Wary Steelmakers Give Legs to Metal’s Rally as Buyers Reel

(Bloomberg) — The record rally in steel has further to run as U.S. producers vow not to get burned again by ramping up too fast.

Prices for hot-rolled coil futures in the U.S. have surged more than 80% in 2021, the best start to a year in records going back to 2009 and eclipsing gains in other all major commodities. Prices touched an all-time high last week. Despite customer pleas for more metal, steelmakers that paid steep costs to shut down furnaces in the pandemic have yet to announce new plans to build out capacity, focusing instead on generating record profits for shareholders.

The surge in steel, used in everything from cars to washing machines to toasters, is adding to concerns that rising costs could imperil a fragile economic recovery as manufacturers struggle with materials shortfalls and inflation gauges jump. Last month, tractor-maker AGCO Corp. said farmers are slowing purchases amid soaring steel prices, while Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy SA’s profit warning rippled though shares of Europe’s biggest wind-turbine producers.

“The finance departments have a voice they didn’t used to have, so the industry is more driven for profit than it is for production now,” said Michelle Applebaum, an independent steel consultant who has covered the industry for 40 years. “It’s a real culture change.”

U.S. steel consumption is on pace to be about 104 million tons this year, and about 108 million tons in 2022, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Andrew Cosgrove. With domestic steelmakers only producing about 87 million this year and 91 million next year, and planned capacity coming online by the end of next year to be about 4.6 million tons per annum, customers will continue to compete for available metal.

To make matters more difficult, soaring demand across the rest of the globe from China to Europe means U.S. buyers will be battling for imports too. Meanwhile, U.S. tariffs remain on shipments from abroad, hurting affordability.

Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lourenco Goncalves told investors last quarter that he wasn’t going to produce more tons because it will eventually lead to oversupply and cause prices to deteriorate.

“It’s value, it’s not volume,” he said.

To be sure, not everyone sees the metal rallying through the rest of the year. Automotive demand isn’t going to be as big as initially projected, as semiconductor snags have forced the industry to build inventories as they wait to be able to make the vehicles, and the market has basically recovered to pre-pandemic demand levels, according to Keybanc Capital Markets analyst Phil Gibbs.

“The supply-demand imbalance is now marching toward equilibrium: this is the last fever pitch of the tightness,” Gibbs said. “Our view on actual demand is that we believe you’re in a modest oversupply situation. The only reason we’re not seeing it in the price is that mills have reasonably long backlogs they’re working through.”

U.S. steelmakers told investors on second-quarter conference calls that backlogs are at historic highs, and that with demand expected to remain high through 2021, they’ll book record profits again in the third quarter. That outlook is further underpinning the outlook for a further rally in steel.

(Updates with record steel price, profit warnings in second and third paragraphs)

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By Matt Earle

Matthew Earle is the Founder of MiningFeeds. In 2005, Matt founded MiningNerds.com to provide data and information to the mining investment community. This site was merged with Highgrade Review to form MiningFeeds. Matt has a B.Sc. degree with a minor in geology from the University of Toronto.

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