83rd IREPAS meeting: Global long steel demand more or less same as before pandemic

The  83rd meeting of IREPAS (the International Rebar Exporters and Producers Association) was held as a virtual event to ensure the health and well-being of all participants, on September 21, 2020 in conjunction with the SteelOrbis Fall’20 Conference. There were 205 producer representatives among the 627 registered delegates from a total of 53 different countries. There were also 73 registrations representing 35 different raw material suppliers.

At the opening of the conference, Murat Cebecioglu, chairman of IREPAS, emphasized that the Covid-19 pandemic has moved in a wave from Asia to America through Europe and the Middle East and has certainly worsened the market situation. He added that there has been a reduction in both supply and demand around the world, except in China where output keeps growing, and that demand in the global long steel products market is indeed not as bad as the newspapers and media outlets report.

IREPAS chairman also added that the very strong quarter seen in China and the current outlook supported by the country’s net importation of steel products have been driving the rebound. He said almost the whole market is driven by daily news and signals from China nowadays, adding that after a poor spring characterized by the idling of production capacities due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are currently in a period of recovery. But the Chairman also warned that with the ongoing political uncertainties and new threats from many corners around the globe, the overall market situation is becoming cloudy and more uncertain.

Raw Material Suppliers at IREPAS: Main savior was Chinese demand

Jens Björkman, the chairman of the raw material suppliers committee, stated that, with the start of the pandemic, prices, demand and scrap collection crashed, noting that scrap collection halted dramatically all over the world but that in some regions the steel industries were hugely affected.

The committee chairman said that, for example, in the northern EU the lockdown was less dramatic than in the southern EU, and so some raw material businesses shifted their focus to northern EU scrap-based mills. He pointed out that, once the initial effect faded, scrap prices were fairly stable from April. Looking at the summer months, Mr. Björkman said that most regions were recovering fairly quickly. He recalled that scrap prices were slightly under $300/mt in the pre-pandemic period, went down to around $220/mt, and are now back at levels similar to those before the pandemic, underlining that the main savior was China’s extreme demand for raw materials and semi-finished steel, which they imported from many regions of the world. During this period, the weakening of the US dollar also resulted in scrap prices going upwards, he noted.

Commenting on the possible impacts of the outcome of the US presidential election on the scrap markets, the raw material suppliers committee chairman said that what is important for the scrap market is investments in new melting furnaces and these capacity growth projects cannot depend on a president’s term of office. So in the long run, he said he does not expect the election to affect the steel industry, though there may be some differences in how to conduct trade.

On China becoming a net importer, Mr. Björkman said that this means China will probably have less trade frictions with the US when it comes to steel, while he sees a build-up of steel capacities outside China, namely in ASEAN countries, as being more problematic.

Regarding the outlook, while admitting that there is a lot of uncertainty about the continuation of lockdowns or possible new lockdowns, Björkman said that he is a little bit more optimistic for the demand side. The committee chairman stated that, after the initial phase of shock due to the pandemic, many have been surprised regarding the positive aspects. He added that some companies issued warnings regarding negative results, but business turned out to be better than expected in many cases, though some are still struggling.

Traders at IREPAS: Prices increase amid regional trade flow interruptions

Wilhelm Alff and F.D. Baysal, co-chairmen of the traders committee, informed the participants about the market developments during the last six months. Mr. Baysal said that market conditions in the US are stable, improving after the big shock caused by the pandemic, while capacity utilization rates are still way behind 2019 levels. He pointed out that, compared to early September last year, capacity utilization rates are still 15 percentage points lower. Regarding the construction sector, he said that the residential segment showed an improvement, though the non-residential segment is still down with little prospects of a recovery. He also said that in September prices finally saw an increase in all categories.

Mr. Baysal said that there will not be many changes regarding trade measures depending on the US election results. He said he believed that if Trump wins the US will continue filing a maximum number of AD and CVD investigations until no competition is left and that Section 232 will continue and ,while Biden may be more sympathetic to free trade, Section 232 will still remain in force if Biden wins.

Baysal also added that, for non-residential construction in the US, there will be some fundamental changes and some are already in progress. For example, as people are working from home and companies will occupy less office space, he expects a major stagnation in this market. He also expects less demand for commercial buildings.

As regards Central and South America, Baysal said that these countries are on the verge of a slow improvement in both demand and supply. Some countries such as Mexico and Brazil were hit hard by the pandemic. However, both of these countries including Argentina are exempt from Section 232, and so their supply will increase with demand coming from the US. Nevertheless, he added that he does not foresee a big improvement in terms of domestic demand in 2020.

Commenting on Europe, Wilhelm Alff said that in Germany construction continued uninterruptedly, with demand for steel being even higher than normal, as many construction sites speeded up projects worrying that they might have to shut down altogether. On the other hand, in countries such as Spain, France, Italy and Poland, demand decreased as trade flows were interrupted and consumption decreased by 10-25 percent in these areas. He noted that, after declining at the beginning of the pandemic, scrap prices have increased by $90/mt up to the present because of the regional interruption of trade flows. Meanwhile, rebar prices in the EU have increased by €60 compared to the beginning of the pandemic.

Regarding EU quotas, Alff gave some background information on the changes in EU safeguard measures, indicating that the quarterly allocation which came into force as of July 1 is an advantage, because this way the market is not flooded with all the material arriving at the same time. He said that the safeguard measures have already led to a drastic reduction in imports, and pointed out that in 2019 steel imports into the EU totaled 1.8 million mt, while in the first half of the current year total steel imports came to less than 400,000 mt.

Producers at IREPAS: Global long steel demand more or less same as before pandemic

Murat Cebecioğlu, chairman of IREPAS and also of the producers committee at the virtual event, said that the pandemic did of course worsen the market situation, reducing demand, while remarking that China has been the driving force behind the whole market and has no intention to export. He indicated that the situation in the global long products market is now unchanged compared to the pre-pandemic period; the market is stable and demand is more or less the same as it was before. Regional markets are performing well, with demand returning and EU-based cut-and-benders are quite busy. Looking at North America, prices in the US finally moved up on the back of higher raw material prices. The IREPAS chairman stated that the upward trend of scrap prices has already started slowing down, with a downward correction observed these current days, adding that producers prefer billet unless a strong spread appears between billet and scrap prices.

Commenting on whether the recent increase in Turkish rebar cargoes to the US will continue, the chairman of the producers committee said, “New shipments were booked in the aftermath of the Section 232 duty rate going back to 25 percent; that is why it looks like there is a surge. The truth is that Turkey will not be able to reach the level of exports it had prior to Section 232. When the duty rate was 50 percent, Turkey was replaced by domestic producers and other countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal. It is not easy to recover the market shares in the US lost to other countries, especially while Turkey is still subject to AD and CVD measures.”

Mr. Cebecioğlu said that the increase in Turkey’s domestic steel consumption may be the result of the reduction in interest rates, which boosted demand for steel, providing support for the domestic market. He added, however, that he has doubts about whether this growth will persist.