Steel

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This morning in metals news, LME copper bounced back Thursday after a down Wednesday, Saudi steel producers are happy about a cut in export tariffs and Volvo made a major announcement regarding the future of its vehicle inventory.

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Copper Rebounds Slightly After Hitting One-Week Low

After a Wednesday that saw a 0.9% drop for LME copper, the metal bounced back Thursday, ticking up by 0.1%, Reuters reported.

The metal moved up from its one-week low, which on Wednesday stood at $5,815 per ton.

In the backdrop was the recent release of the minutes of the Federal Reserve’s June meeting, revealing “policymakers were increasingly split on the outlook for inflation and how it might affect the future pace of interest rate rises,” according to Reuters.

Saudi Steel Gets Tariff Cut Relief

Steel producers in Saudi Arabia received good news this week as the government announced it would stop export duties on steel for two years, according to Reuters.

According to the report, the government also cut cement export duties by 50%.

While Saudi stocks overall were down early Thursday, stocks in the building materials sector showed well, including Al Yamaha Steel Industries, which surged by 2.1%, according to Reuters.

Volvo Looks to Go All-In on Green Rides

The traditional combustion engine took a hit this week when automaker Volvo announced it would build only electric or hybrid vehicles beginning in 2019, The New York Times reported.

While the “green” vehicle market is still relatively small, it is growing. As Autodata Corp numbers released this week show, sales of Tesla vehicles, for example, have surged. In the year to date, Tesla sold 23,550 vehicles, good for a 42.7% increase in sales from the same point last year.

Of course, those sales figures are tiny when compared with traditional automakers, like GM and Ford, which sold 1.41 million and 1.29 million units, respectively, in the calendar year to date. Sales for those giant automotive brands, however, are down (albeit down from a big 2016 in sales for automakers).

Clearly, battery-powered and hybrid vehicles are picking up steam. What does this green wave mean for metals? The boom presages increased demand for metals like cobalt, for example. Also, according to Seeking Alpha, the coming electric vehicle revolution bears bad news for platinum group metals (PGMs), like platinum and palladium.

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This afternoon in metals news, gold inches upward, partially stemming from concerns on the heels of a North Korean missile test; Germany, among others, waits to hear what the U.S. has to say about steel; and, in anticipation of protectionist policies from the Trump administration, U.S. Steel rose by 8% in June.

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Gold Up on N. Korea Concerns

After North Korea’s recent test strike of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the price of gold ticked upward, a common reaction for the safe-haven metal.

“Safe-haven buying re-emerged in the gold market after the latest missile test in North Korea,” ANZ Research said in a note to Reuters.

Also looming over the gold price are the minutes of June’s Fed meeting, which many awaiting for news about the Fed’s plans for further interest rate hikes this year, Reuters reported.

Germany Anticipates Trump Administration’s Words on Steel

While China is the central focus of the Trump administration’s Section 232 investigations of steel and aluminum imports, other nations are interested in the investigations’ results.

Germany is among those nations, as a top exporter of steel to the U.S. The Germans are waiting to hear from President Donald Trump during the G20 summit, which begins on Friday in Hamburg, Germany.

When asked during a news conference Wednesday whether steel would be an issue discussed during the G20 summit, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said, “That will become apparent. It also remains to be seen what the American president brings (to the meeting).”

U.S. Steel Up Big

Many expect the Trump administration to announce new tariffs or quotas, a result of the 232 investigations into steel and aluminum imports launched in April.

While the policy recommendations of those probes haven’t been announced, some U.S. businesses are feeling pretty good about what those protectionist policies might do for them. For example, U.S. Steel went up 8% in June.

But what happens next? A self-imposted Department of Commerce deadline came and went this past Friday with no announcement of the steel investigation’s conclusion. According to Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, the Secretary of Commerce has 270 days to prepare a submit a report to the president.

