Market Analysis

The M3 GOES MMI — the sub-index tracking grain-oriented electrical steel — fell two points this past month from 189 to 187.

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The small decline in the U.S. runs counter to market price trends for Japanese GOES material. According to a recent TEX Report, Japanese producers have won price increases because of supply shortages. Moreover, Korea’s Posco scored a $300/metric ton price increase to supply India.

Meanwhile, MetalMiner sources say Chinese producers appear fickle, quickly raising prices only to lower them to accept new orders and fill capacity.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room, however, involves the Section 232 investigations.

Many are speculating that the delay will bring about a more modest set of recommendations from Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, as the much-awaited report rumored to have been released prior to the July 4 holiday and delayed to right after the G20 summit, has still yet to be released.

MetalMiner speculated about potential outcomes in a story published nearly a month ago (and still believes that to be the most likely outcome). Meanwhile, Australia appears confident that it will be exempted from any such action. Some have suggested that Canada might also feel secure in receiving an exemption, but MetalMiner has not been able to substantiate that claim. Moreover, because Canada is such a significant supplier to the U.S. for steel products, it’s hard to conceive of how that country would receive a full exemption from whatever is recommended under Section 232.

Of course, Canada remains a critical part of the GOES supply chain, as Canada produces wound and stacked cores and exports them to the U.S.

Meanwhile, Back at the BRS Ranch…

In addition to the Section 232 investigation, David Stickler, CEO of Big River Steel (BRS), recently indicated at a steel conference that BRS would move forward with an additional study and due diligence activities on its Phase II expansion to include non-oriented electrical steel (NOES) capability.

Industry participants suggest that this could also include Phase III funding that includes GOES capability.

Last month, MetalMiner reported on growth projections for electric vehicles (which requires NOES materials to get the power from the battery to the motor) and the numbers suggest very large growth within the automotive sector. This will likely form the basis of due diligence activities and indirectly impacts GOES production, as NOES is often produced on the same lines.

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What this means for industrial buyers

It’s hard to pay close attention to the month-to-month movements of what is essentially a M3 spot market index. The Section 232 investigation outcome remains potentially the single biggest price driver for the U.S. market.

Exact GOES Coil Price This Month

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Here’s What Happened

    • MetalMiner’s Global Precious MMI took a bit of a dip this month, coming down 1.1% to 83.
    • The sub-index’s value held at 84 in June and May, but on balance, the price drops within the overall basket of metals couldn’t hold the ship steady into this post-Independence Day summer lull.
    • While our U.S. platinum bar price got very close to its 2017 start-of-the-month low (which it hit in January; more on platinum below), U.S. palladium rose 3.8% month-on-month to record its highest price in 34 months — nearly a 3-year high.

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What’s Going On in the Background?

  • Diesel goin’ down? Due to negative sentiment after Dieselgate, as MetalMiner’s Editor at Large Stuart Burns pointed out recently, sales of diesel vehicles in some parts of Europe have taken a dive in the past few months over concerns that “authorities will raise costs or otherwise make living with diesel engines a less attractive proposition for owners.” Overall, total car sales have dropped in some European markets, including the U.K. — but in the spots where they haven’t, gas-powered vehicles have been winning over diesel. In short, not awesome for platinum prices.
  • BEVs are not the panacea. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) could be the ticket … except that the World Platinum Investment Council forecasts BEVs to make up no more than 5% of the market by 2025, so that wouldn’t work either.
  • Of course, investor demand, jewelry demand and other industrial sectors, such as chemical, all play into it. But “platinum’s fortunes will in part ride on the coattails of the auto industry’s ability to re-establish the diesel engine as an environmentally acceptable propulsion unit,” according to Burns.
  • Meanwhile, as my colleague Fouad Egbaria reported yesterday, gold is now trading on the LME.

What Metal Buyers Should Look Out For

  • The divergence between platinum and palladium prices of late certainly merits attention, and perhaps may drive industrial manufacturers to broader substitution efforts — but that could be a stretch. According to analysts cited by the Financial Times (paywall), “the divergence reflects a number of factors, including speculative demand and several years of production deficits that have eroded stockpiles and reduced available supplies.” The article goes on to say that longer term, “with the increasing popularity of electric vehicles, analysts say this year’s turbocharged run for palladium could be a last hurrah for the material, which has few industrial uses outside of the car industry.”
  • Last month, we wrote that “while we’re unsure of when prices will swing back up, mainly because output cuts in South Africa and elsewhere have seemingly not helped, it may be hard to discount current windows for smaller spot buys.” Fortunately for platinum spot-buyers, this still holds true.

Key Price Movers and Shakers

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The Renewables MMI, which tracks metals and materials going into the renewable energy industry, moved up by a single point for our July reading, up to 72 from last month’s 71.

