Articles in Category: Supply & Demand

bull market

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Industrial metal buying organizations are in a difficult spot these days, as commodities are entrenched in a bull market.

After the initial demand hit that commodities took on at the end of Q1 2020 with the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, materials prices have skyrocketed. Lead times have lengthened and demand for everything from automobiles to homes to electronics picked up around the middle of the year.

Since then, metals prices have been on a bullish run, putting pressure on buying organizations.

On Wednesday, March 24, MetalMiner hosted a webinar titled “When Will the Metals Bull Market End? (Am I Well Positioned to Get All of the Cost-Downs When Prices Fall?).” During the 30-minute session, MetalMiner CEO Lisa Reisman, Editor-at-large Stuart Burns and Vice President of Business Solutions Don Hauser walked buyers through the current state of commodities markets and strategies for how buyers should approach their metals spend in preparation for when prices eventually come down.

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Bull market

To metals buyers’ chagrin, prices remain elevated and supply is tight.

When polled, 44% of webinar participants said carbon steel has been their most budget-busting metal this calendar year. Meanwhile, 24% said stainless steel, 20% said aluminum and 12% said copper.

In addition, 66% of participants indicated they are also seeing price increases for value-add items (for example, coatings, gauge and width adders, and additional processing).

US steel prices, for example, have been relentless in their rise. Hot rolled coil closed earlier this week at $1,271 per short ton, up nearly 9% from a month ago. After a modest recovery in May 2020, hot rolled coil dipped again, falling as low as $454 per short ton in late August.

The price has come a long way since then.

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capacity utilization

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The US steel sector’s capacity utilization rate has consistently posted gains since a trough last spring at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This past week, however, the capacity utilization rate fell slightly.

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Capacity utilization dips to 77.3%

The US steel sector’s capacity utilization rate fell to 77.3% for the week ending March 20, the American Iron and Steel Institute reported this week.

Steel output during the week totaled 1.75 million net tons. The figure marked an increase of 0.7% year over year. Meanwhile, output declined 0.5% from the previous week, when capacity utilization reached 77.7%.

As for the year to date, production reached 19.6 million net tons. Capacity utilization during the period reached 76.8%. Production during the period fell 6.2% from the same time frame in 2020, when the rate reached 79.6%.

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Tangshan steel plant

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The recent curbs on steel making by the local government in one of China’s largest steel-producing cities, Tangshan, may have a cascading effect on steel procurement & demand, as well on iron ore supplies, some experts believe.

The Tangshan restrictions are in effect from March 20 to Dec. 31, 2021. Among other things, the restrictions penalize steel mills there that fail to meet emission control regulations.

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Tangshan part of countrywide effort

The curbs are in line with China’s fresh efforts to cut emissions meet carbon-neutrality targets. China aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

Already, iron ore prices felt effects from the restrictions. Meanwhile, the long-term effect on the import-export of steel from China remains to be seen.

Daily iron ore consumption in Tangshan is also likely to drop drastically. The restrictions had led to the drop in iron ore futures but boosted hot-rolled coil (HRC) futures.

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tariffs headline over $100 bills

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Despite howls of protest from consumers, the Biden administration has doubled down on the Trump administration’s trade barriers with its latest move on aluminum tariffs.

The administration recently slapped semi-finished flat rolled aluminium anti-dumping duties on 18 countries supplying the US market.

Don’t miss the MetalMiner analyst team on March 24 at 10 a.m. CDT for a 30-minute metals market forecast and strategies to deploy in falling markets: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_6J8wAyYySfihVk3ZUH9yMA.

Aluminum tariffs

Previous administrations’ focus on China — first on extrusions in 2011 and then foil and sheet in 2018 — succeeded in bringing down imports from 620,000 metric tons in 2017 to 170,000 tons last year, Reuters reported.

However, the wider Section 232 10% tariff is so riddled with exclusions and special exemptions that imports from the rest of the world have continued to make up a significant proportion of the market supply landscape.

Imports of sheet, plate and strip totaled 1.3 million metric tons in 2019. That represented about 62% of total aluminum product imports that year, according to Reuters. Although volumes shrunk sharply to 836,000 tons last year, this was due to the broader COVID-19 disruption to the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Total semis imports last year fell by 20%. Domestic shipments dropped by only 13% through November, suggesting the imposition of preliminary duties in October was already impacting buyers’ decisions.

According to Reuters, the new duties hit seven of last year’s top 10 product suppliers to the U.S. market, including South Korea, Germany and Turkey.

Canada, Saudi Arabia avoid aluminum tariff

The duties spared Canada, however, from which imports increased by 17%. They also spared Saudi Arabia, where Alcoa retains a close relationship with the Ma’aden smelter and rolling mill, despite having divested its 25.1% shareholding in 2019.