As such, the Trump administration still has plenty of time to think about the subject of steel imports. With that said, any momentum felt by the domestic steel industry as a result of talk of impending protectionist policies could begin to deflate the longer the process drags out. Many are looking to Trump’s participation at the Group of 20 summit later this week for more specific answers regarding the president’s thoughts on steel overcapacity.

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It’s hard to believe that 2017 is already more than halfway in the books. As we celebrate the Fourth of July, let’s take a brief look back at the top five most-viewed stories here at MetalMiner from January through June.

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Top 5 Stories of the First Half of 2017

  1. 3 Reasons Why Steel Prices Will Rise Well Into 2017. This piece was a hit with readers, raking in the most page views of any story through the first six months of this year. With the steel industry awaiting the Trump administration’s Section 232 verdict, prices are in a bit of a holding pattern (for now).

  2. The Land Rover Defender Will Rise From the Ashes… With an Aluminum Frame. Stuart Burns’ piece on the Land Rover Defender revved up interested with readers.

  3. Military Grade Aluminum? The Ford F-150 Debate Continues. What exactly does the term “military-grade” mean in the context of automobiles? This post from the tail end of 2016 continued to draw reader interest well into 2017.

  4. 2017 Steel Market Outlook: Strong Demand for Flat Products Expected. Everybody wants to know: What’s the deal with steel? After Donald Trump’s presidential election, many in the steel industry expected a boost accompanying a proposed uptick in infrastructure projects. Of course, much has happened since this post went live in early January — namely, the Trump administration’s announcement of an investigation into steel imports, using Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act.

  5. 3 Reasons Why Aluminum Prices Will Rise in 2017. While steel has been the subject of much of the metal industry’s focus this year, aluminum is also being investigated under Section 232.  This post from January predicting a rise in aluminum prices was a popular one with readers.

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This morning in metals news, gold isn’t so golden, U.S. sheet steel prices held steady as the Department of Commerce’s self-imposed Section 232 announcement deadline came and went, and mining operations in Chile could open back up, as the price of the metal has rebounded.

Steady as Steel

Friday, June 30, was the deadline set by the Department of Commerce for the announcement of its Section 232 investigation regarding steel imports.

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That self-imposed deadline came and went without an announcement from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Sheet steel prices held steady Friday, Platts reported, and price changes aren’t expected until the 232 investigation results are announced.

The steel industry has been waiting for the Trump administration’s policy decisions on the subject of steel imports. Apparently, the industry will have to wait a little while longer.

Gold Hits Seven-Week Low

Gold fell to its lowest spot price in seven weeks, Bloomberg reported.

Rises in the U.S. dollar and European stock markets led to decreased demand for so-called safe-haven metals (like gold), the outlet reported.

According to the article, June and July are typically “middling” months for the precious metal.

Chilean Copper Mines Could be Opening Back Up

With copper prices on the rise, mines in Chile may be ready to open back up, Reuters reported.

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Mines in Chile, a major copper producer, closed in recent years as a result of slumping prices. According to Reuters, copper prices have risen 7% in 2017.

The mines reopening is far from a sure thing, however. According to Reuters, some investment decisions will wait until after Chile’s presidential election in November.

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This morning in metals news, India looks to boost its steel output, China expresses concern about the Trump administration’s Section 232 probe into aluminum and steel imports, and researchers have discovered a new, environmentally friendly way to extract copper.

India Prepares for Surge of Steel Production

India is looking to ramp up its steel output to 300 million tons, according to a report in the Press Trust of India.

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Steel Minister Choudhary Birender Singh announced today the steps that will be taken to ramp up production. Two new policies aim to boost production to 300 million tons by 2030, according to the report.

Self-sufficiency is the objective of the new national steel policy. Singh added the government has reached out to Coal India Ltd. to assure that there will be enough fuel to support the uptick in production.

China Awaits U.S. 232 Investigation Verdicts

According to the Chinese Commerce Ministry, China is “concerned” about the impending result of the Trump administration’s Section 232 investigation into aluminum imports — one for which China has been the central focus.

