Use access key #2 to skip to page content.

XMFSinchiruna (26.51)

Rising Steel Prices Show Few Signs of Abating



June 11, 2008 – Comments (8) | RELATED TICKERS: MTL , SID , X

Great primer on the steel industry from the blog on Louis Navellier's website:

Rising Steel Prices Show Few Signs of Abating

Posted by Patrick O'Connor on 6/5/08 1:27 pm

This post contains steel stocks that are Navellier top-10 holdings (see bottom of post).

Recent news has been filled with talk of rising oil and food prices, and understandably so, their increases over the past year have sparked riots in some countries. But also worth mentioning is the rising cost of steel. Steel prices have almost tripled in the past year, according to industry newsletter World Steel Dynamics—and in our opinion, will likely continue to climb. In the following column, we will examine some of the reasons for the rise in steel prices and discuss the industry outlook.

Steel basics

Steel is an alloy—a solid solution of two or more elements, at least one of which is a metal. It consists mostly of iron, with a carbon content that ranges from 0.2% to 2.04% by weight, depending on grade.

Steel is not a single product, however. There are more than 3,500 different grades available, according to the International Iron and Steel Institute (IISI). The carbon level changes the type of steel, as do various other alloying elements—such as manganese, chromium, vanadium, and tungsten—that may be added during the production process. In general, the lower the carbon content, the softer but more easily formed the steel.

Carbon steel—the most commonly used type of steel, which accounts for the majority of world steel production—is a combination of iron and carbon, with the only other alloying elements allowed in quanitites that are too small to affect the steel’s overall properties.

Steel prices are often referred to in metric tons (also commonly spelled “tonne”). One metric ton equals 1,000 kilograms or 2,204.6 pounds.

Steel production

Numerous raw materials are needed to produce steel. Under one production method—called the integrated method—iron ore is generally combined with coke (a product made by baking coal without oxygen at high temperatures), fuel (often natural gas), and oxygen in a blast furnace. Under another method—the electric arc furnace (EAF) method—scrap metal is used to create steel. Of all the steel produced in 2005, 65.4% was produced via the integrated method, 31.7% was produced via EAF, and 2.9% was produced via other methods, according to World Steel in Figures 2006. As a result, the steel industry relies heavily on raw materials such as iron ore.

At a steel mill, the production process turns raw materials into a product called pig iron, which is refined into a semi-finished product called crude steel. A variety of finished products are then forged from crude steel, including bars, hot-rolled sheets, and wire.

How important is steel?

In 2007, world crude steel output reached 1,343.5 million metric tons, according to the IISI—an increase of 7.5% over 2006. That was the fifth consecutive year that world crude steel output grew by more than 7%. Moreover, it is the highest level of crude steel output in history.

China is the driving force behind world steel production. According to the IISI, in 2007 China produced the most steel of any country: 489 million metric tons, a 15.7% increase over 2006. Without China, world crude steel production would have only grown at 3.3%. Other major producers are Japan, followed by the United States and Russia, as the chart below shows.

Top 10 Steel-Producing CountriesCountry20072006GrowthChina489.0422.715.7%Japan120.2116.23.4%United States97.298.6–1.4%Russia72.270.82.0%India53.149.57.3%South Korea51.448.56.0%Germany48.547.22.8%Ukraine42.840.94.7%Brazil33.830.99.3%Italy32.031.61.2%

Source: IISI. Data shown is in million metric tons.

The world’s largest individual producers are Luxembourg’s ArcelorMittal, which produced 117.2 million metric tons of crude steel in 2006; Japan’s Nippon Steel, which produced 34.7 million metric tons; and Japan’s JFE Holdings, which produced 32.0 million metric tons (according to World Steel in Figures 2007).

Soaring prices show few signs of abating

In 2007, U.S. hot-rolled steel cost around $400 per metric ton. According to industry newsletter World Steel Dynamics, the cost had risen to $1,154 per metric ton by mid-May.

This spring, many steel companies raised prices, and U.S. Steel Chairman and CEO John Surma told Wall Street analysts that flat-rolled steel prices in the second quarter could be as much as $300 per metric ton higher—almost 50 percent above the average $646 first-quarter price.

Many companies are also implementing surcharges to cover raw material costs. AK Steel, for example, recently advised customers of a $640-per-metric-ton surcharge to be added to invoices for certain products shipped in June.

