Industry News

Aluminum Rod

Goldman Sachs is bullish on aluminum, projecting it to rise following China’s supply-side reforms.

According to a recent report from CNBC, Goldman expects aluminum prices to hit the $2,000 per metric ton point in six months and $2,100 per ton in a year.

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Year-to-date, aluminum prices have outperformed other industrial metals, climbing roughly 15% compared to steel and 3% compared to copper, the news source stated.

“In our view, this strong performance has reflected an increase in the potential for aluminum to be the next target of supply-side reform in China, a tightening ex-China balance, and rising costs of production,” wrote the bank’s analysts. “Further, global political developments may also be supportive of capacity and production cuts, given the two leaders of the U.S. and China launched a 100-day (trade) plan on April 7. These developments support our existing view that aluminum is the next target for supply-side reform in China,” they added. Read more

Here’s What Happened

  • The Rare Earths MMI held steady for the month of May at a value of 19.
  • That makes two straight months at 19 for this sub-index, which has slowly crept up over the past quarter and now stands at its highest since August 2015 — back when the Dow had its worst month in 5 years.
  • Several Chinese rare earths price points fell over the month, with increases from neodymium oxide, europium oxide and dysprosium oxide doing their part to keep the ship steady overall.

What’s Going On in the Background?

  • When was the last time you heard the term “stalking horse bidder?” Turns out someone loved Molycorp and its Mountain Pass mine in California, the only source of rare earths production in this hemisphere, enough to buy it. As MetalMiner reported, ERP Strategic Minerals, LLC, part of the ERP Group of companies, has agreed to purchase the salient assets and surface property rights.
  • As leading REE analyst Jack Lifton commented on our story, it would essentially be cheaper to build a new plant in Tanzania rather than reboot existing operations at Mountain Pass. (Check out the story and the comment thread here.)
  • As for rare earths end-use markets, the clean energy and other high-tech applications that rely on REEs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

What Metal Buyers Should Look Out For

  • According to this InvestorIntel article, buyers may need to keep a closer eye on dysprosium, used in high-tech industrial magnets, since Northern Minerals Ltd is well on its way to starting the largest dysprosium production operation outside China.

Key Price Movers and Shakers

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Here’s What Happened

  • The Construction MMI, tracking metals and raw materials used within the construction industry, slipped 1.3% to a value of 79 for May.
  • Chinese steel prices — for forms such as rebar and H-beam — dropped precipitously this month.
  • Based on the last few months’ values, the last time this sub-index has performed this well was the start of 2015 — back when California was the first state to pass a carbon tax and Bill Gates turned human waste into potable water.

What’s Going On in the Background?

  • We’re in the salad days for the U.S. construction sector, at least as far as 2017 is concerned. According to the Associated General Contractors’ analysis, “Construction spending is at record levels for the second straight month in March [in spite of the month’s slip] and is up 4.9% for the first three months of year compared to the same period in 2016,” as quoted by com.
  • Better days for Chinese construction markets may be coming down the pike as well. Beijing recently announced plans to build a new megacity “the size of New England,” which should result in quite the appetite for industrial-grade steel, aluminum and other materials. For example, the government approved $36 billion to build 700 miles of rail within the next three years, according to this article. More salad days for the global construction industry to come, perhaps?

What Metal Buyers Should Look Out For

  • The latest drops in Chinese steel prices may have a knock-on effect on U.S. and other Western steel, which make the latter ‘pricier,’ comparatively. This could lead to lower prices on both sides of the ocean hanging around for a while.
  • We’ll see if President Trump’s 232 investigation begins to have any medium-term effect on steel once the determinations come down on whether imports constitute a threat to national security. In the meantime, “iron ore and Chinese steel prices could recover if China cuts overcapacity later this year,” as we write in our latest Monthly Outlook Report. (Free two-month trial here.)