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For just the second time this year, U.S. steel plate posted a price drop, falling 3.7% for this month’s reading. U.S. grain-oriented electrical steel (GOES) also fell, by 1.2%. GOES had alternated between price drops and rises all year until this month, when GOES dropped in price for the second month in a row.

Meanwhile, Chinese steel plate rose 1%. Chinese neodymium, cobalt cathodes and silicon also posted price increases.

Japanese and Korean steel plate both posted price drops, by 1.1% and 5.9%.

Feeling Green

The renewable metals market is potentially in for a jolt in the coming years, especially in light of the direction of the automotive industry.

Last week, Volvo announced that “every Volvo it launches from 2019 will have an electric motor, marking the historic end of cars that only have an internal combustion engine (ICE) and placing electrification at the core of its future business.” While the reviews are mixed regarding how revolutionary the announcement actually was, it is certainly a long-term boon for the metals used in electric vehicles.

In other automotive news, Tesla is preparing to debut its Tesla Model 3. According to a Reuters report Tuesday, the new sedan model is expected to increase Tesla’s sales by 500%.

While Tesla’s sales currently represent a tiny fraction of the sales of the traditional automotive heavyweights, its sales are on the rise.

According to Autodata Corp sales figures released earlier this month, Tesla’s U.S. sales in June amounted to 3,900 units, up by 25.8% from June 2016, and year-to-date sales in 2017 (23,550) were up 42.7% from the same time frame in 2016.

However, a Washington Post report earlier this week notes that electric-vehicles sales hit a wall in Hong Kong once tax breaks there expired.

In the short term, the same thing could happen as sales pick up in the U.S.

Currently, a maximum total credit of $7,500 is afforded for consumers who purchase plug-in electric vehicles. That credit, however, begins to be phased out once a manufacturer sells more than 200,000 vehicles in the U.S.

On a macroscopic scale, despite President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, renewable energy, in general, has picked up momentum.

While clearly a long-term goal, France announced it will ban the sale of petroleum- or diesel-fueled vehicles by 2040. Also, the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted in late June to approve a resolution to help cities establish a “community-wide target of powering their communities with 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2035.”

Actual Metal Prices

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Windsor/Adobe Stock

On Monday, our Irene Martinez Canorea wrote about copper prices, which have been on a bullish run. Today, Stuart Burns writes about investors’ copper positions. 

Reuters reported last week that the LME copper price reached a three-month high after a surprise rise in China’s Purchasing Managers Index (PMI).

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Investors jumped into copper after the official Chinese PMI rose for an 11th consecutive month, to 51.7 in June. Hedge funds and other investors increased long positions by 9,531 contracts to 58,816. Reuters reported that net long copper positions are now nearly double the 29,787 contracts reported back at the beginning of May and a dramatic reversal from the net short position of 47,109 contracts just a year ago.

The jump in the LME price was short-lived, dropping back as the dollar strengthened and LME data showed copper stocks gaining, but the Reuters report went on to question whether the current bullish run for copper is likely part of a longer-term recovery or a short-term case of overexuberance.

Although Chinese PMI numbers are not an exact measure of copper demand, they have been a good indicator over time. But after nearly 12 months of positive PMI numbers, many analysts are said to be expecting weaker readings in the second half of the year.

Chinese stimulus measures have boosted growth for longer than most had expected, but cracks are beginning to show in the housing market and Beijing’s tightening of credit is impacting small- to medium-size enterprises. The performance of those enterprises are not reflected in the official PMI figures, which are focused more on the large corporate sector.

Smaller businesses are measured by the Caixin PMI, which fell to its lowest level this year in June and is now hovering around the break-even point between contraction and expansion.

With the impact of stimulus measures beginning to decline and global stocks of copper remaining plentiful, it’s hard to see a case for copper’s continued strength in the second half of the year, despite the bullish bets indicated by the increasing long positions.

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If Reuters’ analysis is correct, we can probably expect an easing of copper prices, if not during the summer then into the fall.

The Raw Steel MMI inched three points higher in June, increasing by 4.4%. The index hit 70-plus for just the second time this year (the first coming with March’s 70).

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The Chinese steel industry generally drives steel prices. Steel prices in China have increased during June, caused by the 23.3% jump in coking coal prices. However, this month’s uptrend counters the short-term downtrend that coal has experienced since February, which has largely driven steel prices down.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of TradingEconomics data

This downtrend in raw materials applies to both coal and iron ore. Although iron ore prices increased a bit this month, iron ore remains in a downtrend. Therefore, steel prices are at risk of following that downtrend.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of TradingEconomics data

The spread

The spread between Chinese hot-rolled coil (HRC) and domestic HRC prices has also narrowed this month.

