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New Lockdowns In China Are Hindering Global Steel Supply

It’s first-year economics: everything comes down to supply and demand. Historically, the push and pull between these two massive market forces are cyclical, and that includes steel. When you have more demand than supply, prices go up. Eventually, the prices get so high that people stop buying. After a while, the steel supply builds up, and prices plummet, leading to a surge in demand once again.

It’s a familiar dance – at least, it used to be. That was before the war in Ukraine, China’s ongoing lockdowns, and global supply chain issues. Suddenly, having enough steel supply to meet even lowered demand is not a foregone conclusion. Still, economists aren’t the sort to simply throw up their hands and say, “whatever happens, happens.” Instead, they are constantly mapping out potential scenarios.

In this article, we’ll talk about some of the facts and factors at play.

Is Demand Really Dropping?

We’re one-third the way through 2022, and it seems that no global crisis is too great to completely stave off steel demand. After a year in which steel prices hit historical highs and demand grew by an unexpected 2.1%, many insiders pointed to a “return to center.”

Indeed, in April, the World Steel Association forecasted a meager 0.4% increase in global demand. However, the organization added that they expected this number to slowly increase to 2.2% in 2023. The problem?  Most of these estimates were made long before the current conflict, lockdowns, and supply chain failures.

Is demand really shrinking as much as forecasts predicted, or is the reduction in supply simply making it appear that way? It’s still too early to call. What we do know is that 2022’s supply woes are pushing up steel prices from the back end. This means that the cost relief we all expected simply isn’t coming. Of course, this raises a lot of questions about that 2.1% prediction for 2023.

Steel Supply Remains the “X Factor”

Considering all the predictions that 2022 would be a “dead spot” for steel demand, the price action has been stunning thus far. As expected, the year kicked off, with prices quickly retreating from 2021’s historic highs. But by the time March arrived, steel prices had seen their biggest month-over-month increase ever.

This reversal mostly hinged upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The WSA ranks Ukraine as the 13th largest steel producer in the world, as well as the fifth largest exporter of iron by volume. Obviously, the war has devastated the country’s ability to produce. In fact, at the time of this writing, the Azovstal Iron and Steelworks in Mariupol – once capable of putting out 5.9 million tons of product per year – is serving as a shelter for besieged Ukrainian citizens.

The effects of the war have also led to major embargos, sanctions, and boycotts on Russian energy and commodities. Russia is #5 in global steel production, and its metal and coal exports were one of the first things on the chopping block when the EU started imposing sanctions. This means less Russian steel in Europe and less Russian power for European countries to make their own steel. Related: The Inevitable Decline Of Russia’s Oil Industry

This would all be bad enough news for steel supply if it weren’t for the recent reports coming out of China, which produces some 56% of the world’s crude steel. Even back in 2021, the steel demand forecast was lowered based on weak economic data. But COVID lockdowns, crowded ports, and decarbonization efforts are choking the eastern giant’s production beyond our wildest fears.

Filling Gaps in Steel Supply

Just last week, MetalMiner posted an article about how India might further establish itself on the global steel stage. After all, despite having a firm grasp on the #2 spot in global steel production, the subcontinent puts up a mere around 1/10th of China’s numbers.  In short: there’s room for improvement. And if there was ever an opportunity to grow market share, this is it.

According to representatives from the Indian steel industry, the problems plaguing Europe and Asia have put the pinch on other major producers. They also claimed that India is currently the only one of those producers stepping up to the plate. In fact, a report from the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF) stated that the country’s crude steel production should increase 8-9% year over year in 2022.

So far, that number has averaged closer to 6% due to the increased costs associated with production. Still, with Japan, South Korea, Germany, and other Top 10 producers reporting negative growth, India’s efforts are commendable. How far will this go in making up for the shortfall caused by Russia, Ukraine, and China? Only time will tell.

Second Tier Steel Suppliers Need to Step it Up

Obviously, there’s no timeline in place for either the war or China’s economic woes. This means that other countries will need to join the effort to replenish global steel supply. If consumer demand remains, strong, (a big if) prices could continue to remain supported, at least in theory.

Many of these countries (Taiwan, Italy, Vietnam, Mexico, and France) have their own economic and supply chain woes. Still, Brazil – arguably one of the most imperiled economies in the West – has managed a rather impressive recovery after dropping the ball at the beginning of the year. With any luck, this will help ignite a trend.

By AG Metal Miner

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