Market Analysis

The Raw Steels Monthly Metals Index (MMI) fell again this month, dropping to 79 points. The current MMI index has fallen toward October 2017 levels of 79, before global steel prices started to rise sharply.

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The recent slowdown in domestic steel price momentum led to the decline. Domestic steel prices recently fell fairly sharply, driven by slower Chinese demand and ample steel availability.

Domestic steel prices have showed slowing momentum since June 2018. They increased sharply at the beginning of the year, driven by a bullish market in commodities and industrial metals, as well as by the Section 232 tariffs. During most of 2018, domestic steel prices remained at seven-year highs.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

However, steel prices have showed slower momentum recently and prices appear to have started a sharp downtrend. MetalMiner does not expect prices to increase in the short term, although mills may try to shore up prices with price increase announcements.

Meanwhile, plate prices have decreased at a slower pace. Plate price movements are commonly sharper. In other words, plate prices tend to move in one direction and then change sharply. Lower availability has kept domestic plate prices from falling too far, but domestic prices fell in December.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Historically, steel prices in general tend to drift lower during the beginning of Q4 and then rise. In 2017, HRC domestic prices started to increase in December, then skyrocketed during the first quarter of 2018. In 2018, prices did not increase in Q4. MetalMiner does not expect domestic steel prices to increase in the short term.

Chinese Steel Prices

So far in January, prices for all forms of Chinese steel have also fallen. Chinese domestic steel prices started to decrease at the end of October, driven by the start of the winter season.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

Chinese steel domestic demand appears weaker, and a slower Chinese economy has driven the recent price decline.

The yuan traded sideways this month. However, current levels are back at 2016 levels, or 0.14 U.S. dollar/yuan. A weaker yuan makes Chinese goods more appealing, despite the U.S. tariffs. Meanwhile, the Chinese stock market (FXI Shares) fell again this month. The Chinese stock market has fallen during most of 2018 after reaching a peak at the beginning of the year. The new downtrend comes as a result of a slowdown in China.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Current domestic steel prices appear in a downtrend. Adapting the “right” buying strategy becomes crucial to reduce risks. Only the MetalMiner monthly outlooks provide a continuously updated snapshot of the market from which buying organizations can determine when and how much of the underlying metal to buy.

Click here for more info on how to mitigate price risk all year round – and take a free trial of our Monthly Metal Buying Outlook.

Actual Raw Steel Prices and Trends

The U.S. Midwest HRC 3-month futures price fell again this month by 6.31%, moving to $712/st. Chinese steel billet prices fell this month by 3%, while Chinese slab prices fell by 1.27% to $529/mt. The U.S. shredded scrap price closed the month at $353/st, dropping by 1.4% from last month.

In January, the Copper Monthly Metals Index (MMI) dropped 3.9%, falling back 3 points to the November 2018 level of 74. Lower LME copper prices drove the index lower.

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Similar to other base metals, LME copper prices fell in December. LME copper prices fell below the $6,000/mt level, which served as a stiff resistance level for most of 2017. Prices over this level indicate a bullish copper market, while prices below that level signal a more bearish trend. This level has represented a psychological signal for “Doctor Copper” since 2017.  

LME Copper prices. Source: MetalMiner analysis of Fastmarkets

So far in January, LME copper prices have increased. However, current levels remain below that $6,000/mt psychological ceiling. Trading volume also appears weaker, which does not support a sharp uptrend.

Global Copper Outlook

According to data released in January, Chilean copper production reached 540,720 tons in November, the highest level in 13 years. The increase was driven by higher ore grades and more efficient processes. As reported by Chile’s national statistics agency INE, copper production increased 7% in November versus October. Production reached its highest levels  since December 2005.

Anglo American announced that overall production will increase more than expected between 2018-2021. Forecasts suggest 2018 production increased by 2%, driven by increases in copper output. 2019 production could increase by another 3%, and 2020-2021 production by an additional 5%.

Despite this forecast by Anglo American, the International Copper Study Group (ICSG) announced a wider deficit in September. The global refined copper deficit increased to 168,000 tons in September from the previous 43,000 tons in August. For the first nine months of 2018, the market saw a 595,000-ton deficit versus the previous year’s deficit of 226,000 tons.