Key Price Movers and Shakers

  • The China rebar price plummeted, the U.S. shredded scrap price fell below a key threshold to start the month for the third time this year, and weekly U.S. bar fuel surcharges for the Midwest, Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountain regions all fell slightly from April to May. Exact numbers in the membership-only article:
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Liquid steel.

Photollug/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals, a big trade finding from last Friday is making the news.

The U.S International Trade Commission (ITC) found that imports of carbon and alloy cut-to-length steel plate from steelmakers in 8 different countries officially harms U.S. manufacturers, thereby “locking in” duties imposed by U.S. Commerce in March for five years, according to Reuters.

According to the ITC’s site and the Reuters report following shortly after the release, the finding applies to cut-to-length plate from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

The exact anti-dumping duties Commerce imposed on eight producers’ products in March range “from 3.62 percent to 148 percent…while imports from South Korea would also face a countervailing duty of 4.31 percent,” according to Reuters. Much more detail on those duties in this MetalMiner report.

What Does It Mean for Steel Plate Prices and Buyers?

“We anticipate the dumping order will help provide support to U.S. domestic prices, at least in the short term,” said Lisa Reisman, executive editor of MetalMiner, “as the case included a fairly broad number of both European and Asian suppliers.”

In many cases, Reisman mentioned, the duty rate appears significant, which will curtail imports from both specific countries and specific producers.

From a short-term pricing perspective, according to Reisman, steel prices have slid across the board this past week, but “certainly this trade case will help support plate prices,” she said.

“Interestingly enough,” she concluded, “according to analysis conducted by Steel Market Update, domestic cut to length plate exports are at their highest level since May 2015.”

Here’s What Happened

  • The Renewables MMI spiked upwards for the month of May (but not a terribly huge spike in the scheme of things; see the bullet below), ending at a value of 71.
  • * Editor’s note: We’ve recalibrated the index to better take into account cobalt price fluctuations, hence the spike from 54 in April to 71 in May.
  • However, the Big Heavy of our sub-index that tracks metals and materials going into the renewable energy industry is the U.S. steel plate price. That price point took a 4.8% dive.

What’s Going On in the Background?

  • Several stories from the solar sector have been making waves lately. “Growth has slowed in the rooftop solar industry in the past year,” writes Jessica Goodheart in this piece, “but many see the evolution of battery storage technology and vehicle electrification as promising for the long-term health of the residential solar industry.”
  • And the policy picture? “Industry leaders have been cautiously optimistic that Republicans will leave be the federal Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), a major policy driver of rooftop solar, in spite of Trump’s efforts to roll back the Clean Power Plan,” Goodheart notes.

What Metal Buyers Should Look Out For

  • Keep an eye out on steel plate’s raw material inputs — iron ore prices surged in April, as we reported in our May Monthly Buying Outlook, while coking coal prices swelled due to supply disruptions in Australia.

Key Price Movers and Shakers

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Few metals have as controversial a supply side as tin. Cobalt also springs to mind, largely due to the relative importance of the Democratic Republic of Congo as a supply source. But tin likewise seems to come from areas prone to military unrest, where illegal mining of the ore provides an opportunity to fund said unrest. Even in established producing countries like Indonesia, supply is hampered by extensive illegal mining, and the authorities have been engaged in a long running struggle to control illegal mining, principally to avoid environmental damage that occurs at unregulated mines.

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

Tin has benefitted from a broader commodity rebound this year. Prices are rising and LME inventory is falling as demand from the electronics industry, particularly in China, remains solid. However, one of the key supply-side variables is Myanmar, China’s new source of supply. As the graph below from Thomson Reuters shows, Myanmar is the only significant global source that has been on the rise in recent years. All others by and large have remained static or fallen.

Source: Thomson Reuters

Indonesia has the potential to export more concentrate. Its drive to control illegal mining and encourage greater domestic value-added refining has limited export volumes in recent years, encouraging China to increase imports from neighbouring Myanmar.