In a report from Reuters, Sun Jiwen, a spokesman for the Commerce Ministry, said the basis for the investigations — national security — is too broadly defined.

Yesterday, Reuters reported Trump was growing increasingly frustrated with China, particularly in reference to its handling of North Korea.

Unsurprisingly, there are tensions and concerns on both sides of the equation (although tariffs would affect other nations and not just China). Many expect the Trump administration to announce the Section 232 findings in the near future.

A New Way to Extract Copper

MIT researchers have discovered a way to separate pure copper from sulfur-based minerals while eliminating toxic byproducts in the process.

According to a report in MIT News, the research team identified the proper temperature and chemical mixture in order to “selectively separate pure copper and other metallic trace elements from sulfur-based minerals using molten electrolysis.”

The article notes: “Copper is in increasing demand for use in electric vehicles, solar energy, consumer electronics and other energy efficiency targets. Most current copper extraction processes burn sulfide minerals in air, which produces sulfur dioxide, a harmful air pollutant that has to be captured and reprocessed, but the new method produces elemental sulfur, which can be safely reused, for example, in fertilizers. The researchers also used electrolysis to produce rhenium and molybdenum, which are often found in copper sulfides at very small levels.”

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In addition to being a fascinating scientific discovery and process, a clean way to extract an increasingly important product like copper is a great development.

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Less than a week after the Department of Commerce’s hearing on the ongoing Section 232 aluminum investigation, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) kicked off three days of hearings Tuesday regarding renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

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Renegotiation of NAFTA has picked up steam with Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. In fact, Trump reportedly was ready to remove the U.S. from the 23-year-old agreement in April, until calls from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto convinced him otherwise. The episode came a few months after Trump signed an executive order to withdraw the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Lawmakers and business representatives had the chance to express their thoughts on renegotiating the trilateral trade agreement when the hearing began Tuesday. The hearing continued for a second day Wednesday and concludes Thursday.

Businesses represented included metals industries. Thomas J. Gibson, president and CEO of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), spoke at Tuesday’s session. In a prepared AISI statement, Gibson said NAFTA has been largely successful, but could be modernized. He added that the agreement has “strengthened manufacturing supply chains, contributed to increases in intra-NAFTA trade and investment, and enabled a stronger relationship with Canada and Mexico.”

Gibson added NAFTA is the steel industry’s most important free-trade agreement, noting that 90% of steel mill product exports go to Canada or Mexico. In the time frame since the agreement went into effect in 1994, Gibson said exports to Canada and Mexico have increased threefold and the U.S. has moved from a steel trade deficit to a fairly even steel trade relationship.

However, like others in the industry, Gibson argued there is room for improvement, namely in the form of strengthening rules of origin, more effectively promoting trade enforcement cooperation and coordination, establishing disciplines on the conduct of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), establishing enforceable currency disciplines, and streamlining customs procedures and upgrading border infrastructure.

“While the Agreement has been beneficial, these approaches would improve it to make the American steel industry stronger, and create jobs in the process,” Gibson said.

In its submitted written comment, the Metals Service Center Institute (MSCI) agreed that while NAFTA has been successful, it can be improved.

“While we strongly agree with the Administration’s position that NAFTA can be modernized and improved, we also recognize that the Agreement has largely been successful,” the MSCI statement reads. “It has helped level the playing field and has created well-established, fully-integrated, market-driven trading mechanisms that allow for free and fair trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

“The United States Trade Representative and the Trump Administration should take care not to upset the metal trade relationship between these countries.”

The Aluminum Association struck a similar tone in its submitted comment.

“It is vital, however, that the negotiations to modernize NAFTA strengthen and expand opportunities under the agreement, without diminishing its unquestionable benefits generated by the duty-free movement of aluminum and aluminum products throughout North America,” the statement, signed by Heidi Brock, president and CEO of The Aluminum Association, reads.