The spread has continued to drop despite rising domestic HRC prices because Chinese HRC prices have also increased. A rising Chinese HRC price would lower U.S. steel imports, although imports have reached their highest levels since 2014.

If Chinese HRC prices increase, U.S. steel imports will decrease and lend support to domestic HRC prices.

Source: MetalMiner analysis of MetalMiner IndX data

Political uncertainty, the Trump administration’s Section 232 investigation recommendations and the recent G20 summit have only fueled price uncertainty. The outcome of these events will possibly have an effect on steel prices.

MetalMiner believes the delay in the release of the 232 recommendations — which were previously expected to be announced by the end of June — could cause U.S. steel prices to reverse this last month’s upward trend.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Though the Raw Steels MMI inched up this past month, scrap prices may be trading flat to slightly up from last month. However, the underlying trends do not suggest rising prices. The Section 232 investigations will yield additional clues.

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Actual Raw Steel Prices, Trends

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A major shake-up in the global aluminum industry as Norwegian firm Norsk Hydro will fully own aluminum products maker Sapa after buying a 50% stake from conglomerate Orkla.

According to a recent report from Reuters, this transaction values Sapa at $3.24 billion on a debt-free basis.

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Hydro produces primary aluminum from scratch, but by combining with Sapa, enhances its capabilities to become an integral supplier for automotive firms, aircraft makers and the construction sector.

“Sapa will enable us to assume global leadership, establish a platform for growth, and provide responsible operations and sustainable solutions for the future low-carbon economy,” Hydro Chief Executive Svein Richard Brandtzaeg told the news source.

He added: “The combination will make Hydro the only global company in the aluminum industry that is fully integrated across the value chain and markets.”

Automotive MMI Grows in June

The aluminum component remains a significant one for the automotive industry. According to recent analysis from our own Fouad Egbaria, the Automotive Monthly Metals Index rebounded from a reverse in May to move forward in June.

Egbaria wrote: “Although the increase was small, the one-point jump is an encouraging sign, as it marked the first increase for the sub-index since early this year, when it jumped from 82 to the February reading of 92. After that 92 mark, the sub-index posted four straight months of decreases.”

How will aluminum and base metals fare in 2017? You can find a more in-depth aluminum price forecast and outlook in our brand-new Monthly Metal Buying Outlook report.

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The Aluminum MMI dropped one point for our July reading, falling back to 87 after May and June saw the sub-index check in at 88.

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The sub-index has been in somewhat of a holding pattern since April, when President Donald Trump’s investigation announced it was opening investigations into steel and aluminum imports, invoking the little-used Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act.

The Commerce Department held a public hearing June 22, during which industry executives offered their opinions on the challenges facing U.S. aluminum and whether protectionist actions should be taken. While primary manufacturers welcomed tariffs or quotas, downstream manufacturers weren’t as keen on the idea.

More recently, the International Trade Commission (ITC)  released its own report on the competitive conditions affecting the U.S. aluminum industry. The report’s executive summary zeroed in on five factors: the global aluminum industry is widely affected by government intervention through policies and programs that principally impact primary aluminum production costs; the chief determinants of competitiveness vary among industry segments; as of 2015, China was the world’s largest aluminum producer and consumer; competitiveness of the U.S. industry varied across segments; and the global aluminum market experienced price declines of roughly 30% during 2011–15 due to oversupply.

U.S. imports rose by 41% during the period from 2011–2016, to nearly 1.7 million metric tons, according to the ITC report. In terms of wrought aluminum imports, in 2016 the U.S. took in the most product from China (531,000 metric tons), with Canada coming in second (452,000 mt).

There was an uptick in optimism from the metals industry after the election of President Donald Trump, given his campaign promises regarding infrastructure building projects. Those campaign promises have yet to gain traction, and that initial excitement has leveled out — in short, many are in wait-and-see mode.

Per Section 232, the Commerce Secretary has 270 days to present the president with a report and recommendations. Many expect those investigation results to be announced sometime this month, although no official word has been given.

In an emailed statement Friday, Heidi Brock, president and CEO of The Aluminum Association, wrote: “Regarding the Section 232 investigation on aluminum imports and national security, we continue to engage the Administration and Capitol Hill to promote our three principles of 1) focus on the problem of Chinese subsidized aluminum overcapacity, 2) exempt Canadian imports and other foreign producers such as the European Union who trade fairly and have not contributed to rising global overcapacity, and 3) consider the effects of overcapacity on both primary and downstream producers.”

Actual Metal Prices

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The Copper MMI inched two points higher in July, driven by the recovery of the LME Copper 3-month price, which has been bounced off its previous lows and has increased by 4.98%. The copper MMI is back to April’s levels.

