CommentaryMarket Analysis

The Stainless Steel Monthly Metals Index (MMI) increased again this month by 4.3% to 71, up again after last month’s 11.7% gain.

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Once again, nickel price increases provided an impetus for rising prices. This month, prices increased for all the metals in the stainless steel basket across the board, ranging from 0.2-10%. U.S. stainless steel surcharges increased slightly.

LME Nickel

LME nickel prices. Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

LME nickel prices started to rise again following a brief downward trend in the first part of February; however, uptrend volumes are weaker than during recent price increases.

Despite weaker volume, prices finally surpassed the $13,300/mt price point, surging past $13,600 in a single day of trading and potentially signaling an underlying bullishness in the nickel market.

However, the price retraced once more toward the well-trodden $13,300/mt level in the days following the price surge.

Domestic Stainless Steel Market

This month the 304/304L-Coil and 316/316L-Coil NAS surcharges increased by 0.3% and 1.96%, respectively, reversing the previous downward trend dating back to July 2018.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

It remains to be seen whether this is a seasonal adjustment or a reversal in trend as we move into the last month of Q1, which is when prices tend to cyclically rise.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Stainless steel prices are rising — but is this a new change in direction or a temporary price increase based on the annual cyclical business cycle?

With some weakness reported in the global economy by the OECD last week, it will be interesting to see whether this is the start of a new trend in higher prices or just a flattening out from previous price declines.

Actual Stainless Steel Prices and Trends

All of the metals included in the Stainless MMI increased in price this month.

Chinese Ferro Alloys FeMo Lumps registered the greatest increase at 10.14%, while Chinese Ferro Alloy FeCr Lumps increased 0.2%.

Korean stainless steel coil (430 CR 2B) increased in price by 5.92%.

The three nickel prices included in the MetalMiner IndX(™) also increased across the board again this month, with increases ranging from 4.5–5.5% for LME, Chinese, and Indian prices. However, the increase this month dropped from high rates of change last month, which were in the 14.76-17.39% range.

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Chinese stainless steel 304 and 316 scrap prices registered increases of 0.2%.

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The March Aluminum Monthly Metals Index (MMI) increased again this month, rising 2.3% for an index value of 88, up from February’s value of 86.

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LME aluminum prices ended February near the price at the month’s outset, thus ending only slightly higher month on month following a dip in price around mid-month.

The LME price ended at $1,913/mt and once again failed to breach the long-term price resistance point of $1,970/mt during February. In the early days of March, the price dropped further to around $1,872/mt during trade at the start of the first full week.

Prices show weakness in that the slope of increase has continued to decline as the year progresses.

Source: Fastmarkets

SHFE prices have flattened out. The metal currently is moving in a sideways price trend on the back of a strengthened pricing pattern (when compared with generally falling prices in China since September).

Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets

Prices appear constrained by high levels of Chinese production of both alumina and aluminum, in addition to weakening Chinese domestic demand. During 2018, Chinese aluminum production increased by 9.9%, rising to 72.53 million tons.

Recently, the Chongqing-based Bosai Group restarted Chalco’s Nanchuan alumina plant that closed in 2014 due to low alumina prices. According to a recent Reuters article, Bosai leased the plant from Chalco for the next 15 years with alumina production underway and the first production to come off the line very soon. This will add to raw alumina supply and may contribute to further price declines as the new supply comes online.

U.S. Domestic Aluminum

Meanwhile, the U.S. Midwest Premium rose slightly in February to $0.19/pound, and still remains at a historic high. Even with the rising premium, ingot prices continue to trend lower due to strong supply.

The LME Western European Aluminum Premium stayed flat, coming in at $75/mt in February, while the LME East Asian Aluminum Premium also stayed flat at $85/mt.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

During February, aluminum prices continued to trend sideways.

Industrial indicators show a weaker domestic economy in China, which could constrain price increases.

