Steel is on edge and the global industry is cutting back hard, hanging on for either a budget blast from China, new credit for vast Middle Eastern building schemes or resurrection of the US auto industry.
Demand has dwindled and steelmakers, notably the giant of them all, ArcelorMittal, are damping down surplus furnace capacity while waiting for credit to flow, construction cranes to turn and factories to roll.
A decision by ArcelorMittal last week to pursue temporary production cutbacks — slashing European output by more than half from the end of this month, according to a union source — dramatizes the extraordinary ride and role of steel in the last few years.
In just months the global industry has gone from a boom driven largely by China, emerging markets and a property extravaganza in the Middle East to a narrow line between excess capacity and the costs of waiting for recovery.
“Over the past six months, demand for steel has dropped dramatically and, as a result, producers have been cutting production,” analysts at Barclays Capital said in a study last week.
In another report, Morgan Stanley predicted “the current demand shock to lead to excess steel capacity.”
Consequently, the bank said, steel plants should operate at rates below 75 percent of capacity until 2012.
“The steel market is not very different from base metals as a whole, but steel has reacted more rapidly and dramatically since September,” said commodities analyst Perrine Faye of London-based FastMarkets.
She said the future of the steel industry depended on three factors: the impact of Chinese economic stimulus efforts, a pick-up in the Middle East construction sector and a revival of the once mighty US auto industry.
“Chinese imports and exports are at a standstill. Everyone is waiting for the Chinese stimulus package to see if it will revive demand,” Faye said.
The Chinese government last month announced a 4 trillion yuan (US$580 billion) package of measures that it said could contribute 1.5 percent to 1.9 percent to the country's economic growth.
Industry experts have meanwhile spoken optimistically of China’s prospects.
Rio Tinto chief executive Thomas Albanese said earlier this year that the company foresaw “a short, sharp slowdown in China, with demand rebounding over the course of 2009, as the fundamentals of Chinese economic growth remain sound.”
Analysts have said steel inventories are falling in China in anticipation of projects expected to emerge from the country’s huge stimulus package.
“It is encouraging that the inventory of steel products, especially long products, which are mostly used in construction projects, have started to fall (since the end of March), likely suggesting that end-demand is gathering momentum,” Frank Gong (龔方雄), a Hong Kong-based economist for JPMorgan, wrote in a research note.
On-the-ground evidence suggested that the Chinese industry had been re-stocking in the first two months of the year, followed by a pause last month before major infrastructure projects were expected to start in the second quarter, Gong wrote.
In the Middle East, according to Faye, the big problem is a shortage of credit, notably for real estate developers and builders.
Construction planners had “counted on a higher price for oil and on credit to finance their huge projects.”
In addition, demand for such facilities, especially in the Gulf, has died.