Stainless Steel

We have written a lot over the last few weeks about the macro-economic situation the world’s metal markets find themselves in so it came as pleasure to connect with an old friend of ours Dan Kendall, President of ABC Metals to hear about life at the sharp end. ABC is a distributor of high quality precision slit non ferrous metal products with distribution centers in the mid-west and Texas.

Distributor inventory levels are at all time lows. Dan had a wonderful quote from the CEO of another distributor who said, “You could shoot a gun in our warehouse and not hit any metal”. Faced with falling demand and rising prices, distributors have stopped buying. Inventory levels are dramatically lower and only niche players with long running contracts and sophisticated cost hedges in place are managing to still grow their businesses. ABC was up 27% last year. Read more

I can’t say that I am shocked by these survey results which were just released over the weekend by buying consortium Prime Advantage. According to the press release, of the 100 member companies that responded to the survey, 46% said that raw materials, “which include stainless steel, nickel, copper and other metals and plastics were a major concern in 2008.” Energy costs came second with 17.5% citing this as the biggest cost pressure.

Given the past two years, it is no surprise that raw material price pressures remain top of mind for purchasing professionals and owners of small businesses. What is ironic is that 66% of respondents “plan significant capital improvements in 2008, including equipment upgrades such as press brakes, turret punch presses, plus equipment for laser cutting, robotic welding and stamping”. On top of that, 59% of respondents expect a revenue boost in 2008.

But aren’t we in a recession? Well, maybe but not all manufacturing has been feeling the pinch. A colleague of mine who is a turnaround professional recently told me that he has seen manufacturing companies whom he thought would never export again, do more of that of late than in the last 10 years combined! Just last week Caterpillar (my favorite economic bell-weather) reported a 20% jump in exports of machinery and equipment in 2007, according to this Crain’s Chicago article. So it’s no wonder that we see companies worry about raw material pricing yet continue to make capital investments.

The state of the US dollar is undoubtedly a boon to many US manufacturers as their exports are now much more competitive. Foreign competition as my partner Stuart rightly points out, is down at the moment but what happens when, “they [US manufacturers] will once again face their normal level of foreign competition… I wonder how bullish they would be then?” Good point but if you are of the school of thought that the dollar had been “wrongly” priced previously due to certain “bubble” industry sectors and the dollar continues to trade as it has been for awhile, we’ll continue to see strong exports. Of course what goes up also goes down and vice versa.

But one thing we can bank on, it appears certain that raw material pricing will remain volatile and a concern for manufacturers.

Editor’s Note: If you are concerned about raw material volatility, take our free  MetalSaver quiz  for cost savings ideas. –Lisa Reisman

And what does the price of Ferro Nickel in India have to do with that spatula you used last night? Actually, quite a bit. India is about to cut the import duty for Ferro Nickel by 3% for 2008. According to this Economic Times article both nickel and chromium prices are also expected to fall in 2008. The result? According to the article, a 10-15% reduction in the price of stainless steel utensils! Hee Haw! So if you were holding off on that fork purchase, you might consider a spring 2008 excursion to your local cutlery store.

Cutlery

Okay, so you laughed. But there is a lesson here … the price of these ferro alloys, along with nickel and chromium in India most certainly affects U.S. buyers of all types. If your company is importing stainless steel utensils, these price drops matter to you. You want to be sure your spring contracts reflect these price changes.And despite all of the recent anti-trade sentiment, the fact remains that we are all operating in a global economy. South Africa controls about two-fifths of the world’s production of chromium, but India is also a significant producer. We’ll continue to report metals price developments from around the world. Alloying elements can and will continue to have a dramatic effect on finished item cost. In the meantime, if you are considering replacing your serving ware, hold off until spring/summer.

–Lisa Reisman

In the face of a slowing US economy, a mixed position for the European economies and a still strong Asian market, it is a particularly tough call this year to judge where prices will go. Our call is the US will teeter on recession. Europe though restricted by high ECB interest rates will still enjoy some (if reduced) growth providing the Euro/US Dollar exchange rate does not strangle exports. Asia in general and China in particular are still enjoying robust growth. China may well drop from the double digit growth of the last 5 years to high single digit figures but that is still a very significant driver for the world economy and particularly the world metal markets.

So here are the 2008 predictions:

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