LME warehouse stocks increased quite a bit into the new year, also likely dampening price increases. SHFE warehouse stocks also remain sizable from a longer-term perspective, with some restocking increasing volume into 2019.

These factors suppress aluminum price increases, even in an uncertain macroeconomic trade environment.

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Actual Aluminum Prices and Trends

Both LME and SHFE aluminum prices continued trending sideways during the past month. While the U.S. Midwest Premium nudged upward this month and remains high, it is offset by strong supply.

India’s primary cash price increased 9.9% this month, while China’s primary cash price increased 2.1%. Korean prices fell this month in the 3-4% range.

March 29 is currently supposed to be the date by which Britain’s future relationship with the European Union is finally settled.

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There are several possible outcomes of varying likelihood. Britain could remain part of the E.U., which is looking comparatively unlikely.

Or, it will leave based on the agreement Prime Minister Theresa May has reached with Brussels, but including some last-minute tweaks around the longevity of the Irish border question (the most likely option).

Or, Britain will plunge out with no formal agreement — and to judge by the opinions of much of the business community and many commentators, it would plunge into an extremely uncertain and volatile future.

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Cutting through the polarized hype on climate change is one of the toughest challenges for firms trying to position themselves and their enterprises for the future.

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On the one hand there is a broad green or environmental lobby, which rightly shouts out the risks of rising global temperatures and the link greenhouse gases play in that rise.

Unfortunately, at the same time, many in that lobby claim a switch to a zero-carbon future would be simple.

On the other hand there are complete naysayers who do not even accept there is a climate change issue to address, let alone have any interest in finding less environmentally polluting options.

Governments rarely help; in fact, the U.S. is actively rolling back previous legislation, apparently in a perverse belief that if you say something is fake news enough, it actually does become fake news.

In many other countries, governments act with varying degrees of commitment, but at times appear to promote one solution while still supporting another cause of pollution in a different part of the economy. As a result, policies are not joined up.

Oil majors can hardly be said to be neutral in this debate, but their periodic reports are the subject of so much scrutiny that they have to be reasoned and their assumptions have to be logical or they would suffer ridicule.

So, when Andy Brown, Shell’s upstream director, told The Telegraph that zero net emissions are technologically and economically possible by 2070, his comments at least bare scrutiny.

He went on to add electric power would have to jump fivefold by that time. Wind and solar would have to increase by 50 times. It would require 10,000 Carbon Capture Sequestration (CCS) projects able to sequester six gigatons of carbon each year, accompanied by sweeping reforestation for such a goal to be reached, even over such an extended timeframe.

In the intervening decades, global temperatures may well have risen past the point of no return.

Ranged against that goal is the relentless demand for autos around the world. The same article points out a chilling statistic: Americans have roughly 900 cars per thousand head of population, yet the current figure is closer to 150 for China and 25 for India — and these rising nations aspire to The American Dream as much as anyone.

However, we should not fall into the same trap as many when looking at global warming; automobiles plays their part, but it is a relatively small part. Transportation — trucks and ships — play a bigger role, and the agricultural industry is even larger. If humans were to switch to a plant-based diet, we would buy ourselves decades to combat climate change.

Even so, for the energy industry, transportation and petrochemicals remain the focus. In an industry that operates on decade-long investment planning, it is no surprise that firms are changing priorities with increasing speed.

Saudi Aramco plans to switch 2 million to 3 million barrels per day to petrochemical production over the next 10 years, and potentially 7 million barrels per day over two decades. This is a staggering amount, The Telegraph observes — Saudi Arabia’s entire oil exports in January were 7.2 million barrels per day.  The Kingdom is also launching a $150 billion dash for lower-polluting natural gas, with plans for production to reach 23 billion cubic feet per day within a decade, equal to 60% of today’s global market for liquefied natural gas.

The following graph, courtesy of The Telegraph, illustrates the motivation for the shift in priorities.

Source: The Telegraph

Rarely has the energy industry been at such a crossroads and never has the oil industry faced such an uncertain future. Even in the febrile market of the early 1970s following what was then deemed an energy crisis did oil companies seriously doubt there would be a need for their product in the decades to come.

