We can all agree steel prices are on an upward trajectory right now. How high they will go, and for how long, is another matter.
SMU’s check of the market on Monday and Tuesday puts the benchmark price for hot rolled steel at $580 per ton, up about $40 in the past week. U.S. Steel, UPI and Algoma announced another round of price increases this week. Buyers tell us their mill reps are holding the line with $600 per ton HR as the target.
There are two schools of thought in the market right now, captured well by these contrasting quotes from two SMU sources: “The recent price announcement has lots of traction; inventories got too low and buyers got flat footed. It will stick. There is no negotiation on HR and galvanized right now, with $30/cwt firm for HR and $40/cwt firm for galv.” Then there’s the comment from another steel exec: “Interesting moves by the mills, reminiscent of the old days. Pile on increases, move out lead times…then ride that horse till it dies. We don’t see this exuberance lasting beyond November, even with all the so-called outages. Q4 is typically lower demand for all, COVID in winter is still an unknown, the election will be a spectacle undecided for weeks, etc. Contract negotiations for 2021 may still be undetermined by December. Smart buyers will station themselves on the sidelines and wait for an opportunity.”
Added another industry veteran: “As usual the mills are going for the jugular and it looks like it could remain tight for at least 45-60 days. At some point the integrateds will overcome production issues and auto schedules will back off. Then WATCH OUT!”
Analyst Timna Tanners of Bank of America has raised her second half steel forecast to reflect the better than expected demand, but her outlook is tempered. “U.S. hot rolled coil prices are heading for $600 per ton near term, with Monday’s price hike supported by higher scrap costs for minimills and strong auto demand tying up their integrated mill peers. We expect near-term strength can last into November, as recent greater protection from imports and strong Chinese demand keep global alternatives expensive.” She pointed to mill outages that have tightened supplies, including planned downtime at Stelco’s Hamilton mill, reduced volumes at NLMK’s Farrell, Pa., mill due to a strike, and unplanned outages at U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley and ArcelorMittal’s Burns Harbor. “However, we expect disrupted mills to resume output and seasonal weakness in Q4 to dampen prices ahead.”
Watching the news footage of the tragic fires on the West Coast and all the burned out vehicles littering the smoky landscape, I wondered if the scrap market might see a big enough bump in supply to affect prices. The experts at CRU tell me the fires most likely will not impact scrap collection in any meaningful way as the West Coast is not a big factor in the U.S. scrap market. Many thought the devastating hurricanes in the South a few years ago would flood the market with scrap, but that proved not to be the case.
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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.
What a difference a month makes. There are a few full bulls left in the room, but their numbers are dwindling. We’ll release results of our full steel market survey tomorrow afternoon. I took a sneak peak at the data on Thursday. And more people than I expected think that US hot-rolled (HR) coil prices will be in the $700s per short ton (st) two months from now. Vanishingly few think prices will be above $1,000/st in mid-April.