That Alcoa and its Saudi partner should essentially get an exemption comes as no surprise.

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The Stainless Monthly Metals Index (MMI) rose by 4.3% for this month’s reading, as news of a supply deal by China’s Tsingshan Holding Group helped push the nickel price downward.

March 2021 Stainless MMI chart

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Nickel price falls on Tsingshan supply deal news

The nickel price, like most other base metals, surged through the first two-thirds of February.

The LME nickel price reached as high as $19,722 per metric ton as of Feb. 21.

From there, however, the price dropped, particularly after news of supply deals by China’s Tsingshan Holding Group.

Tsingshan will provide a total of 100,000 metric tons of nickel matte to Huayou Cobalt and CNGR Advanced Material, Reuters reported.

“Nickel’s narrative has largely been predicated on a shortage of battery-grade metal driven by EV demand,” MetalMiner’s Stuart Burns explained earlier this month.

“However, Tsingshan’s supply contract and capacity announcements suggest there will be sufficient supply. As a result, the nickel market reflected a sharp rethink of the deficit view.

“Demand undoubtedly remains robust for nickel. Its medium- to longer-term outlook remains positive on the back of stainless and battery demand.”

A price drop at some point was expected.

“It’s expected that the market would see some price corrections,” MetalMiner CEO Lisa Reisman explained. “Now we are looking closely to see if prices break support levels or hold. Most of the base metals appear to have held onto their support, with the exception of nickel.

“However, the falling nickel price will not result in more availability or shorter lead times. In fact, more fabricators and OEMs have started to pursue import options to help alleviate supply chain hiccups.”

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hot rolled steel

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Before we head into the weekend, let’s take a look back at the week that was and some of the metals storylines here on MetalMiner, which this week includes coverage of steel capacity utilization, the latest OPEC ministerial meeting and much more.

Overall, most base metals seem to be retracing from a late February peak. LME copper and aluminum have both been declining since late February.

The tin price’s dive has been more stark. LME three-month tin has dropped over 13% since Feb. 25. However, in the long term, the outlook for tin remains promising, particularly given its application in electronics.

The MetalMiner team will be presenting a commodity forecast for copper, aluminum, stainless and carbon steel on Wednesday, March 24, at 10:00 a.m. CDT: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_6J8wAyYySfihVk3ZUH9yMA. 

Week of March 1-5 (steel capacity, oil prices and more)

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oil barrels featuring flags of OPEC nations

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This morning in metals news: ministers of oil-producing countries agreed this week to by and large maintain March output levels in April; Texas and Florida posted gains in small-scale solar capacity last year; and China’s steel imports surged in 2020.

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OPEC ministers agree on output levels for April

While still not meeting in person, energy ministers of oil-producing nations met virtually Thursday for the 14th OPEC and non-OPEC Ministerial Meeting.

The members agreed to largely maintain oil production levels from March to April.

However, the members agreed to allow production increases for Russia and Kazakhstan. Russia will be able to increase output by 150,000 barrels per day, while Kazakhstan will increase output by 20,000 barrels per day.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, previously announced a two-month output reduction of 1 million barrels per day as of Feb. 1. The kingdom agreed to extend that reduction into April.

“The Ministers also commended Saudi Arabia for the extension of the additional voluntary adjustments of 1 mb/d for the month of April 2021, exemplifying its leadership, and demonstrating its flexible and pre-emptive approach,” OPEC ministers said in an official statement.

Oil prices have shown strength so far in 2021. After falling below $25 per barrel last spring, the Brent crude price moved above $66 per barrel this week.

Meanwhile, the WTI crude oil futures price closed Thursday at $61.28 per barrel. The price is up by  $14.10 per barrel from a year ago, per the Energy Information Administration.

Texas, Florida add solar capacity

California leads the US in small-scale solar capacity, but other states are ramping up.

Texas and Florida, in particular, were among the top risers in 2020, the Energy Information Administration reported.

The US added 4.5 GW of small-scale solar capacity in 2020, of which California accounted for 31%. Texas added 422 MW, while Florida added 282 MW.

“State incentives, strong solar resources, and policy changes are largely driving these gains,” the EIA said.

China steel imports surged in 2020

As Beijing aimed to pull China out of the economic doldrums stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s steel imports surged by 150% in 2020, Nikkei Asia reported.

Citing customs data, China’s steel imports reached 38.56 million tons last year, the news source reported.

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nickel

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Up to this week, the nickel bull story had been roaring along.

Talk of metal shortages and runaway electric vehicle (EV) and hybrid battery demand have supported that story.

But one announcement has seen that bull run hit a brick wall.

Grab your coffee and hear MetalMiner’s latest forecast for aluminum, copper, stainless and carbon steel on Wednesday, March 24, at 10:00 a.m. CDT: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_6J8wAyYySfihVk3ZUH9yMA.

