Global Steelmakers May Win Reprieve as China Exports Set to Slow

China's Economy - Steel Trading Market

Workers carry steel tubing at a trading market in Beijing.

Photographer: Emmanuel Wong/Getty Images
  • Noble Group says higher local steel prices will curb shipments
  • Steel has rallied in China after output dropped, Pirinski says

Help may be at hand for global steelmakers battered by competition from China. The record volume of exports from the top producer will probably drop after prices surged, boosting the attractiveness for mills of local sales against shipments overseas, according to Noble Group Ltd.

“The main reason why we’re going to see lower Chinese steel exports, at least for the next few months, is that the Chinese steel prices have way outperformed steel prices in other regions since December,” Gueorgui Pirinski, a carbon-steel materials analyst at the commodity trader, said at a conference in Singapore on Wednesday. “We’ve had a massive 30, 40 percent rally.”

Exports from China, which accounts for about half of global output, surged to an all-time high last year as producers contended with sinking local prices and a glut of material. The flood boosted competition in Asia, Europe and the U.S., hammering profits at mills worldwide and spurring an increase in trade tensions amid claims the rising volumes from China were being sold too cheaply. This year, steel prices in China have rebounded in a shift that Pirinski said was driven by lower output.

‘Very Aggressive’

“The major driver of this reversal in trend has been the very aggressive curtailment in domestic steel production in China,” said Pirinski, who raised the possibility that output may now pick up, endangering the recovery in steel prices. “We will see a material pickup in domestic production of steel in China -- that will then put into question the sustainability of the steel price.”

Lower volumes from China may ease pressure on mills such as Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel Corp. The European producer posted a full-year loss in 2015, while the U.S.’s second-biggest maker has been at the forefront of efforts to resist imports, describing it as a “major war.”

Steel reinforcement bar in China, used in construction, has jumped about 24 percent in 2016 after five years of losses. The contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange rallied to 2,240 yuan ($345) a metric ton on Wednesday, the highest since June. It bottomed in December at 1,618 yuan.

China’s steel exports expanded almost 20 percent to a record 112.4 million tons in 2015, according to customs data released in January. In February, sales of steel products dropped 17 percent to 8.11 million tons, the lowest since March last year, government data show.

Unprecedented Tide

The unprecedented tide of cheap shipments from China prompted a backlash from Europe, India and the U.S., which have moved to raise tariffs as local mills complained. Still, the spread of protective trade rules wasn’t a cause for slowing shipments, according to Pirinski. The reason “China steel exports are falling is not anti-dumping duties, it’s not all the posturing.”

While shipments from China may not increase this year, mills in that country will still try to sell as much as they can, N. C. Mathur, president of the Indian Stainless Steel Development Association, said in an interview in Singapore. 

“China is a big threat,” said Mathur, who’s spent more than 40 years in the industry, including at Jindal Stainless Ltd. “But at the same time, traders are interested to buy Chinese material for cost and for making of money.”

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