Reuters reports that almost all Chinese tin ore and concentrate imports now come from Myanmar, following the 2013 discovery of high grade reserves at Man Maw in northeast Myanmar. Annual production is now estimated at about 33,000 tons of tin concentrate, which Reuters reports is more than 10% of the metal’s global output. Read more

This morning in metals news, we’ve seen prices for copper and gold reach three-week highs and lows, respectively.

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Threat of Supply Disruption Has Driven Up Copper Prices

Copper prices reached a three-week high today, Reuters reported, driven by potential supply disruptions. This news comes after yesterday’s rally near the Grasberg copper mine in Indonesia. Thousands of workers from the Indonesian unit of Freeport McMoRan Inc. took part, protesting against layoffs that resulted from the company’s contract dispute with the government.

Freeport had laid off 10% of its workforce, with potentially more layoffs to come. As a response, the union representing the workers has threatened to strike for the month of May.

A Three-Week Low for Gold Prices

In contrast, gold prices fell on Monday as the threat of a U.S. government shutdown faded and the U.S. dollar edged slightly higher. The metal has dropped to $1,255.50 per ounce, the lowest gold prices have been since April 10, according to FactSet data. Political tensions in Europe had kept gold prices up so far this year, but that trend seems to have been reversed.

In related news, S&P Global Platts reported that gold production in China, the world’s top gold producer as well as consumer, fell significantly in Q1 2017. In this past quarter, China produced 101.2 tons of gold, which is a 9.3% drop compared with 111.6 tons in Q1 2016.

Bernanke Argues in Favor of a Border Adjustment Tax

Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke came out in support of the proposed border adjustment tax (BAT), suggesting to CNBC that the GOP had not presented the idea well. Bernanke argued that a stronger dollar would negate any negative effects of the BAT – which would tax imports and exempt exports – by increasing U.S. companies’ purchasing power and lowering the cost of overseas manufacturing.

In preparing our new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook for May, we’ve seen that prices in both industrial metal markets and commodity markets have fallen over the past month.

What’s the deal?

Well, a few things are happening that stirred up that pot:

  • The U.S. dollar fell to a five-month low. The dollar’s movement usually has an inverse relationship with that of commodity prices, but not lately. Election season across the pond in France is heating up, and the outcome of the first round of presidential voting had eased concerns about the future of the euro, which rose against the dollar.
  • Interestingly, China’s annual GDP growth increased to 6.9% during Q1 2017, the fastest growth rate since the second half of 2015. Not only that, but the country also announced that it will build a “new megacity” — two things that would usually portend higher industrial metals prices. And yet…here’s what China’s economy has been doing since 2012 (the overall trend is pretty clear):

  • President Trump ordered two investigations, one for steel and one for aluminum, into whether imports of those metals threaten U.S. national security.

Check out how these types of events and trends are affecting six non-ferrous metal markets and four specific forms of steel — HRC, CRC, HDG and plate — in our detailed monthly analysis.

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This morning in metals news, we’ve seen a major U.S. auto supplier snap up a European counterpart just before the weekend, the EPA Clean Power Plan’s swan song stalled a bit, and more.

Lear Corp. and Grupo Antolin Marriage Consummated

Lear Corporation, one of the world’s leading suppliers of automotive seating systems and electrical distribution systems, went final on its acquisition of Grupo Antolin’s automotive seating business just last Friday.

According to a press release, Grupo Antolin has a large footprint with Europe’s largest carmakers, including Daimler, Peugeot Citroen, Renault Nissan and Volkswagen, and the acquisition will help Lear double down on its core business. “The transaction is valued at €286 million on a cash and debt free basis and is forecasted to be accretive to 2017 earnings per share,” according to the release.

Incidentally, Lear Corp. is not only one of the biggest auto suppliers, but one of the most resilient — the company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

EPA Clean Power Plan Court Battle on Pause?