Chinese Scrap Copper

LME copper prices and Chinese copper scrap prices tend to follow the same trend. However, this month they traded differently. LME copper prices fell while Chinese copper scrap prices increased. The divergence between LME copper prices and Chinese copper scrap has become more notable recently, driven by lower scrap availability in China.

Source: MetalMiner data from MetalMiner IndX(™)

The spread has become smaller this month. The wider the spread, the higher the copper scrap consumption, and therefore, the price.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

LME copper prices fell this month, moving below the $6,000/mt level. Buying organizations will want to understand how to react to the latest copper price movements. Adapting the “right” buying strategy becomes crucial to reduce risks. Only MetalMiner’s Monthly Outlook reports provide a continuously updated snapshot of the market from which buying organizations can determine when and how much of the underlying metal to buy.

Click here for more info on how to mitigate price risk all year round — and get a free 2-month trial to our Monthly Metal Buying Outlook.

Actual Copper Prices and Trends

In December, most of the prices that comprise the Copper MMI basket fell. LME copper decreased by 4.87% this month. Indian copper prices also fell by 5.91%, while Chinese cash primary copper prices decreased by 3.83%. Prices of U.S. copper producer grades 110 and 122 fell by 3.36%. Meanwhile, the price of U.S. copper producer grade 102 decreased by 3.2%, to $3.64/pound.

It looks as though the winter is just heating up for the Global Precious Monthly Metals Index (MMI).

The sub-index tracking a basket of gold, silver, platinum and palladium prices from four different geographies rose three points to hit 90 for the January reading — a 3.4% increase — driven by a still-hot palladium price.

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The U.S. palladium bar price broke the 1,200-per-ounce barrier to start the month, ending at $1,252 per ounce to begin 2019. That represents a three-month uptrend. Meanwhile, the gold price reclaimed its premium over palladium, settling at $1,282 per ounce to begin the month.

U.S. silver also rose, while platinum dropped in the U.S. and Japan.

Palladium Outlook Looking Even Better With Hybrid Vehicle Demand

As we wrote last month, while supply from major producers including Russia and South Africa is not growing, global automotive palladium demand is expected to achieve a new record high in 2018 of around 8.5 million ounces, according to precious metals consultancy Metals Focus as reported by Reuters.

That conspires for the high price bubble of the formerly junior PGM of late. However, that may not last.

“This increases the potential for correction,” Commerzbank is quoted as stating in a recent outlook report. “We expect a price correction [for palladium] to begin in the course of the first quarter of 2019.”

After correcting, the bank expects the price should to “resume its upswing,” forecasting a price of $1,100 per troy ounce by the end of 2019, it is quoted as saying.

Other analysts agree with that general take, but that doesn’t mean that the longer-term demand outlook isn’t still strong.

According to Anton Berlin, head of analysis and market development at Norilsk Nickel PJSC, as quoted by Bloomberg, “combined palladium use in hybrid and plug-in hybrid — or rechargeable — vehicles next year will be nearly triple that of 2016.”

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Analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co. agree. “Hybrids are forecast to grow from just 3 percent of global market share in 2016 to 23 percent of sales by 2025,” stated a late-2018 report by the bank, according to Bloomberg.

The Rare Earths Monthly Metals Index (MMI) fell 5.5% to land at 17, just one point shy of its all-time historical low (16).

Certain constituent metal prices rose, such as cerium oxide and europium oxide.

However, several others fell, including neodymium oxide (falling 0.6% to $45,649 per metric ton) and terbium metal (falling 0.7% to $566 per kilogram).

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The China Front

China is doubling down on illegal mining and traceability of rare earth metals and minerals, according to new guidelines published by the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) late last week, as reported by Reuters.

As readers know, China’s been attempting to clean up its rare earths production sector for about a decade already, and it’s made strides toward its goals, but there’s still a way to go.

Even after launching a crackdown on the rare earths sector in 2009 and being forced by the WTO to get rid of export controls in 2014, “illegal mining and production continued to disrupt ‘market order’ and damage the interests of legitimate enterprises,” the ministry stated in their notice, according to Reuters.

