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Around the time that the Trump administration’s Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum were implemented last year, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross noted the administration’s goal of lifting steel and aluminum capacity to 80% (the level reflecting a healthy industry).

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Following the implementation of the tariffs, that figure gradually increased as domestic producers got a boost, with some even announcing smelter restarts (U.S. Steel’s Granite City steelworks being a prime example).

So, how have production levels fared to start the new year?

According to data released by the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), the steel capacity utilization rate through Jan. 12 reached 79.5%, up from the 73.6% posted during the same period in 2018.

Production in the year through Jan. 12 reached 3,231,000 net tons, according to the AISI report.

Meanwhile, for the week ending Jan. 12, capacity utilization hit 79.8%, with 1,891,000 net tons of steel produced in the week. Production for the week marked a 10.2% increase from the same week in 2018. In addition, production was up 0.8% in the week ending Jan. 12 compared with the previous week.

Production by region for the week ending Jan. 12 broke down as such (in thousands of net tons):

  • North East: 223
  • Great Lakes: 731
  • Midwest: 206
  • Southern: 654 
  • Western: 77 

U.S. steel prices across the board have seen their price momentum evaporate in recent months after hitting more than seven-year highs in 2018, buoyed by the Section 232 tariff. For instance, the U.S. HRC three-month price was $905 per short ton as of June 1, 2018. On Jan. 14, that price was $687 per short ton.

As MetalMiner’s Irene Martinez Canorea noted in her recent Raw Steels MMI report, steel prices appear to have entered a downtrend.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

“However, steel prices have showed slower momentum recently and prices appear to have started a sharp downtrend,” she wrote. “MetalMiner does not expect prices to increase in the short term, although mills may try to shore up prices with price increase announcements.”

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Base metals traded higher at the beginning of January. However, momentum appears to be weaker once again.

The DBB index has shown weakness since June 2018, when it started this short-term downtrend. MetalMiner has recently revised its market outlook, advising buying organizations to closely follow how the index develops.

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DBB index. Source: MetalMiner analysis of Yahoo Finance

Since 2016, the DBB base metals complex has remained in a long-term trend (see the chart below). Base metal prices have skyrocketed since then but moved lower in 2018, when concerns about the Chinese economy started to appear.

DBB index long-term trend. Source: MetalMiner analysis of Yahoo Finance

A weaker Chinese economy will move demand lower. However, 2018 closed with the six base metals in global deficit. Supply and demand has not moved; therefore prices, mostly economic expectations and trading changes have driven base metal markets.

The Drivers

The DBB index comprises three base metals: aluminum, copper and zinc.

LME aluminum prices moved higher at the beginning of January, but prices did not breach the $1,970/mt level that acted as a support for most 2018. Prices being unable to breach that support level signals weakness for the base metal complex.

LME Aluminum prices. Source: MetalMiner analysis of FastMarkets

Both LME copper and LME zinc prices started to increase slightly at the beginning of January. Similar to aluminum, prices of both base metals fell. LME copper remains below the $6,000/mt level, which has served as the psychological ceiling for copper prices.

What This Means for Industrial Buyers

The base metals complex seems seems weaker. MetalMiner recently switched the long-term uptrend to a sideways trend.

Buying organizations may want to follow price dynamics closely, as well as each specific base metal price. Adapting the right buying strategy becomes crucial to reducing risks.

Only the MetalMiner Monthly Outlook reports provide a continually updated snapshot of the market from which buying organizations can determine when and how much of the underlying metal to buy.

MetalMiner’s Annual Outlook provides 2019 buying strategies for carbon steel

For more information on how to mitigate price risk year-round, request a free trial to our Monthly Metal Buying Outlook.