales secured by Airbus and Boeing — not just for their new offerings, the A380 and 787 Dreamliner, but for the stable stock in trade of A320’s and 777’s. Both makers have bulging order books with more than 1000 aircraft each on order. In addition, producers of smaller commuter aircraft like Embraer and Bombardier are also booming.
We see so many opportunities for the aircraft industry, but how does this affect the supply market feeding these production lines? After several years of sustained growth both in the West and Asia, the metals markets are already tight, particularly for the supply of semi-finished metals like plate, larger diameter bars, and the famous fasteners that have so delayed the Dreamliner. Read more