The ministry is also committed to establishing a traceability system to prevent buyers from snapping up illegal material and will suspend licenses of companies that break the law, according to the news service.

Meanwhile, In Korea…

Across the Yellow Sea, patent applications for uses of rare earths have been going strong.

According to the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) on Dec. 30, as reported by BusinessKorea, “the number of patent applications related to the use of rare earth materials for permanent magnets and batteries totaled 2,356 over the past five years from 2011 to 2016.”

High-tech heavyweights Samsung led the way, with Hyundai and LG not far behind.

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The Automotive Monthly Metals Index (MMI) fell 3.2% to a value of 92 this month, its lowest level in 17 months.

After riding high during mid-2017, above the baseline of 100, the Automotive MMI sub-index — tracking a basket of industrial metals and materials crucial to the automotive sector — has been in a continued overall downtrend since mid-summer of last year.

With both the commodities and base metals sectors ending 2018 on sustained downtrends, and a weak U.S. dollar, there don’t appear to be any immediate signs of the Auto MMI’s slide letting up.

Actual Metal Prices and Trends

The sub-index’s overall descent, however, hasn’t stopped palladium’s scorching rise. Platinum’s ‘little brother’ is in a solid two-month uptrend, beginning the new year at $1,252 per ounce, by far the best single-metal performer.

All other constituent price points that comprise the Automotive MMI — including U.S. HDG steel, LME copper, and the Korea price of 5052 coil premium over 1050 aluminum — fell over the past month.

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Auto Sales Trends

G.M. recently named Mark Reuss, the company’s former “product development guru,” as its new president, but that was couched in a near-simultaneous release of Q4 2018 sales figures — which weren’t great, according to an article in Industry Week.

The U.S. automaker announced that fourth quarter sales were down 2.7% from the same time last year, the article stated. Ford and Toyota also lost ground in December, while Fiat Chrysler posted a double-digit percentage gain for last month.

Overall, preliminary expectations put the overall 2018 U.S auto sales number at about 17.2 million vehicles, according to the WSJ (paywall), which would be about even with 2017’s total and “marks the fourth straight year of at least 17 million vehicles sold, a resilient showing for an industry prone to boom-and-bust cycles.”

However, in China, the latest available data show that “a total of 2.55 million vehicles were sold in November, down 13.9 percent year-on-year, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM),” cited in China Daily — which, as Reuters reported, is the steepest plunge since 2012.

Automotive Demand Outlook: 2019 and Beyond

So where does this leave the future of automotive demand?

Certain industry watchers, such as former Reuters European automotive correspondent Neil Winton, expect 2019 to be the year that the growing interest and investment in the EV market squeeze traditional automakers and the sales of their product.

Writing in Forbes, Winton notes that Morgan Stanley “expects global auto sales to slip 0.3% in 2019 to 82.1 million. The Center for Automotive Research in Duisberg-Essen, Germany, puts 2019 sales slightly higher at 82.9 million. Fitch Solutions does still expect some growth in sales – a [minuscule] 2.0%.”

However, the tiny slips could give way to bigger sea changes down the line. The days of healthy profitability for the makers of traditional gas-powered cars are numbered, he writes. “Demand for autos is at a dangerous tipping point, according to Morgan Stanley, as buyers put off purchases waiting for the new technology in the form of electric cars to take the stage,” writes Winton.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

The Construction Monthly Metals Index (MMI) stemmed last month’s seven-point loss by leveling out for the January 2019 reading.

Our Construction MMI sub-index — tracking a basket of industrial metals, materials and other indicators crucial to the construction sector — stayed at a value of 82, holding steady from December’s reading.

The constituent metal and material price changes, like the overall reading, held relatively steady over the month. Tracked by our MetalMiner IndX, the U.S. shredded scrap price dropped only a few dollars this month ending up at $353 per short ton, while the China H-beam steel price lost about the same ground per metric ton. Chinese rebar, on the other hand, rose by about $12, reaching nearly $557 per metric ton.

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Latest Construction Spending Data Is…Still TBA

Perhaps the biggest story of the moment — the U.S. government shutdown, a result of the stalemate between President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats — turns out to have a construction angle, as well as a direct effect on construction-sector data delays.