U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., emphasized the importance of Buy America policies — particularly with respect to transportation — in his submitted comment.

“Any renegotiated NAFTA must not preclude Buy America policies from applying to Department of Transportation grants,” Lipinski wrote. “As our domestic manufacturing and steel sectors continue to be threatened, Buy America remains an important part of United States trade and manufacturing policy and should not be forsaken.”

What sorts of renegotiation proposals actually come forward remains to be seen. Trump mentioned NAFTA often on the campaign trail and his intent to renegotiate the deal, particularly citing U.S. trade deficits with Mexico. In 2016, the U.S. had a more than $64 billion trade deficit with its neighbor to the south, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The U.S. last had a trade surplus with Mexico in 1994 ($1.3 billion) — the year NAFTA went into effect. The U.S. has had a trade deficit with Mexico every year since then.

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With its neighbor to the north, the U.S. had a trade deficit of $11 billion in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This year, from January to April, the U.S. had trade deficits with Mexico and Canada of $23 billion and $8.5 billion, respectively.

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Imports of steel and aluminum are under the spotlight these days, as the Trump administration in April opened Section 232 investigations into the metals to determine if they posed threats to national security.

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According to a recent report from the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), steel imports were up by 2.5% in May. According to the report, collected from U.S. Census Bureau data, the U.S. imported a total of 3,434,000 net tons (NT) of steel in May 2017, including 2,574,000 NT of finished steel — up 2.5% and 1.8%, respectively, compared with final data for April.

Comparing the first five months of the year with the same time frame in 2016, total imports jumped by 14.4%.

The top five countries sending the most steel to the U.S., in descending order, in May were: South Korea (329,000 NT), Turkey (154,000 NT), Germany (142,000 NT), Japan (127,000 NT) and India (86,000 NT). South Korea was also the biggest supplier in the year to date, despite export totals to the U.S. being down 3% from the same period in 2016. Japan (8%) and Germany (1%) also posted declines in their year-to-date export totals to the U.S. compared with 2016.

However, Turkey and Taiwan posted major increases. Steel imports from Taiwan saw a 67% leap compared with January-May 2016.

Meanwhile, domestically, the AISI’s monthly steel report noted domestic raw steel production was as estimated 1,729,000 new tons for the week ending June 24, good for a capability utilization rate of 74.2% (compared with 75.1% for the same week in 2016).

Zooming out a bit, year-to-date production is actually up compared with the same point last year, up by 2.3%. So far this year, there has been a capability utilization rate of 74.4%, up from the 72.6% rate to the same point last year.

Of course, the country that is at the center of the 232 investigations has not even yet been mentioned here: China.

The Trump administration launched investigations using Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, a little-used clause that gives the president authority to act if certain imports are deemed threats to the country’s national security. The last 232 investigation took place in 2001.

But as the recent Department of Commerce hearings regarding the steel and aluminum investigations — held May 24 and June 22, respectively — indicate, China is the main focus of the Trump administration, and the domestic steel and aluminum industries. Among other concerns, the U.S. says Chinese excess capacity has flooded the markets worldwide with cheap products subsidized by the Chinese government, making it difficult for U.S. producers to compete.

According to Section 232, the Secretary of Commerce has 270 days from an investigation’s announcement to provide the president with a formal report and recommendations. That 270-day mark is well down the road, but many reports have indicated the administration could be close to announcing its verdict in the two cases. While uncertainty is the only certain thing these days, many expect the administration to act by imposing tariffs, quotas, or a combination of the two against China.

Potential Blowback From Tariffs?

What effect will the imposition of tariffs have? Well, it might have some unintended consequences, namely negatively affecting trading partners like Canada and the European Union. In fact, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said Monday the 28-member bloc is preparing for retaliatory measures if the EU is unfairly impacted by prospective trade tariffs from the U.S. In other words, a series of trade wars could happen on numerous fronts.