World Carbon Steel Prices, Per Metric Ton Hot- Rolled Steel CoilHot- Rolled Steel PlateCold- Rolled Steel CoilSteel Wire RodMedium Steel Sections02/07$562$748$654$507$75103/07$577$758$670$533$76804/07$617$788$698$577$79805/07$623$800$696$606$81506/07$611$800$686$602$81207/07$599$808$681$590$81908/07$603$814$686$594$82509/07$602$810$673$580$82110/07$611$826$680$584$84411/07$615$833$688$584$85312/07$630$837$705$598$85901/08$639$847$716$621$87102/08$699$887$772$687$905

Source:, from MEPS Steel Prices Online, as of May 2008. To obtain current steel prices including forecasts, please visit

Sky-high raw material prices

According to AK Steel, its price increases are partially due to “the need to recover unprecedented increases in steelmaking inputs,” a claim that has been echoed by most other steel companies worldwide.

Perhaps the most significant raw material used in the making of steel is iron ore. Every year, around February, the three major iron ore companies—Brazil’s Companhia Vale do Rio Doce and Rio Tinto, and Australia’s BHP Billiton—sit down with two European and Japanese steel mills to negotiate an iron ore price for the year. That price is generally accepted across the global steel industry.

For almost two decades, the price of iron ore barely moved. But that all began to change in 2001, when the Brazilian iron ore companies negotiated a 71.5 percent price increase from Japanese and European steel mills, and BHP Billiton gunned for even more on the grounds that due to soaring shipping costs, it was significantly cheaper for Asian companies to buy iron ore from Australia. Those price increases have only continued. In 2008, for example, the Brazlian producers agreed on a 65% price increase.

Even steel producers who use scrap metal instead of iron ore are paying record prices. According to trade reports, auto factory scrap now sells for $690 to $710 per ton, around 70 percent higher than in March.

Another factor in rising steel prices is increased shipping costs. The Baltic Dry Index, a benchmark of freight costs for bulk commodities such as iron ore, coal, and grains, has risen by more than 60 percent since the start of the year on surprisingly strong demand for steel. Peter Norfolk, the director of SSY Consultancy & Research, told The Financial Times average day rates for the largest class of vessels rose from less than $80,000 a day in late January to more than $160,000 in late April.

Cost Increases, Major Steel Inputs, Past 3 Years April 2005April 2008Percent IncreaseThermal coal$54.9 per ton$123 per ton124%Iron ore$0.65 per unit$1.41 per unit117%Natural gas$182.2 per
1000m3$428.4 per

Source:, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Increasing global demand

While it is clear that raw material costs are increasing, many industry analysts are asking to what extent the rise in steel prices reflects this. They suspect that steel manufacturers may be taking advantage of global demand to increase their profit margins.

World steel demand has indeed continued to grow, most notably from newly industrialized countries building up their economies, such as China.

“Vertically integrated mills like U.S. Steel are benefiting from controlling some of their own raw material costs…making record margins…” writes Stuart Burns in MetalMiner, an industry newsletter. “Their rival Nucor, which is a scrap-based producer, should be suffering terribly from the high price and scarcity of scrap [but] Nucor profits…have been rising steadily as the company passes on raw material prices rises and then ‘adds a little for the house.’”

China Leads Demand For Steel In 2007Country% Of World Steel Output ConsumedChina30.9%European Union17.1%NAFTA countries14.5%Other Asian countries14.0%Japan6.7%CIS4.7%Central and South America3.4%Middle East3.2%Other European countries3.0%Africa1.8%Australia and New Zealand0.7%

Source: World Steel in Figures 2007.

How long can steel companies increase prices?

Clearly, steel companies have to increase prices to the extent that their raw material costs are rising; they are, after all, in the business of making money. But as noted above, some industry experts argue that they are raising prices more than warranted since they know demand will allow it. The question then is this: will steel prices will reach a point at which demand decreases?

According to the law of supply and demand, it should. When supply and demand are equal, an economy is said to be at equilibrium, because sellers are selling all the goods they have produced, and buyers are getting all the goods they have demanded. But when the equilibrium tips, and there is too much demand, prices tend to rise, because producers can get more for their goods. Ultimately, however, when the price of a good exceeds equilibrium, a surplus of the good will result (because buyers can no longer afford it), and producers will be motivated to lower their prices.

This process may already be in motion. In Turkey, a number of construction companies have gone on strike to protest steel price increases. In India, transportation and housing projects have been put on hold. Other countries are limiting the amount of steel that can be exported while reducing tariffs to increase imports. In January, for example, China implemented an export tax on raw steel. As a result, according to the Steel Business Briefing, based on U.S. import license applications, it appears that for April China will likely fall to fifth place among the largest steel exporters (behind the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Japan).