The sticking point keeping President Trump from capitulating to re-opening government business is his steadfast demand for about $5 billion in funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall that he promised during his campaign. First indicated to be constructed of concrete, Trump has since pivoted to a steel-slat design, and most recently, a setup of “see-through” materials.

All of which is to say, the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports the monthly construction spending data, is not reporting updates during the shutdown. We will update this story, or publish a separate post, with the January data when it becomes available.

Architecture Billings Forthcoming As Well, But Last Reading Looked Strong

The next ABI reading is scheduled to arrive on January 23, but the last available numbers from November indicate growth and confidence in the sector.

Billings increased to a reading of healthy 54.7 in November — the highest since last January — up from 50.4 the previous month. (A reading over 50, like the ISM PMI, indicates positive expansion.)

Top Business Concerns for 2019

Industry folks also voiced their top business concerns for 2019 to the AIA via a survey.

“The largest share (30 percent) reported that identifying new qualified staff with appropriate technical and project management skills was one of their top three concerns for 2019, surpassing concerns about firm profitability for the first time in three years,” according to the November ABI release page. “Increasing firm profitability was still selected as one of the top concerns by the second largest share of respondents (26 percent) but that share was well below the 31 percent that selected it as a top concern last year.”

“Coping with an unpredictable economy had the largest increase from 2018 to 2019: 25 percent of firm leaders reported it as a top concern for 2019, compared to just 15 percent that reported the same for 2018,” according to the release.

About That Economy…China May Have Something to Say About That

“The slump in China’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) is likely to prove an unwelcome New Year’s gift to the world’s major exporters of bulk commodities such as iron ore and coal,” according to Reuters’ daily newsletter, referring to a column by Clyde Russell. “The manufacturing gauge compiled by Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics dropped to 49.4 in December, dropping below the 50-level that demarcates growth from contraction, for the first time since July 2016.”

The Caixin Manufacturing PMI also dropped on the month, leading to worries over consumption slowdowns in China.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

MetalMiner has just released its January 2019 edition of the Monthly Metal Buying Outlook, in which we explore how the fall in commodities — namely crude oil prices — and the continued weakness of the greenback are driving industrial metals prices.

What Happened Over the Last Month?

According to the report,

  • Both commodities and base metals sectors have been in downtrends over the past month.
  • Crude oil prices fell below the $50/barrel level, signaling a bearish outlook for crude oil. OPEC has tried to shore up oil prices by establishing output cuts and quotas for its members and allies, including Russia.
  • The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) PMI reading for December rose, while the Caixin China Manufacturing PMI fell for the month.

What Does it Mean for Metals in the Near-Term Future?

In the detailed sections of the report, get the drill-down analysis behind trends for base metals and several forms of steel:

  • Read about why aluminum buyers should watch the U.S. Midwest premium.
  • Find out how decreasing stocks on the SHFE may be a key driver of tin prices.
  • Learn the buying strategies that come out of the analyzing the trends — from aluminum all the way down to HRC, CRC, HDG and plate steel.

Read the January report today — Request your two-month free trial (and see a sample report here!) 

The dollar has been on a tear this year, boosted by a large corporate tax cut, a hawkish Fed and the imposition of import tariffs, the Financial Times suggests.

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These policy interventions were specifically designed to help Republicans in November’s midterm election, but they are unlikely to have a lasting positive effect.

Election-motivated fiscal giveaways typically increase macroeconomic instability, while tariffs reduce rather than enhance productivity. Neither will sustain the 2018 dollar recovery in the medium term, the news source believes, nor will the effects of quantitative easing (QE) continue to support mature markets (now that the policies are being withdrawn on both sides of the Atlantic).

According to the Financial Times, since late 2010 the dollar has rallied 35% in broad terms and 50% against emerging-market currencies, while the total return to U.S. stocks is 430% and German bonds have made more than 80%.

These gains have come as both a direct and indirect result of massive QE in the U.S. and Europe, funds have flowed out of emerging markets into those that are direct beneficiaries of QE. As QE is reversed, so too will the flow of funds; QE-supported markets will suffer and, relatively speaking, emerging markets will again become more attractive, the Financial Times believes.

