Fortunes reverse for US flat steelmakers to end 2020

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As the market enters the final few months of 2020, US flat-rolled steel mills sit in a much better position than they were just two months ago.

Spot prices for hot-rolled coil (HRC) steel hit $650/short ton (st) this week as assessed by Argus, spot steel availability for November is limited as mill lead times stretch into December, and buyers clamor for whatever tons they can secure. Prices for value-add products like cold-rolled coil (CRC) and hot-dipped galvanized (HDG) steel topped $800/st as lead times stretch into 2021.

At the same time, steel mills have been able to keep a lid on scrap prices to increase margins, with the spread between HRC and #1 busheling scrap delivered US Midwest mills growing to $387/st, the highest level since 15 April 2019.

It has been a quick reversal for the US steel market from mid-August, when spot HRC prices hit their lowest levels in at least two years at $450/st. Lead times were as short as two weeks and some buyers saw mill orders were being completed a week early. Demand continued to slump as the market searched for a recovery after Covid-19-related manufacturing shutdowns, particularly automotive, in March and April crippled the market.

To preserve cash and not overbuy during the uncertainty, service centers continually reduced inventories and became comfortable with the short lead times from mills and a just-in-time buying mentality.

Many did not see the bottom coming, nor when it passed them by.

Lead times began extending in mid-August to 3-4 weeks then 5-6 weeks as the auto industry began pressing for more production to replenish depleted dealership stocks.

Available vehicle supply through September continued to fall down below 2.2mn vehicles, and the days supply moved below 60 days, according to automotive research firm Cox Automotive. Prior to the pandemic, vehicle supply was above 3mn vehicles and around 80 days of supply.

Service centers realized that they could not get the tons as easily as they had become accustomed, spurring a buying spree and adding to the already extending lead times.

A reduction in steel production that began in March and April when US automakers shuttered their facilities, leading to blast furnace closures, led to tighter supply. Three blast furnaces remain off line, one in Cleveland run by ArcelorMittal, and two others run by US Steel, at Gary Works in Indiana and Granite City in Illinois. Combined, the blast furnaces have a pig iron production capacity of 4.4mn st/yr.

A two month strike at NLMK’s Pennsylvania re-rolling mill and the closure of JSW’s Mingo Junction electric arc furnace (EAF) in July further reduced supply on the market.

Over the last month, lead times for HRC have remained extended, with the US auto industry leading the charge as it continues to produce as many vehicles as it can.

Many in the market believe mills are in the driver’s seat for the fourth quarter and potentially into early 2021.

But uncertainty over energy sector demand remains, for which steel consumption has been heavily depressed since a collapse in oil prices in March and April. If the oil and gas industry begins to consume more steel, many believe the rally could hold well through the first quarter.

The oil industry has yet to recover, with the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the US benchmark, down by 35pc since the beginning of the year to $41.70/barrel (bl) on 14 October. The number of active oil and gas drilling rigs in the US, a proxy for future production, is down by 69pc compared to a year ago at 269 for the week ending 9 October.

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