As is often the case, this is not a situation of U.S. versus China — far from it. Many other nations, including those considered friendly to the U.S. and considered market economies, are caught in the web of the forthcoming 232 verdicts. The aforementioned top exporters — South Korea, Turkey, Germany, India and Japan — could also be affected by Section 232-related trade policy readjustments.

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Based on President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, both on the campaign trail and as president, it seems likely that tariffs or quotes are forthcoming — but, of course, they’re no sure thing. Less clear is what exactly would happen in the aftermath of the institution of tariffs or quotas.

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This morning in metals news, the global metal fabrication robot market is set to grow a great deal in the next four years, congressmen are asking President Donald Trump to limit the scope of any potential aluminum tariffs (stemming from the administration’s Section 232 investigation) and the president is reportedly growing increasingly frustrated with China, which could lead to — as many expect — steel tariffs.

Metal Fabrication Robot Market to Grow by CAGR of 18.51%

The global metal fabrication robot market is going to grow in a big way in the coming four years, according to a report from Research and Markets.

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There is an “increase in focus by vendors to improve manipulation, navigation, cognition, and perception of metal fabrication robots,” the report states. From 2017-2021, the market is expected to grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.51%.

There is growing interest from manufacturers for robot manufacturing technology. According to the report, purchasing managers around the world are looking to buy from metal fabricators which can keep prices low, even during economic downturns.

Of course, this isn’t great news for human beings who hold these manufacturing jobs, but automation is not going anywhere, whether on the manufacturing side or the usage side (for example: driverless, automated vehicles).

Congressmen Hope Trump Can Be Flexible on Aluminum

As the domestic steel and aluminum industries — and their counterparts around the globe — await the announcement of the administration’s Section 232 investigation findings, some congressmen are asking the president to limit the scope of any proposed punitive measures on aluminum imports.

According to letters obtained by Bloomberg, several congressmen have written to the administration to state their concerns about the potential effects of tariffs on aluminum imports. In letters addressed to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Defense Secretary James Mattis, the legislators argue that tariffs could increase costs for consumers and industrial users of aluminum.

One letter, signed by 44 members of the House, indicated a hope for the scope of the 232 ruling to be limited to “only products that are used for national security applications.”

Whether that will end up being the case remains to be seen. In recent weeks, other countries have expressed concern about the impending 232 rulings, particularly the European Union. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström even said that tariffs will adversely affect the EU producers, and that the EU is considering options for retaliatory measures. Now, even U.S. aluminum companies are expressing concern about rising prices and potential supply-chain disruptions.

Politics, Steel Converge As Trump Administration Prepares for 232 Announcements

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that Trump is growing “increasingly frustrated” over what he perceives as China’s inaction with respect to North Korea.

That political football could find its way into the arena of commerce, as Trump is considering trade remedies against China, according to officials. According to the Bloomberg report, Trump is considering a “range of actions,” including tariffs on steel, a well-publicized option which was already on the table as part of the Section 232 investigation launched in April.

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Like with aluminum, it’s unclear exactly what the Trump administration will do, even if Trump’s rhetoric indicates tariffs are on the way.

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This morning in metals news: copper slides slightly but is still near its recent 11-week high; shares of a U.S.-based aluminum company fell after a Reuters report that the company knowingly supplied flammable panels for use in Grenfell Tower and the European Union is considering retaliatory measures if the U.S. places tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

Copper Hovers Near 11-Week High

Copper fell on Monday but still hung around its previous 11-week high, Reuters reported, hanging tough amid good news about Chinese demand and potential supply shortages.

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On Friday, LME copper reached its highest price since April 7. According to a report cited by Reuters, a seasonal rise in electricity usage in China is likely to contribute to a rise in demand for the metal.

Arconic Shares Fall After Report Linking Company’s Products to Grenfell

On the heels of the deadly June 14 fire at Grenfell Tower in London, metal company Arconic‘s shares are falling after a report indicated the company knowingly provided flammable panels for use in the tower.