Nickel bull story slows

News that China’s Tsingshan Holding Group has signed a one-year contract to supply nickel matte to Huayou Cobalt Co and CNGR Advanced Material Co, on March 3 prompted a sharp sell-off.

Under the agreement, Tsingshan will supply 60,000 tonnes of nickel matte to Huayou and 40,000 tonnes a year to CNGR, starting from October 2021. Tsingshan is China’s largest producer of stainless steel.

Just this morning, news sources like MetalBulletin were still promoting the bull narrative, saying nickel premiums continue to rise in China, while ore prices set another record high (even as the European cut cathode premium rises a further 5%).

But almost simultaneously, Reuters reported hot-off-the-press details of the Tsingshan deal and a sharp sell-off ensued. The post noted nickel fell 8.5% to $15,945 per metric ton on the LME for the biggest intraday loss since 2016. Shanghai prices fell by the most in nine months. The SHFE June nickel price ended 6% lower at RMB 130,510 ($20,181) per ton, according to Reuters.

Investment and the supply outlook

The Economic Times posted further details, reporting Tsingshan plans to expand investments in Indonesia. Tsingshan plans for its nickel equivalent output to reach 600,000 metric tons this year. Meanwhile, it has a target of 850,000 tons in 2021 and 1.1 million tons by 2023.

Nickel’s narrative has largely been predicated on a shortage of battery-grade metal driven by EV demand.

However, Tsingshan’s supply contract and capacity announcements suggest there will be sufficient supply. As a result, the nickel market reflected a sharp rethink of the deficit view.

Demand undoubtedly remains robust for nickel. Its medium- to longer-term outlook remains positive on the back of stainless and battery demand.

Indonesia’s efforts are finally paying off. The country is ramping up refined metal output, albeit under Chinese control. As a result, output of battery and refined grades of nickel is increasing. Meanwhile output of lower grade nickel pig iron is declining.

Nevertheless, the world does not seem quite as short of nickel today as it did yesterday.

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auto sale

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The Automotive Monthly Metals Index (MMI) rose by 7.1% this month, as US auto sales were strong in February.

March 2021 Automotive MMI chart

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US auto sales

Ford Motor Co. reported its February US retail auto sales reached 163,520 vehicles, down 1.8% year over year.

Ford truck sales increased 10.2% year over year. Meanwhile, SUV sales ticked up 0.2%. Ford car sales fell 56.5%.

Ford’s estimated retail share in February reached 12%, up from 11.7% last year.

“Share gains came from trucks and new product offerings of Bronco Sport and the fully electric Mustang Mach-E,” Ford said.

Honda sales overall fell 11.4% to 106,328 vehicles. However, the automaker reported its best-ever February for Honda truck sales. Truck sales rose 5% year over year.

Electric vehicles (EVs) still represent a small percentage of Honda’s total sales. Nonetheless, the automaker reported EV sales rose 96.2%, with deliveries nearing 8,000 vehicles.

Nissan, which moved to quarterly reporting last year, in January reported Q4 2020 sales in the US fell 19.3% year over year.

US auto sales growth in February

Late last month, J.D. Power and LMC Automotive forecast sales growth in February.

The automotive intelligence groups forecast a 3.3% increase year over year when adjusting for differences in selling days.

“Despite challenges posed by inclement weather in most of the country, retail sales demand continues to be strong with the industry posting a second consecutive month of year-over-year gains,” said Thomas King, president of the data and analytics division at J.D. Power. “Typically, weather related sales disruptions are made up in the weeks following, so most of the sales lost at the beginning of February will be made up at the end of February and trail into early March.”

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supply chain chart

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When we first started reporting on global freight costs in Q4 last year, we expected that the pandemic bounce-back would probably be a relatively short-term effect, easing around the Chinese Lunar New Year. Around then, Chinese manufacturers closed down and the shipping industry had a chance to catch up on backlogs.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, the situation has not gotten better.

If anything, it has gotten worse.

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Supply chain woes

According to the Financial Times, the cost of shipping goods from China to Europe has more than quadrupled in the past eight weeks. Costs have hit record highs as a result of a shortage of empty containers disrupts global trade.

The post states the cost of shipping a 40-foot container from Asia to northern Europe has increased from about $2,000 in November to more than $9,000, quoting shippers and importers.

MetalMiner’s own research has found the worst increases are on the China to US West Coast and Northern Europe routes. Other origins, such as India, have doubled but not tripled since spring 2020, with the largest increase coming in the last 3-4 months.

The Chinese Lunar New Year closedowns barely happened this year. New COVID-19 outbreak containment measures in China encouraged Beijing to dissuade all but essential travel. As a result, a majority of workers in the cities were available to work over what would normally be a near two-week holiday period.

Product, therefore, continued to be delivered to the docks. Demand on shipping lines barely abated.

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