Steel

This part two of our sit down with Steel Manufacturers Association President Philip K. Bell at the recent S&P Global Platts Steel Markets North America conference here in Chicago. Bell currently serves on the Department of Commerce International Trade Advisory Committee on Steel (ITAC 12), advising the Secretary of Commerce and United States Trade Representative on trade policy, trade agreements, and other trade related matters that benefit U.S. businesses, workers, and the economy.

Jeff Yoders: You mentioned that the proposed border-adjustment tax is something you have to be very, very careful about.

Philip K. Bell: Ironically, when I look at things the administration should prioritize, I would really like to see infrastructure rise higher on that top five list as opposed to things like a healthcare repeal because that’s one clear way that you can jump start the steel industry.

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Philip K. Bell

Philip K. Bell. Source: SMA

The steel industry, to me, if you look at it in the simplest terms, is based on cost and demand. You can help lower steel producers’ costs by reducing taxes and regulatory burdens, but you can increase demand by having this $1 trillion infrastructure plan and that would be very important. Making sure you deal with countries that dump, subsidize exports, etc. would also help.

JY: Using countervailing duties, anti-dumping duties and the existing tools commerce has, right?

PB: Right.

JY: I asked Chad Utermark, executive vice president of Nucor, what, exactly, their representatives had heard about when we might get to see the ideas for an infrastructure bill precisely because of that. This seems like a slam dunk for economic growth for all the industries that support construction. Why isn’t it being pushed more?

PB: We certainly would like to see infrastructure investment made a higher priority. I love the idea of public-private partnerships. The P3 approach is good, you’re going to bring better managerial skill with people who can manage the entire supply chain of infrastructure investment. Keep in mind, infrastructure can be financed this way, but it also needs to be funded (to an extent by the government). There are some infrastructure projects that are very important but might not appeal to private investors. They might not be easy to get done. Read more

We had a chance to sit down and discuss the issues facing members of the Steel Manufacturers Association with SMA President Philip K. Bell at the recent S&P Global Platts Steel Markets North America conference here in Chicago. Bell also currently serves on the  Department of Commerce International Trade Advisory Committee on Steel (ITAC 12), advising the Secretary of Commerce and United States Trade Representative on trade policy, trade agreements, and other trade related matters that benefit U.S. businesses, workers, and the economy.

Philip K. Bell

Philip K. Bell. Source: SMA

Jeff Yoders: We’ve heard a lot about North American Free Trade Agreement and what changes to it might mean in the last two days. How do your members feel about reopening NAFTA to changes?

Philip K. Bell: NAFTA is over 20 years old and it’s probably time to look at it again. A lot has changed over the last two decades. We hope the approach that the administration takes is one that’s more methodical and takes into account that not only are Canada and Mexico two of our biggest trade partners but, when it comes to the steel industry, they ARE our two largest trade partners.

There is a lot of integration in this area. You have a lot of steel producers that either have businesses in Mexico such as Gerdau, ArcelorMittal and Nucor — through its joint venture JFE — and you have a lot of companies that want to do business there like Steel Dynamics which is hoping to increase its presence in that market by importing flat-rolled into Mexico. Read more

US Cold-rolled coil prices since 2012. Source:MetalMiner IndX

U.S. Cold rolled-coil prices rose to their highest levels since March of 2012 this week. Spot steel prices saw some upward action in January, however, prices really came under pressure in early February.

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In March, U.S. steel mills are pushing for another round of price hikes. So far, they seem to be succeeding.

China Steel Prices

Hot-rolled coil price spread. Source: MetalMiner IndX

Back in November, we predicted a surge in steel prices as we moved into the new year. When international steel prices rise, U.S. mills can more easily justify a price hike. Chinese prices set the floor for international prices. Last summer, U.S. steel prices declined sharply while Chinese prices held well. That caused the international price arbitrage to come down to normal levels.

The price arbitrage started to widen again this year as momentum in U.S. steel prices picked up. However, the arbitrage is still relatively narrow compared to historical levels, especially in hot-rolled coil. Therefore, U.S. mills still have some room to hike prices. Still, for the rally to be sustained throughout the year, Chinese steel prices will need to keep rising.

Falling Chinese Steel Exports

In January, Chinese steel exports fell near 24% compared to the same month last year. In absolute terms, January steel exports were at their lowest level since June 2014. Exports fell by double digits in the last four months of 2016. While more countries act against the threat of a flood of Chinese steel, we could see further moderation in exports this year, which bodes well for global steel markets. What’s surprising is that exports have falling despite rising output.

According to the data released by the World Steel Association, China’s January steel production rose 7.4% to 67 mmt while global steel production rose 7% from a year ago. In addition, China’s operating steel capacity increased in 2016, since most of the announced cuts in capacity were already idle.

So far, solid demand in China has absorbed the increase in output, or at least most of it. The Caixin Manufacturing PMI in China rose to 51.7 in February, beating market expectations and marking the eighth-straight month of growth. In addition, there are rumors that China is stocking its excess steel production. According to SteelHome, hot-rolled coil and rebar inventories in China have surged so far this year.

