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AWMI Panel: 'Expect a Challenging Year'

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The United States' economy is the strongest in the world. Yet, paradoxically, service center executives expect a challenging year in 2015 as the market grapples with the effects of low-priced imports and volatile energy prices.

“You can't be in the steel business today without considering what is happening in the rest of the world and how it affects our business here in the United States,” said Mark Breckheimer, president of the heavy carbon group at Kloeckner Metals Corp., in his remarks during the Association of Women in the Metal Industries’ dinner Jan. 14 in suburban Chicago.

Steel consumption in the U.S. is getting close to pre-recession levels again, but in economically troubled Europe it remains down 20 percent. “We ended 2014 just about 6 percent off our peak in 2006. That’s why the U.S. continues to be one of the most attractive markets in the world,” Breckheimer said.

The United States' relative prosperity makes it a target for cheap imports from all over the globe, which has a dampening effect on steel prices. The U.S. imported 12 million more tons of steel in 2014 than in 2013, driven by a strengthening U.S. dollar that gives a major cost advantage to foreign producers. Demand is up, but not necessarily for U.S. mills. “The growth of steel consumption in the United States has been absorbed entirely by imports rather than the domestic producers,” Breckheimer said.

Denton Nordhues, president and CEO of plate distributor Leeco Steel, told AWMI attendees to expect a tumultuous first half. Unless the dollar weakens, imports will continue to surge.

Pointing to the carbon plate market, Nordhues noted that the U.S. imported 1.75 million tons of cut plate and 2.2 million tons of coiled plate in 2014. More plate was imported in the second half of last year than in all of 2013. Three factors fueled this phenomenon: the strong dollar, poor demand in lagging economies, and domestic mill lead times in early 2014 that were as long as or longer than lead times internationally. “And, of course, the imports were a relative bargain, which made it very difficult for companies not to at least take a look,” he said. He expects plate imports to moderate by 15-20 percent in the current quarter, compared with fourth-quarter 2014, but that will still leave levels 40 percent ahead of the same period last year.

Steel demand was not the problem in 2014, Nordhues said, and it will likely continue to improve in 2015. Leading the way will be railroad equipment, marine, energy transmission and distribution, storage and transportation. Markets likely to experience weakness include the oilfield, wind energy, mining, agricultural equipment and defense, he added.

Not only has the growth in steel demand been largely accommodated by imports, the bulk of the increase has gone through distribution, leaving service center inventories oversupplied. As of fourth-quarter 2014, distributor inventories were 20-25 percent higher than in fourth-quarter 2013. “That is the residual effect we will have to work off over the next few months. That will make life difficult for all of us, mills and service centers,” Nordhues said.

“In last year’s first half, imported steel comprised from 5 to 15 percent of distributors’ supply. Today, we believe that percentage is much higher,” said panelist Joseph Darragh, vice president of sales for Charter Steel Trading Co., a flat-roll distributor and trader. Flat-roll imports jumped by 60 percent in 2014 and are projected at 15 million tons for 2015, much of which will end up in distributors’ warehouses. Adding to pressure on the price of hot-band are big declines in the cost of scrap, iron ore and coke, he added.

On the demand side, service centers in North America are seeing good order volumes. In the last four years, service center shipments improved by about 5.6 percent, to 42.3 million tons in 2014. But that still leaves them 18 percent below 2007 levels. “While we are improving, we still have a long way to go to get where we were,” Darragh said.

In addition to steel imports, the other wild card is oil, agreed the panelists. U.S. oil output has grown by 70 percent since 2008 and the spike in supply has pushed oil prices below $50 a barrel. At that price, energy companies drill fewer new wells. As the rig count declines, so does demand for oil country tubular goods and the flat-roll from which they are made. The rig count declined 12 percent in the fourth quarter, but remains over 40 percent higher than the bottom of the market in 2009. Meanwhile, energy providers continue to pump as much oil and gas from their existing wells as possible as they strive to recoup their investment at the lower price.

The low oil price has translated into cheap gasoline at the pump, adding $125 billion in discretionary income to the economy. What’s positive for one segment is not necessarily positive for another. “As consumers we feel pretty good when we fill up our cars. But U.S. Steel does not feel good about just laying off 600 people because the energy side of their business is starting to scale back,” Darragh noted.

Will Joe Consumer spend his new windfall, giving a boost to the still-recovering economy, or will he save it or pay down debt? “It’s up to consumers to step up and increase spending, but it’s not clear they will do that,” Darragh said.

Breckheimer believes estimates of a 2.7 percent increase in consumer spending this year are conservative.  “Every month that goes by with $2 a gallon gasoline we put billions into the pockets of consumers, so we should have a robust year for consumer spending.” He is optimistic that employment will continue to improve, inflation will remain in check and low energy costs will kick GDP growth into the 4 percent range. “It’s really going to feel good,” he predicts.

Darragh and Nordhues are a bit less bullish. “Everyone is in a race right now to get rid of inventories, so it will feel like the first quarter of 2009, except with much better demand. 2015 will be a good year; we’ll just have to fight our way through it,” Nordhues said.

Darragh sees the economy’s prospects as mixed in 2015. GDP growth is forecast at 3.1 percent—still well below the 4-6 percent pace of a normal post-recession recovery. North American auto production will hit 17 million vehicles this year, and up to 18-19 million in 2016, which should offset some of steel’s losses to lighter-weight substitute materials. Housing is expected to grow 20 percent, with an estimated 1.1 million starts in 2015, but that rate is still well below the 1.5 million annual units pre-recession. And energy-related markets will remain volatile.

Growth in the steel market should mirror GDP, he said, though the first half of the year will see cautious buying and inventory balancing by distributors. “You can’t decouple the U.S. market from the rest of the world, which means imports will continue to add to price pressures for some time to come. Uncertainty is what will drive our business for the next year. We’re going to have a little stress in our lives,” Darragh said.