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But today there are genuine questions facing planners about what product mix oil companies should optimize for by the middle of this century, let alone what the landscape will look like 10 years from now.

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When is a poor deal a bad deal?

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That may be the question we are asking in a few weeks time after U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s president, Xi Jinping, meet sometime in March at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach resort.

Trump is tweeting a deal is making “substantial progress” and he expects a deal to be concluded face-to-face with Xi sometime in March.

But fears are growing the president’s enthusiasm for a “win” may overshadow the need for a comprehensive and enforceable agreement to a number of issues that have dogged U.S.-China trade relations for years.

Stock markets, oil prices and currencies have all moved positively in response to what is seen as progress to defuse trade tensions. In reality, no details have been given on what has been agreed to or what a final agreement is likely to achieve.

Drawing on a Financial Times analysis, we can identify several key objectives.

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Global crude steel production growth slowed in January, hitting its lowest level since August.

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According to the World Steel Association, global crude steel production rose 1.0% year over year in January, down from 3.8% growth in December. Global steel production in January hit 146.7 million tons (MT).

Crude steel production growth for China (in red) and the world. Source: worldsteel.org

As usual, China led the way in crude steel production, churning out 75.0 MT, marking a year-over-year increase of 4.3%. India, which recently passed Japan as the world’s second-largest steel producer, produced 9.2 MT, which was down 1.9% year over year. The country India passed in the steel production standings, Japan, saw its production fall 9.8% to 8.1 MT, while South Korea’s production fell 1.5% to 6.2 MT.

The U.S. produced 7.6 MT in January 2019, marking an 11.0% year-over-year increase. U.S. steel mills continue to fill an incrementally larger share of total capacity. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, U.S. steel mills churned out steel at a capacity utilization rate of 80.9% through Feb. 23 of this year, up from 75.7% for the same period in 2018.

By tonnage, U.S. steel mills produced 14.6 million net tons in the year through Feb. 23, which marked an 8.0% increase over the same period in 2018.

In Europe, Italy’s crude steel production fell 3.6% to 2.0 MT, which France’s dropped 9.7% to 1.2 MT. Spain also produced 1.2 MT, marking an increase of 5.9%.

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Crude steel production in Ukraine hit 1.9 MT, down 4.9%, while Brazil’s crude steel production rose 2.3% to 2.9 MT.

Turkey’s steel sector continues to face challenges, with 2.6 MT in January marking a 19.5% year-over-year decline. Turkey’s steel remains subject to the U.S.’s Section 232 steel tariff, which the Trump administration increased to 50% from 25% last year amid diplomatic tensions. In addition, another Turkish export market, the E.U., recently imposed new steel safeguards in an effort to curb diverted steel supplies (which it sees as an outcome of the U.S.’s Section 232 action).

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Last week, MetalMiner reported on the challenges India’s steel companies face in the form of cheaper imports, and their desire for the Indian government to impose an import tax.

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The woes of India’s aluminum producers, too, are similar.

Primary and secondary producers have started grumbling about cheaper imports eating into their aluminum business.

The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China has seen the dumping of aluminum finished products in India, not only from China but also from nations with whom India has a free trade agreement, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan.

Anil Agarwal, of the Aluminium Secondary Manufacturers Association, was quoted by the Business Standard newspaper recently as saying that the import of finished aluminum products into India had eroded the margins of medium and small players by as much as 7%.

According to estimates, such imports have gone up by over 50% year on year, which has put the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) businesses in peril. Total aluminum imports have grown 21% year over year.

Between April and October 2018, aluminum imports into India increased 24% year over year. In addition, low prices and rising production costs have also made life difficult for the domestic aluminum industry. Production costs, for example, have gone up as much as 30% over the past approximately four years.

Primary and secondary aluminum producers, like their steel counterparts, have been asking the Indian government to hike the import duty on primary aluminum to 10% from the current 7.5%, according to the Business Standard.