All About Production Cuts

In conclusion, U.S. mills could continue to raise prices in the short-term. However, for a sustained bull market in steel prices, Chinese steel prices will have to rise as well. China’s domestic demand looks strong, but it won’t be enough to support a rising price trend in the face of rising output.

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Beijing has ordered curbs on steel and aluminum output in as many as 28 northern cities during the winter heating season, as it steps up its fight against pollution, but we need to see if those cuts actually materialize this year. China will need to intensify its efforts to curtail excess steel capacity. Otherwise, if production continues to grow unabated, it could hamper this price recovery.

Chinese steel exports tumbled to a three-year low in February, customs data showed last week, lower than expectations, as steelmakers in the world’s top producer shifted to meeting rising demand at home.

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Shipments for the month were 5.75 million metric tons, the lowest since February 2014, data from the General Administration of Customs showed. It was down 29.1% from a year ago and down 22.5% from January.

Duterte Wants Mining Compromise

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said recently he hopes there will be a “happy compromise” between the mining industry and protecting the environment, throwing support to Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez will appear before Congress ahead of her confirmation hearing. Lopez is under pressure because she has closed nearly half the nation’s mines.

In the ongoing dispute between Japan and India over cheap steel imports, Japan has requested that the World Trade Organization set up a panel to resolve the dispute.

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Early indications are that the move will be opposed by India. Japan’s request comes after New Delhi imposed safeguard duties on several iron and steel products, which India claimed violated global trade rules.

India’s finance ministry imposed definitive safeguard duties on imports of hot-rolled flat products of non-alloy steel in coils to counter a surge in imports from several countries, including Japan. India’s stand has been that such cheap imports “caused injury to domestic steel industries.”

New Delhi would have taken recourse to the safeguard measures on grounds that the import surge in hot-rolled flat products is the result of unforeseen developments. India levied 20% safeguard duties ad valorem minus anti-dumping duties on Japanese imports of hot-rolled flat products between September 2015 and September 2016; 18% between September 2016 and March 2017; 15% between March 2017 and to expire by September 2017; and 10% for a future period in September 2017 and March 2018.

As reported by MetalMiner, despite the excellent trade relations between the two nations, Japan is unhappy with India’s decisions to place a minimum import price and other assorted duties to protect its domestic steel industry. Japan claims this has halved its steel exports to India in the last year.

Japan requested the panel came after India’s failure to provide “convincing reasons” for its safeguard and anti-dumping actions. It’s said the request will come up before the dispute settlement body (DSB) meeting today.

According to a report in the Financial Express, India opposes Japan’s move. Quoting experts, the report said since WTO cases can be settled with rulings that were “prospective,” any adverse judgment would not affect India significantly.

In a parallel development, there are reports coming in that India would use make it compulsory for Indian customers to use domestically produced steel, to stop inroads made by steel products from other countries including China.

India may soon mandate the use of local steel in government infrastructure projects worth billions of dollars, pitching it as a WTO-compliant protectionist measure.

Quoting news agency Reuters, the report said the Indian Government expects to move to boost sales of local companies such as JSW Steel and Tata Steel and eventually attract global steelmakers such as ArcelorMittal and POSCO to invest in the country.

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India is the world’s third-largest steel consumer, but its current level of capacity utilization by domestic steel producers is below 80%.

The Department of Commerce announced its affirmative final determination in the anti-dumping duty investigation of imports of South Korean ferrovanadium.

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For the purpose of an anti-dumping investigation, dumping occurs when a foreign company sells an imported product in the U.S. at less than its fair value.

Commerce found dumping by mandatory respondent, Korvan Ind. Co., Ltd., at a final margin of 3.22%. Additionally, based on the application of adverse facts available, Commerce found that dumping has occurred by mandatory respondents, Fortune Metallurgical Group Co., Ltd. and Woojin Ind. Co., Ltd., at final margins of 54.69%. Commerce assigned a final dumping margin of 3.22% to all other producers/exporters in Korea.

As a result of the final affirmative determination, Commerce will instruct U.S. Customs and Border Protection to collect cash deposits based on these final rates.

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The petitioners for this investigation are the Vanadium Producers and Reclaimers Association — a Washington DC-based trade group — and its members: AMG Vanadium LLC of Ohio; Bear Metallurgical Company in Pennsylvania; Gulf Chemical & Metallurgical Corporation of Texas; and Evraz Stratcor, Inc. in Arkansas.

President Trump’s $1.1 trillion budget blueprint, released today, proposes dramatic cuts to the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, while seeking billions more for defense issues and $1.5 billion for the president’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.

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It proposes the previously reported $54 billion increase in defense spending and corresponding cuts to non-defense spending at the State Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the wholesale elimination of other federal programs.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, described the proposal as a “hard power budget” in a Wednesday briefing with reporters, meaning the Trump administration will prioritize defense spending over diplomacy and foreign aid. It significantly cuts funding to global institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations, too.

