May 29

US steel industry expected to return to growth

Crude output in the world’s largest economy predicted to increase by 4.4% in 2017


The US steel industry is expected to return to growth next year, with production predicted to rise on lower imports and buoyant demand from the construction and energy sectors.

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Crude steel output in the world’s largest economy will increase by 4.4 per cent in 2017, reversing almost two years of contraction, according to an average of forecasts from a Financial Times survey of 20 analysts.

In common with their foreign counterparts, US steelmakers such as Nucor, US Steel and AK Steel were hurt by a collapse in prices for the grey metal last year — triggered by global oversupply, depressed raw material prices and cheap imports from countries including China.

However, steel prices have risen throughout most of 2016, while a protectionist backlash has prompted authorities in the US, the EU and other regions to clamp down on inflows of unfairly traded material.
Seth Rosenfeld, an analyst at Jefferies, said the brokerage was modelling a recovery in US steel demand next year, driven by strong activity in non-residential building and oil and gas, despite weakness in the automotive sector.

“Domestic producers will be able to retake market share from imports, which will decline because of trade tariffs imposed in early 2016 that have been very effective,” he added.

Any rebound in a bedrock industry that has shed tens of thousands of jobs since the turn of the century will add to the recent optimism among investors.

Following the election of Donald Trump, shares in several big listed US steel companies have rallied on the back of the president-elect’s pledge to channel $1tn into infrastructure, though analysts say new expenditure will probably take at least 18 months to take effect.

Globally, the FT’s survey suggests another year of subdued output, with production increasing by 0.9 per cent in 2017. Although modest, that is more than double the rate seen in the first 11 months of this year, according to World Steel Association figures.

John Lichtenstein, managing director for natural resources at Accenture, said: “The lingering end of the preceding commodity boom, combined with restrained capital investment around the world are key cyclical factors contributing to the weak outlook.”

Another key influence will be the behaviour of China, the biggest producer of steel, which accounted for nearly half the 1.6bn tonnes churned out last year.

With Chinese steel mills accused of dumping excess product on to international markets at lowball prices as domestic steel consumption cools, Beijing has promised to close unneeded factories. While some industry figures have questioned the pace and scale of the reforms, survey respondents predicted output would shrink by 0.3 per cent.

In the EU, production is forecast to increase by 1.5 per cent.

Several analysts said they expected financial performance to improve in the sector, following widespread difficulties triggered by the steel price crash.

This year the world’s largest steelmaker by tonnage, ArcelorMittal, resorted to a $3.3bn capital raise to reduce its debt pile after posting a record loss. The UK’s main steelworks in Port Talbot was then threatened with closure when its Indian owner, Tata, decided to sell up.

An easing in the price of a key steelmaking ingredient — metallurgical coal — coupled with a rise in steel prices will help restore a healthier level of profitability in the sector, said Mike Shillaker, analyst at Credit Suisse.
“The steel price is moving to a position where it will give producers a better margin come the second quarter. The second, third and fourth quarter of 2017 will be better compared to this year,” he added.


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