According to a Reuters report, emails sent to and from an Arconic sales manager include questions about why the company provided combustible cladding material for use in the building of the tower.

Arconic argued that while it knew the panels would be used for construction of the tower, it was not its role to decide what materials are or aren’t compliant with building codes, the Reuters report says.

Shares of Arconic dropped 6% early Monday, CNBC reported.

EU Considers Response to Potential U.S. Tariffs

While China is the primary target of the U.S.’s Section 232 investigations into steel and aluminum imports, other countries are preparing for the effects of potential U.S. tariffs.

EU nations are among those concerned about a trade policy readjustment from the Trump administration.

Cecilia Malmström, EU trade commissioner, said the bloc was “making preparations” to respond to the imposition of U.S. tariffs, USA Today reported. She added U.S. tariffs would “unjustifiably hit” EU nations.

The Trump administration launched the investigations in April. The U.S. Department of Commerce held public hearings on the subjects of steel and aluminum imports May 24 and June 22, respectively.

Chinese excess capacity has been the main talking point for U.S. producers, who argue that China is flooding the market with the metals and leading to depression of prices and, as a result, job losses and plant closures in the U.S.

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The trade commissioner also said the EU would study any actions by the Trump administration to determine if they are in line with World Trade Association rules.

In the week when the world pensively awaits the U.S.’s Section 232 judgement — a move promised by President Donald Trump during his election campaign and aimed largely at China — a recent Reuters report on Chinese steel exports makes interesting reading.

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Source: Reuters

China’s steel exports have been sliding for months.

According to Reuters, China’s January-May export total was 34.2 million tons, down 26% from last year’s equivalent period and the lowest level since 2014. The year drop in export tonnage amounted to 12.1 million tons — roughly equivalent to Canada’s production over a full 12-month period, Reuters reported.

Yet bizarrely enough, China produced 72.78 million tons of steel in April, an all-time record Reuters says. The following month, China tallied the second-highest monthly total at 72.26 million tons.

Meanwhile, profits on products like steel rebar have surged to $162 dollars per ton this month, as inventory levels have fallen and demand has remained robust (particularly from the construction sector). Investment in real estate is running at an annual growth rate over 6%, Reuters reports. Although there are fears of overheating in some regions, real estate has been stronger for longer than analysts outside the market expected.

As we noted in a piece yesterday reviewing the 232 probe, China’s share of the U.S. import market for steel products has been falling for the last couple of years, mainly due to successful anti-dumping cases. China no longer appears even in the top 10.

So, what exactly is going on in China with respect to steel production and demand? Can we take it that Beijing’s actions to tackle excess steel production have finally resolved China’s deflationary impact on global steel markets?

First, Reuters notes that China has been quite successful in permanently closing previously shuttered steel plants, as well as in in tackling older and more environmentally damaging mills. Those actions combined has resulted in the removal of some 100 million tons of capacity.

In addition, Beijing’s focus on environmental issues has hastened the closure of induction furnaces, which use scrap rather than iron ore as their input and are often labelled as producers of sub-standard products (and, hence, unapproved). Unapproved equates to illegal by Beijing — as such, their production and their closures does not figure in the normal statistics. A significant proportion of China’s rebar production came from these mills, which explains the record profits being earned by surviving state-owned manufacturers of the same products as they capitalize on the removal of these scrappy competitors.

Unfortunately, nobody expects China’s construction market to continue at the current pace and a slowdown is in the forecast for the second half of the year.  Replenishment of low inventory levels will maintain steel mill production runs for a while, but as Reuters notes, China’s mills have a notoriously poor record in adjusting output to demand. So, we should expect that as demand eases, inventorying levels will rise, prices will fall, and access production may well begin to leak through exports onto the international market.

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While America’s anti-dumping legislation will largely protect that market from Chinese material, the rest of the world may find itself under pressure next year from greater availability of Chinese steel at falling prices, further fueling an already rising tide of protectionist sentiment in both developed and emerging markets.