At some point, customers could even start looking for cheaper substitutes, such as aluminum and strong plastics. In response, some steel companies are attempting to reduce their raw material costs. It has been reported, for example, that Nucor has applied for permits to build a Louisiana facility that will produce 3 million tons of iron per year.

8 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On June 11, 2008 at 3:03 PM, XMFSinchiruna (26.51) wrote:

Looking forward

If recent price increases cannot be warranted by raw material price increases alone, then prices now being charged may be unsustainable. If that is the case, steel prices could peak soon, according to at least two industry analysts.

Michael Locker of Locker Associates, a steel industry consulting firm, told Reuters he thinks prices for U.S. hot-rolled steel will decline to $800 or $900 per ton in 2008 as consumer spending on steel-intensive goods is drowned out by spending for fuel, food, and other staples.

Meanwhile, Michael Willemse of CIBC Capital Markets has said that “while there is a chance prices could remain at or over $1,000 per ton for the rest of the year, historical pricing trends would suggest otherwise [and] steel producers will soon once again focus on pricing that generates a fair return on capital, rather than test the upward limits of the market.” He believes a correction over the summer is possible.

But, just as many analysts think prices will keep on rising. For example, Michelle Applebaum, an independent steel industry analyst in Chicago, told Reuters in May that prices have not peaked.

There are a number of reasons. First, increased demand for oil has fueled demand for the capital assets used by the oil industry, such as drilling machinery made of steel, and meeting the demand for these capital assets could take years. Second, construction, which depends heavily on steel, is still strong in many places outside the United States, particularly developing countries. Third, automotive manufacturers show no sign of decreasing their use of steel.

This last point may be worth exploring more. It is hard to imagine that the beleaguered U.S. automotive industry could help another industry, but it uses a great deal of steel. According to Investor’s Business Daily, 20 percent of the annual U.S. steel usage of 125 million metric tons goes into cars. Today’s average vehicle includes about 1,800 pounds of steel, which accounts for about 55% of the vehicle mass. Due to steel price increases, the big three U.S. automakers have been hit by a $350 steel price increase per vehicle compared to the average for 2007, and $421 per vehicle compared to February of last year, according to Lehman Brothers. Still, the amount of steel used to make cars has remained roughly constant through the years—primarily because steel companies have continually improved the performance of their materials, severely limiting opportunities for competing materials such as aluminum. According to the IISI, during the past two decades, automakers’ use of high-strength steel sheet has outpaced aluminum by 13 percent, making it the fastest-growing automotive lightweight material. It is not surprising then, that Toyota Motors recently agreed to a steel sheet price hike exceeding 20,000 yen per metric ton from Nippon Steel ($192.47 as of 5/30/08).

In any case, if Applebaum is right and prices continue to rise, the worst-case scenario could be a repeat of 2004, when manufacturers of many products made from steel, from cars to washing machines, faced severe shortages. That is not happening yet, but the Precision Metalforming Association, an industry trade group, says we should watch for it.

The reason is limited exports from two of the world’s biggest steel suppliers, China and Russia. The share of world production from the so-called BRIC countries (which include China and Russia as well as Brazil and India) has been growing rapidly since 2000, from 31% of total world production in 2001 to 48.2% in 2007, according to the IISI. But, as noted above, the steel supply from China has dried up as a result of export taxes. We should also keep an eye on Russia, which is one of the largest steel exporters in the world, exporting around 30 million metric tons in 2007, according to Like China, the Russian government has proposed export taxes in response to rapidly rising domestic prices. At the same time, there are suggestions that Russian import taxes will be reduced or removed to attract foreign steel. This could add further tightness to the global steel market and raise prices everywhere.

The United States could suffer significantly, as much of the steel that U.S. manufacturers use comes from overseas. But in the face of limited supplies, imports are down, according to the Precision Metalforming Association, in 2007 U.S. imports of hot-rolled steel were down almost 50% from the year before. They have continued to decline in 2008, falling 23% between February and March alone. According to preliminary data released by the U.S. Commerce Department, total steel imports are 9% lower in 2008 than they were at this time in 2007. But, other sources argue that U.S. imports could begin to rise, according to the Steel Business Briefing, U.S. import license applications came in at 2.64 million metric tons in April, 16 percent higher than the March preliminary import count of 2.28 million tons, which in turn was higher than February. It is a situation worth watching.