Analysis of supply and demand might suggest quite a bullish outlook for copper. Supply and demand has indeed driven copper prices in June.

During this past month, strikes have eased and production ramped up again. Even the strike at Freeport mine in Indonesia, the world’s second-largest copper mine, is set to continue and production will likely remain the same.

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On July 4, mining company Antofagasta announced it, too, might face a strike. This strike could impact two copper mines: Zaldivar and Centinela. The decision will be made at the end of this week. Chilean mining company Antofagasta Minerals is one of the largest global copper producers, with a combined annual production at both mines of 160,000 tons.

The International Copper Study Group (ICSG) has announced a possible supply deficit for this year. This is based on June’s released data on copper world mine production, which is estimated to have decreased by 3.5%, and world refined production, which is estimated to remain unchanged.

However, LME copper prices have started July with a five consecutive days of drops. Although June suggested a slight uptrend for copper, MetalMiner does not believe the uptrend is sustainable, as I reported in last Monday’s copper article

Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

The LME copper price has not been able to break its psychological ceiling of $6,0000/metric ton. Moreover, recent weakness at the beginning of July, combined with poor trading volumes, suggests further weakness. Unless trading volumes shift, they are not supportive of copper prices.

The U.S. dollar and Chinese PMI indicators have historically shown correlation with copper prices. Even the U.S. dollar has shown a little uptrend during June, but its downtrend may continue, which would negatively impact copper prices. The short uptrend that has boosted copper prices during May and June has been caused by supply concerns.

U.S. Dollar. Source: MetalMiner analysis of StockCharts

The Chinese Manufacturing PMI rose unexpectedly to 50.4 in June. But this small increase may just be a blip. Current sentiment suggests Chinese demand may once again fall, as authorities are still working to curb financial risks.

In addition, the construction sector has fallen during the first quarter of 2017 by 83% (measured by value).  

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

Though it’s tempting to assume that the two-point increase and the supply-and-demand narrative suggests a bullish outlook, we would like to see a stronger uptrend and increasing trading volumes to support a more bullish narrative.

Actual Copper Prices and Trends

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Andrey Kuzmin/Adobe Stack

While we read presidential tweets, or worse, listen to megalomaniacs gloat about successful missile launches, a quiet shift has been going on in the financial markets.

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Political risks as a driver of exchange rates have either faded into the background or have already been fully priced into non-dollar currencies. Meanwhile, the driver in currency markets has shifted back to central bank actions and the macroeconomic factors that drive them.

You only have to see the sharp reaction in Europe to recent comments made by Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, concerning “reflationary pressures” at work, causing an immediate 2% spike in the Euro, to see the market’s focus is firmly back on inflation-related indicators, with wage growth in the different currency areas taking on a particularly critical role.

The Associated Press reported last month that inflation across the 19-country Eurozone held up better than anticipated in the face of waning energy prices — a sign that the region’s economic recovery is reverberating across the single-currency bloc.

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The Construction MMI showed no movement for our July reading, checking in at 81, the same mark as last month’s reading.

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According to U.S. Census Bureau data released July 3 — which includes the most recently available construction spending data for the month of May — spending just about held flat from April to May. U.S. construction spending in April amounted to $1,230.4 billion and fell slightly to $1,230.1 billion in May.

The spending picture is more robust when considering the year to date. During the first five months of 2017, total construction spending amounted to $469.2 billion, 6.1 percent more than the $442.4 billion for the same period in 2016.

Total private construction ($943.2 billion) was down 0.6% from the previous month but up 6.2% compared with May 2016. Public construction, meanwhile, amounted to $286.9 billion, up 2.1% from the April total but down 0.6% from May 2016.

While the year-to-date numbers are encouraging, a pair of issues are causes for concern among those in the construction industry.

Despite Static Picture, Things to Build With

The Architecture Billings Index (ABI), put out by the American Institute of Architects, noted that billings for U.S. architecture firms increased for the fourth straight month in May.

The ABI report was mostly positive, but included concerns regarding labor shortages and rising prices of building materials. According to the report: “The US Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that prices for construction materials like steel, copper, aluminum, and asphalt have risen at a double-digit percentage pace over the past year. Cement, lumber, and gypsum have risen at a high single-digit pace over this period.”

As the specter of the Trump administration’s Section 232 investigations into steel and aluminum imports continues to loom, construction outfits might have to deal with further price increases if tariffs are slapped onto imports.

By region, the South notched the strongest month. With a score of 50 as a midpoint (meaning no decrease or increase), the South region of the U.S. came in strongest in the most recent ABI, with a score of 56.1. The West (52.3), Midwest (50.4) and Northeast (46.5) followed.

Actual Metal Prices

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