A federal court’s recent ruling has given environmentalists a bit of a reprieve to look over their options, as the impending court battle to get rid of the Obama administration’s chief piece of environmental regulation takes a break (paywall).

President Trump used an executive order in late March to dismantle the Obama administration’s climate change agenda, according to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. As MetalMiner reported at the time, the action will order several other federal agencies to undo the Obama administration’s climate change work: It will tell the Interior Department to end a moratorium on new coal leasing on federal land, the official said, and the Obama administration’s assault on methane emissions — outlined in early 2014 and overseen by Interior and EPA — will be ended, too.

EPA’s CPP, as it came to be known, could have had far-ranging consequences on U.S. manufacturing, especially on heavier emitters such as the steel industry, if enacted to its fullest.

China’s Copper Appetite Shifting from Refined Metal to…?

Reuters’ Andy Home examines how the 28 percent year-on-year drop in China’s imports of refined copper in Q1 2017 don’t tell the whole story of that country’s love affair with the red metal. In fact, China has shifted its focus to copper scrap, among other things. Read Home’s full analysis here.

And don’t forget to check back in tomorrow morning, May 2, to get a free trial of the latest edition of our Monthly Outlook Report — including forward-looking copper market analysis and buying strategies.

You can’t accuse the aluminum market of being boring, which is exactly what most consumers don’t want to hear.

As buyers, we like nothing better than a nice steady predictable market. A little bit of price inflation is good if you are a stockist or trader, as it keeps the market turning over and encourages forward buying. But as consumers, most buyers would rather the market be flat and boring, the same next month as this and predictable for six months out. “Can’t think when it was last like that,” you will say.

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

The problem is that the most highly traded metal on the LME and the second most highly produced metal after steel is still buffeted by squalls from every quarter. Recently, talk (and let’s remember that so far it is mostly talk) of capacity closures next winter in the greater Beijing hinterland to combat pollution has helped lift the price by encouraging talk of scarcity. Beijing has shown solid intent in this direction, already denying planning approval to 2 million tons of new capacity in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang and clamping down hard on plants elsewhere that it deems to be failing environmental standards.

The next target is said to be smelters in China’s heavily industrialized provinces of Shandong and Inner Mongolia. Of China’s total illegal aluminum capacity (which, according to some sources, is between 3.7 million metric tons and 6.6 million metric tons), the clear majority of it (up to 4.3 million metric tons) is situated in Shandong, Aluminium Insider reports.

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

This means that the impact of proposed closures could be profound. While Beijing was being dismissed for environmental posturing just months ago, the market is now taking it at its word. The expectation is that we will be seeing more of the same, with further closures likely during this year. Combined with the potentially more serious closure of alumina refining and carbon anode production capacity removal of even 2-4 million tons out of China’s 31+ million metric tons annual primary smelting capacity would tighten the market, probably pushing it into outright deficit.

At the same time, among a flurry of 100-day directives emanating out of the White House, President Donald Trump is due to sign an executive order this week calling for the Department of Commerce to accelerate the investigation on aluminum imports in the name of national security. The allegation is that damage to the U.S. aluminum industry from imports, particularly overproduction in China driving down global prices, has implications for national security. A positive ruling on this could result in tariffs or other restrictions against the estimated 55% of current US supply that is met by imports.

Both developments could be supportive of higher prices this year. In fact, when you look at the aluminum market, set against a backdrop of solid global growth and continued above GDP growth in the use of aluminum, you must ask where negative price pressures are to come from.

Free Download: The April 2017 MMI Report

One could be a more rapid appreciation of the U.S. dollar. A stronger dollar usually has a negative impact on commodity prices, but the market is already factoring in three Fed rate rises this year, and potentially inflationary tax changes proposed by the new administration are at least a year away from implementation. Short-term profit taking aside the only medium-term cap could be a psychological one of $2,000 per ton. But once breached, that becomes a support level for further rises.

It will certainly be an interesting year for aluminum.