The issue for commodities is what impact this will have on the dollar.

Dollar strength has been one factor depressing commodity prices this year. If the dollar were to weaken relative to a wider basket of currencies, this could have an inflationary effect on prices.

How quickly dollar strength ebbs remains to be seen.

The most recent hike in Fed funds was deemed by many to be a step too far — or at least too fast. At least, the White House that would have preferred a more cautious Fed approach.

The Fed’s position is that we could see two more rate hikes in 2019, a move that would support dollar strength (providing GDP growth remained positive), but recent assessments this week suggest there may be no further rate hikes next year, paving the way for a weaker dollar sooner rather than later in 2019.

Of course, dollar strength is only one of several dynamics impacting the price of commodities, but it remains a consistently strong correlator over time. Other factors include GDP and stock market growth in emerging markets, to the extent that an end to QE boosts investment interest in emerging markets that too could be supportive of commodity prices.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

For now, prices appear under pressure, but what 2019 holds for us — once the current sell-off runs its course — remains the be seen.

gui yong nian/Adobe Stock

This morning in metals news, prices of Chinese steel and steelmaking ingredients were down Friday, India is in talks with the U.S. over a steel tariff exemption and Japanese crude steel output might be decline in the first quarter of 2019.

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Chinese Steel Prices Down

A number of metals are closing the year on a downward note, and Chinese steel is no exception.

Prices of Chinese steel and steelmaking ingredients were down Friday (the last Friday of the year), with the most-active SHFE rebar contract down 0.5%, according to Reuters.

India, U.S. in Talks Over Steel Tariff Exemption

The Trump administration imposed its Section 232 tariffs on imported steel and aluminum in March, but countries are still lobbying for exemptions from the 25% tariff on steel and 10% tariff on aluminum.

According to another Reuters report, India is in talks with the U.S. over the possibility of a steel tariff exemption.

India is the world’s ninth-largest steel exporter. According to the International Trade Administration, the U.S. ranked sixth as a destination for India’s steel exports, accounting for 4% of its exports, or 204,000 metric tons, through October of this year.

Japanese Steel Production to Drop in Q1?

Crude steel production in Japan might be starting 2019 with operational issues that could hamper production, according to a report by the Hellenic Shipping News citing a government ministry.

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According to the report, citing Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), estimated crude steel output could drop to 26.31 million tonnes during Q1 due to operational issues at various plants. That estimated production figure would mark a 0.4% drop from the same period in 2017, according to the report.

photonewman/Adobe Stock

Steel often gets all the glory, but aluminum also had a big year.

From the U.S.’s Section 232 tariff announcement to the April aluminum price spike after the U.S. Treasury initially announced sanctions against Russian firms and their owners (including aluminum giant Rusal), there was plenty going on in the world of aluminum.

On the sanctions front, the U.S. Treasury announced it would delist several Russian firms previously targeted with sanctions (however, as MetalMiner’s Stuart Burns noted, the aluminum market reacted with a bit of a shrug this time around).

Buying Aluminum in 2019? Download MetalMiner’s free annual price outlook

Before we turn the page on 2018, take a look at some of the most-viewed aluminum-centric stories here on MetalMiner this year:

  1. Department of Commerce Releases Section 232 Aluminum, Steel Recommendations
  2. Section 232 Aluminum Report Moves on to President Trump

  3. Aluminum MMI: LME Aluminum Drops, Midwest Premium at Four-Year High

  4. Aluminum Recovers With More Than 13% Price Jump in a Week

  5. Mid-April Metals Analysis: Aluminum, Copper and Nickel Prices Rise, Other Base Metals Fall

  6. Breaking Down Section 232 Aluminum, Part 3: The Impact on U.S. Production

  7. Breaking Down Section 232 Aluminum, Part 1: Commerce Eyes 80% Capacity Utilization

  8. Breaking Down Section 232 Aluminum, Part 2: U.S. Importing More and Exporting Less

  9. Aluminum MMI: Markets React to 10% Aluminum Tariff Proposal

  10. This Morning in Metals: Copper, Aluminum Prices Drop on News of China’s Adjusted Winter Capacity Cuts

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