While the budget notes that plans and costs for the border wall are not yet completed, according to Mulvaney, the budget will include a request for $1.5 billion as the first installment payment for the promised wall and then another installment of $2.26 billion in 2018.

Steel Shipments Up in January

The American Iron and Steel Institute recently reported that for the month of January 2017, U.S. steel mills shipped 7,708,416 net tons, a 7.5% increase from the 7,173,245 nt shipped in the previous month and a 9.6% increase from the 7,031,307 nt shipped in January 2016.

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A comparison of January 2017 shipments to the previous month of December 2016 shows the following changes: hot-dipped galvanized sheets, up 14%, cold rolled sheets, up 13% and hot-rolled sheets, up 4%.

Those not involved in the steel industry tend to look at large, integrated blast furnace steel plants as dated technology light-years from the gleaming glass and concrete operations of IT or electronics. However, steelmakers are constantly striving for technological improvements.

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In fact, the very marginal nature of steel production in the western world means that constant innovation is a necessity for a firm’s survival. Comparisons between U.S. Steel and Nucor Corp. illustrate this point. When U.S. Steel was focused on cost reduction and rationalization at the turn of the century, Nucor was innovating and investing not just in alternative electric arc furnaces, but in direct casting and other downstream technologies. As a result, Nucor is now North America’s most successful steel company but they’re not alone in looking to technology for their future prosperity.

Continuous Casting

An interesting article in the Economist details efforts at a number of steel producers around the world to find a better alternative to the traditional blast furnace. The slab casting and re-rolling route is epitomized by the likes of U.S. Steel and the major Asian steel mills. For years, the only real challenger to this process was the electric arc furnace which enjoys the benefits of scrap as a raw material and greater flexibility and economies of scale allowing it to operate profitably on a fraction of the cost required throughout for a traditional blast furnace-based integrated steel plant.

Liquid steel.

Innovation in steelmaking is coming from novel uses of liquid metal. Source: Adobe Stock/Photollug.

One of the major attractions most EAF plants have is that they produce final product by the continuous casting route. The liquid metal is taken from the refining vessel and, for flat-rolled products, continuously cast into 80-120-mm thick slabs, which can then be further rolled to thinner gauges. Read more

As one might misquote Mark Twain, we have been here before.

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In 2016, analysts were queued up to predict the iron ore price was going to collapse only for it continue its relentless rise. The recent pull back from $90 per metric ton has brought a fresh crop of dire predictions. Yet maybe, just maybe, there is more validity this time around for caution as to future price direction. There are a number of factors, each of which individually does not signal a price reversal but collectively suggests iron ore prices later this year could be lower than they have been in the first quarter.

Why Iron Ore Prices Might Really Fall

An article in the Australian Financial Review quotes analysts saying, the strength of recent pricing is encouraging Chinese domestic production to increase. In the first half in 2016 it was averaging a 220 million mt per year run rate, but rose to 280 mmt per year in the second half of the year. At the same time, global supply continues to rise with not just increased shipments from Australia but also number three miner Vale SA expanding supply from its $14 billion S11D mine. Read more

U.S. M3 grain-oriented electrical steel prices dropped slightly with the M3 index moving from 200 to 197.

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Though U.S. prices dipped slightly, China’s Baosteel announced a price hike for GOES close to $40 per metric ton, according to a recent TEX Report. Although the Chinese have led recent GOES and other steel product price hikes, others have not necessarily followed. Nevertheless, Chinese steel prices set the floor for global steel prices.

GOES MMI

Now that the Trump administration has begun to settle in, market observers have paid close attention to trade actions within the metals industry, particularly the cold-rolled coil circumvention case and most recently a case filed by the Aluminum Association against China involving aluminum foil. Both the domestic steel and aluminum industries have pursued trade cases to address overcapacity concerns.

GOES Prices and NAFTA

GOES markets follow some of these same patterns. Back in 2013, GOES from China accounted for about 10% of total U.S. GOES imports (by tonnage). Clearly, the trade cases filed by the domestic producers at the time limited Chinese imports, but that trade case sought to stop other countries’ imports as much as China’s.

Herein lies a big difference between the GOES case and the aluminum case as well as the prior flat-rolled product steel cases. The GOES trade case did not result in any finding of injury, so no anti-dumping and countervailing duties were assessed. Instead, domestic power equipment manufacturers shifted their global supply chains to source GOES globally and purchase transformer parts and wound cores from NAFTA countries.

Some have speculated that two years ago, the addition of two new harmonized tariff codes for both transformer parts (8504.90.9546) and wound cores (8504.90.9542) would set the stage for future trade cases brought by the lone domestic GOES producer. We think this looks like a “stretch” and, legally, we’re not even sure there is a case to be had as AK Steel currently does not manufacture transformer parts or wound cores.

Import volumes for wound cores have modestly increased, but imports for transformer parts have actually declined:

GOES imports from 2015 to today

GOES imports from 2015 to today. Source: Lisa Reisman/MetalMiner.

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