India’s domestic aluminum industry has about 3,500 MSME players, the Business Standard notes, while there are three large primary producers —Hindalco Industries, Vedanta and the state-owned National Aluminium Company (Nalco).

Scrap aluminum imports, too, have gone up dramatically.

But imports of aluminum scrap carry a 2.5% import duty, even though imports have gone up by about 27%, by the industry’s reckoning.

Indian producers lament they cannot compete with countries like China. The latter is able to produce aluminum at a cheaper rate because it follows the Shanghai Metal Exchange for price, which is U.S. $250-300 per ton lower than that on the London Metal Exchange.

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Incidentally, India has set a target of producing 10 million tons of aluminum by 2030, up from the present-day 3.4 million tons.

Steel imports are once again threatening India’s steel sector, spurring major steel companies to ask the government to impose steel import duties.

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In the past few months, representatives of steel companies like Tata Steel and JSW Steel have met steel ministry officers with a request that the Indian government look at the present steel import-export scenario and impose duties.

According to a Reuters report, Indian domestic producers are facing not only the issue of cheap imports from China, Japan and some Southeast Asian countries, they are also been buffeted by low domestic prices.

Now, there are reports coming in that the steel companies are seriously contemplating increasing prices, which seems like a contrarian position since consumers have the option of buying cheap, imported steel. At the start of the present financial year, India had turned into a net steel importer for the first time in two years. By June, imports had increased by as much as 15%.

JSW Steel has already hiked the prices by over $100 per ton; others are thinking of following suit.

The reason? An increase in some raw material prices and growth in international steel prices. Indian companies have explained their proposed hike was to be in sync with rising international prices.

Imports, however, are what are causing Indian steel majors a major headache.

Imports of stainless steel from Indonesia, for example, has grown by nine times, according to the Indian Stainless-Steel Development Association (ISSDA). ISSDA also feels that countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and others are allegedly abusing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) free trade agreement.

The steel ministry is sympathetic to the demands of local producers, and may be contemplating some measures to curb the situation.

But it’s not clear exactly what the government plans to do.

Some reports said the new measures may be more in the nature of non-tariff measures. It’s a case of once bitten, twice shy for India on this matter. In 2016, it lost a dispute against Japan at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on charges that New Delhi unfairly imposed import duties to safeguard its steel industry.

JSW Steel’s Joint Managing Director Seshagiri Rao was quoted last month as saying there was an urgent need to raise duties on steel imports, dubbing them a “major threat” to domestic industry.

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In the first nine months, while exports from India fell by 38%, imports grew faster, Rao pointed out.

The aluminum price has been fluctuating between around $50/ton above and below a median of $1,900 for several months now.

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There is considerable uncertainty as to where it is going to go in 2019, yet some commentators, such as ING Bank, are predicting prices will hit U.S. $2,250/ton by the end of the year on the back of constrained supply.

Of course, we should define what we mean by constrained supply.

There are two aluminum markets: one in China and the other being the rest of the world. They no longer operate quite in parallel universes as Alcoa’s ex-boss Klaus Kleinfeld once suggested, their intersection being Chinese exports of semi-finished metal – that metal that both exists within the Chinese market and the rest of the world.

How that volume of semi-finished exports varies tells us a lot about the state of the Chinese and global markets.

Although lifted by record November exports, the January-November figure is up 20.2% from a year earlier, to 5.28 million tons. That figure is on track to hit almost twice the total production of the world’s largest producer outside of China: Rusal.

Much of Rusal’s production is primary, of course, and China’s exports are semis. However, semis flooding the Southeast Asian and wider markets depresses or replaces local demand for primary metal, so the comparison remains valid.

China’s exports are often not given the attention they deserve as a dynamic in the global aluminum price.

Despite the primary metal deficit persevering in the world outside China, premiums have weakened, with ING noting European premiums have edged lower for several months now. As a result, inflows of material into LME warehouses have increased — since early December, LME inventories have increased from 1.04 million tons to around 1.3 million tons.

