The benchmark hot rolled steel price has jumped back over the psychological line of $500 per ton, to $515 by SMU’s current estimate, which is a positive sign for steel demand, but it begs the question: How high will it go and for how long?
SMU asked steel buyers how much of the $40-60 per ton in price increases announced last week they expect the mills to collect. Roughly one-third said, “all of it,” while the remaining two-thirds said, “some of it.”
Some buyers’ comments:
“There are so many issues right now and planned outages on the horizon that should allow them to grab it all.”
“It might take a second increase to get the full amount, but limited options will allow the mills to have their say.”
“Inventories are low and lead times are stretching. They will collect for a short period of time.”
“They’ll collect in September and October, then give it back in December.”
“Of course, there will be very little ‘spot’ business. Mills will be shipping a significant portion of their September production at much lower CRU minus and/or previously booked, deeply discounted numbers. The gap between spot and CRU minus contract pricing will be over $100 per ton.”
SMU also asked: Where do you expect hot rolled steel prices to be by the end of September? About one-third put the price in the $450-500 range, which would be down from the current price, suggesting the upturn may be short-lived. The largest group, more than 60 percent, forecast the number at month’s end in the $500-550 range, only modestly higher than today. Only a small percentage of optimists predicted the HR price could climb over $550 in the next few weeks.
SMU’s Steel Buyers Sentiment Index has jumped by 27 points in the past month to a reading of +61, which is even better than at this time last year when the pandemic was not an issue. It’s worth noting that the results may have been influenced to some degree by last week’s SMU Virtual Steel Summit. Summit attendees who filled out this week’s market trends questionnaire may be feeling a bit more optimistic than others. Analysis presented by the experts at the summit was certainly not all good news, but on balance presented a hopeful outlook for the coming year.
It’s difficult to assess how President Trump’s decision to amend the quota on imports of semifinished steel from Brazil for the rest of the year will impact the market. The administration contends the change was necessary “in light of recent deterioration in market conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic affecting domestic steel producers.” But, certainly, restricting imports of slabs and billets to 60,000 tons, down from 350,000 tons, stands to hurt the companies that are dependent on them. Taking 290,000 tons out of the flat rolled supply chain at a time when several mills have planned fourth-quarter outages and demand is on the upswing could end up hurting other people as well.
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Tim Triplett, Executive Editor
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Domestic prices have been sliding since the beginning of the year, and I don’t see any obvious reasons why the slide might stop this week. But let’s put the timing of a bottom aside for a minute. The question among some of you seems to be whether we’ll see another price spike, or at least a “dead-cat bounce,” before the typical summer doldrums kick in.
I’ve had discussions with some of you lately about where and when sheet prices might bottom. Some of you say that hot-rolled (HR) coil prices won’t fall below $800 per short ton (st). Others tell me that bigger buyers aren’t interested unless they can get something that starts with a six. Obviously a lot depends on whether we're talking 50 tons or 50,000 tons. I've even gotten some guff about how the drop in US prices is happening only because we’re talking about it happening.
We’ve all heard a lot about mill “discipline” following a wave of consolidation over the last few years. That discipline is often evident when prices are rising, less so when they are falling. I remember hearing earlier this year that mills weren’t going to let hot-rolled (HR) coil prices fall below $1,000 per short ton (st). Then not below $900/st. Now, some of you tell me that HR prices in the mid/high-$800s are the “1-800 price” – widely available to regular spot buyers. So what comes next, and will mills “hold the line” in the $800s?
Everyone knows the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. A lot of inked has been spilled trying to figure out why prices are falling now. I thought it might be as simple as this: Market dynamics in the fourth quarter (UAW strike, companies buying ahead of an anticipated post-strike price spike, etc.) pulled forward restocking activity that typically happens in the first quarter.