From The Editor

Going Back to the Past Offers Thought for the Future

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MCN Editor Dan Markham The arrival of 2020 naturally brings with it the end to another decade. The teens were my first front-to-back decade covering the metals industry. So rather than look ahead for a moment (and in keeping with my goal to be the only magazine in North America not to use some variation on the “2020 Vision” headline this month), I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the last time the odometer turned on the Gregorian calendar. 

I dug up the January 2010 edition of Metal Center News. As virtually all of you remember, the conditions heading into 2010 bore mild similarities to what the metals experience is experiencing now. In neither case was the metals sector coming off a great year. But whatever woes were experienced in 2019 pale in comparison to the bloodbath that characterized the conditions for much of 2009.

Unlike the past year, when pricing was cratering while demand was merely lethargic, 2009 was a catastrophe. The downturn from the end of 2008 carried over well into 2009, with pricing falling but little business activity to help service centers empty their shelves of overpriced inventory. Numerous enterprises didn’t last to see 2010, a condition that hasn’t been a major issue this time around. 

Yet, there was enough positive momentum at year’s end 2009 to give service center respondents hope the worst was behind them. At the time, MCN conducted a reader forecast survey, and the mood entering 2010 was markedly higher than it had been the year before. I don’t know if I’d say the same thing about expectations now vs. the same time last year, largely because 2018 didn’t end with a similar thud as 2008 did. 

Still, not every respondent was a warehouse half-full kind of operator. “The recession is deepening, in my mind,” one gloomy respondent said. “Economic recovery may take five to 10 years,” another feared. 

Others had a rosier outlook. “2009 was the market bottom for most industries. We are beginning to see some signs of life,” said one. “I think we’re through the very worst of it, but I expect a protracted challenge to increase operating profit,” another offered, quite accurately. 

Looking back, we know the folks anticipating improvement in business conditions had it right. The teens didn’t offer an endless stream of riches for the distribution sector, but there were enough ups over the past 10 years for well-run companies to make money selling steel, aluminum and copper. 

And one survey respondent, whose remarks closed the feature, had an approach that would serve operators well as we enter this new year, and this new decade. 

“I am hearing equally opposing views on the economy in 2010, but being in business, one has to have an optimistic nature.”  

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