Other impacts

It is worth mentioning that rising steel prices are reverberating through the world economy in a number of ways. Of course, they are driving up the cost of goods that are manufactured from steel. But they may also be driving up the costs of goods made from the raw materials used to produce steel.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab recently told the World Economic Forum that China is driving up costs for non-Chinese steel companies by limiting its export of raw materials used to produce steel, including coke, tin, and zinc. According to Schwab, when China imposed an export tax on steel in January, its steel exports slowed, creating an oversupply of raw materials used to make steel. That allowed other Chinese companies who use the same raw materials—such as ceramics and fiber optics producers—to buy them cheaply.

That is good for the Chinese, but bad for American companies producing the same goods, because their prices are no longer competitive.

The financial markets

Rising steel prices are certainly reflected in the stock prices of many steel companies. To illustrate, we can look at the Market Vectors exchange-traded fund (ETF), SLX, which contains a number of steel industry companies weighted based on their exposure to the price of steel. As of 5/30/08, it was trading at around $108, up from its 52-week low of $52.11 and near its 52-week high of $114.12.

Are those levels sustainable? It is impossible to predict the future, but in our opinion, they could be, at least in the near term. While raw material costs are increasing for steel companies, so is demand. As a result, steel companies are able to raise prices to keep up with costs—and in some cases, raise them even more to generate higher profit margins. In our opinion, steel prices could stay high through 2008 and into 2009—and that could support the prices of steel stocks.

Below are Navellier steel stocks that are top-10 holdings.

Power Dividend Portfolio
Steel Dynamics, Inc. (STLD); 1-yr Chart; Profile
Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc. (CLF); 1-yr Chart; Profile

Vantage Portfolio
Gerdau S.A. (GGB); 1-yr Chart; Profile
Companhia Siderurgica Nacional (SID); 1-yr Chart; Profile

All Cap Core Portfolio
AK Steel Holding Corp. (AKS); 1-yr Chart; Profile

Report this comment
#2) On June 11, 2008 at 4:34 PM, ATWDLimited (< 20) wrote:

Reminds me of the huge increase in Coal prices, especially coked coal. last week on May 30, I made super bull case for coal, and bought tons of coal shares, making about 15%, with another 15% in steel, 30% in oil/nat gas 15% gold/silver, 15% chemical/agriculture and 10% other for my portfolio in real life. I did the same thing for Caps, and it shot through the roof. Just look at the google chart for the coal sector in the last month, look at the jump on June 2 incredible, up 50% in 1 moth and in 5 years 200%.

Refiners had to raise costs because of crude, same thing happened to steel, except the jump for steel is I think even larger, because oil is used to transport the product, so it is taking a double increase. 

Report this comment
#3) On June 11, 2008 at 4:55 PM, TAMMANYHALL86 (< 20) wrote:


  I hope your right in your response about my feeling about gold very soon now the war about to begin between syria,iran vs israel,us will bring chaos to the oil market. I hope seriously i'm wrong 

Report this comment
#4) On June 11, 2008 at 5:44 PM, VTEngineer2001 (< 20) wrote:

I am surprised that NUE didn't make the dividend portfolio with a $1.28/yr/share divi.

Report this comment
#5) On June 11, 2008 at 6:40 PM, binv271828 (< 20) wrote:

Excellent post!

Report this comment
#6) On June 11, 2008 at 7:31 PM, NavellierACblog (< 20) wrote:

Hi, VTEngineer.  The Navellier Power Dividend portfolio doesn't buy stocks that have the highest dividend yields, rather it's looking for companies that are either initiating dividends or showing a consistent history of increasing dividends.  It's a total return portfolio.  You can read more about Power Dividend here:


Report this comment
#7) On June 11, 2008 at 7:38 PM, bellard (97.38) wrote:

Good post;

One important dynamic to note - higher pig, wire, rolled prices help the steel producers like X, but many steel firms have to buy these as raw material to make their custom products for resale to the end market. Its the end market that is crucial, with oil, gas, infra, wind, aero being the current demand drivers - and pricing power.

My original steel article , describes this in more detail, and my steel update article has my updates from the recent conference calls. In general I like buying cyclical near the bottom of the cycle, not the top, but I think the global infra boom will last for 3-5 more years, and with cash flow yields close to 20%, owning these steely investments makes sense to me.....

Report this comment
#8) On June 28, 2008 at 12:26 PM, XMFSinchiruna (26.51) wrote:

Bellard... I didn't realize you were writing for Seeking Alpha... Congratulations!  great stuff!

Report this comment

Featured Broker Partners