In Asia, premiums have also been weaker.

Japanese spot premiums are trading at around U.S. $77/t, down from over U.S. $90/t in October, with quarterly premiums for 1Q 2019 of U.S. $83-$85/t, compared to U.S. $103/t in the previous quarter.

Meanwhile, cost pressures have eased with fears of disruption from Rusal’s alumina refineries now removed and an expectation that Norsk Hydro’s Alunorte refinery could be back to full production in the first half, reducing supply-side fears.

At the same time, China has moved from being a net importer to a net exporter of alumina. As a result, alumina prices have fallen from levels as high as U.S. $640/t over parts of 2018 to around U.S. $370/t currently. The alumina/aluminium price ratio has also fallen from a peak of 31% in September 2018 to 19% currently.

Even so, according to U.S. producer Alcoa’s advice last week reported by Reuters, at current prices some 30-40% of the world’s smelters are losing money, which explains why supply-side primary metal growth flatlined in the second half of last year. Even Chinese smelters reacted to the low price environment.

Under the circumstances, ING’s $2,250/ton looks optimistic for the year end. As with every prediction this year, that has to come with the caveat that it depends what happens to trade talks, as so much expectation on the direction of global GDP growth appears to depend on that issue.

The longer uncertainty goes on, the more of a drain it will be on investment and the potential for continued positive growth in H2 and next year. For now, the U.S., China, emerging markets and even Europe appear to remain in positive GDP growth mode (although it has to be said, Europe’s numbers are meager).

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Positive demand growth and continued constrained supply suggest a lift in prices this year is in the cards. However, rising Chinese exports remain a worry.

If the domestic market is not absorbing this tonnage and the SHFE price remains depressed due to oversupply then the deflationary impact of those exports is unlikely to simply go away.

Some call them safeguards, some call them protectionist barriers, and some love them and some hate them.

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Few measures divide like import tariffs.

We have seen it in the U.S. While Europe would claim its own measures are a reaction to the impact of imports following the U.S. Section 232 action, the reality is domestic European producers — led by their trade group, the European Steel Association (EUROFER) — are very much in favor of the European Union’s decision to put in place permanent safeguard measures on steel imports (in place of the provisional ones which have been applied since July 2018).

The new measures differ from the provisional arrangements in part because they were arrived at after careful monitoring of imports in the intervening period. As such, they are so are more targeted, at some 26 product categories, Pan European Networks reports in its publication Government Europa. The tariff of 25% applies to imports that exceed a certain threshold and are designed to ensure sufficient supply is available to consumers without allowing the market to be swamped by excess material, severely depressing prices.

A report in Steel Times quotes Eurofer saying imports have surged by 12% last year, making the need for an effective defense mechanism essential.

Axel Eggert, director-general of EUROFER, is quoted as saying “For every three tonnes of steel blocked by the US’ section 232 tariffs, two tonnes have been shipped to the open EU market.”

The measures do appear to partially reflect consumers concerns, EUROFER says that the final measures include an immediate “relaxation,” increasing the size of the quota by 5% (calculated on the base years of 2015-2017), with a further 5% relaxation in July and another 5% in July 2020, subject to review. Steel demand in 2019 is expected to increase by just 1%.

But, not surprisingly, not everyone is in favor of the measures.

European auto manufacturers association ACEA has called the measures protectionist. It has said that steel exports to the United States have only dropped slightly, and so little extra steel has been diverted to Europe. EUROFER puts the figure at an increase from 20% import penetration historically to 25% import penetration during the monitored period last year – hardly the “significant volumes” touted by UK Steel Director General Gareth Stace.

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If the U.S. reaches a sufficiently attractive trade deal that it decides to remove the Section 232 measures – unlikely, but a possibility – to what extent will Europe remove its new measures?

We will see. In an increasingly protectionist world, barriers are quick to be adopted and slow to be removed.