The Coal Trader

10 key themes for steel & ferro-alloys in 2024

The steel industry has long been a symbol of global economic might. But as we peer into 2024, the landscape appears more nuanced than ever. Gone are the days of breakneck Chinese growth that fueled a seemingly insatiable demand for steel. Today, a complex interplay of geopolitical tensions, squeezed steelmaking margins and growing recognition of sustainability paints an uncertain picture.

1. Low-grade iron ore to remain key in China

Low-Fe iron ore will be a mainstay amongst Chinese blast furnaces (BFs) as a cost-efficient alternative amid uncertain margins.

Chinese buyers are expected to seek cheaper options, such as Indian fines, as cost-effective alternatives to Australian fines, following a shift in procurement strategies in response to low steelmaking margins in 2022-2023.

Production ramp-ups from Australian miners such as Rio Tinto, alongside new entrants such as Mineral Resources, are expected to increase regional supplies.

2. Structural tightness in global coking coal supply to sustain

Structural supply tightness is likely to remain in 2024. Premium hard coking coal production from major producing countries, such as Australia, China and the US, is not going to have any major growth next year, sources said. Major mines, except for Blue Creek in the US, are not expanding due to higher royalties and increasing difficulties in hiring manpower, as well as financing difficulties amid the global decarbonization drive.

Meanwhile, demand from countries such as India and Indonesia is most likely to increase, notably with new cokeries and BFs being built and commissioned, although demand from the EU and the US may decline amid shifts to electric-arc furnaces (EAFs).

3. China’s direct/indirect steel exports to face greater trade defenses

China’s steel exports, which have been strong in both direct and indirect forms and underpinned Chinese steel prices in 2023, will face increasing pressure from trade defense activities in the global market in 2024, market participants said.

The China Iron and Steel Association (CISA) said in a trade report that China’s steel exports are expected to be more challenging, given the tougher trade environment across overseas markets.

Chinese export volumes are likely to be subdued by preparations in the EU, Brazil and India to undertake more anti-subsidy investigations, import duties and quality approvals.

4. Widening spreads in steel product pricing across the globe may bring price adjustments

Spreads between US hot-rolled coil prices and those in China and Europe have been widening again in recent months after falling from wider levels mid-2023. This may cause downward pressure on US HRC prices in 2024, some market participants have said.

They added that such pressure could come from increased exports from nations like China that increase global supply amid weaker global demand caused by slowing economies in China and Europe.

5. Ferro-alloys trading squeezed by finance costs

The high interest rate environment means continued elevated financing costs. In the ferro-alloys markets, this caps small- and medium-sized traders’ scope for spot business and consumer appetite for restocking. Many traders have been squeezed out of the market, since they are unable to hold positions on ferro-alloys and other raw materials due to high costs. Unless the trader has an already-agreed-upon sale, they are unlikely to add any ferro-alloy inventory. This is effectively consolidating supply options and forcing many traders to rely on back-to-back business.

6. High-manganese ore supply vs weakening demand in China

The high volumes of manganese ore sold to China and held in port-side inventories are likely to be major fundamental factors to look out for in 2024.

The abundance of material shipped to China, in particular higher-grade ore, will continue to have an impact on both high- and low-grade markets, sources said.

Although port stocks have been falling ahead of the year’s end, market participants said these levels remain high, especially amid production cuts weakening demand for manganese ore and low consumption from China’s struggling construction sector.

7. Green hydrogen to drive steel decarbonization

The decarbonization of the steel industry will continue to be a leading topic in 2024, and sufficient green hydrogen and renewable energy supply at competitive prices is crucial.

Current hydrogen prices are around €5 per kg and need to be much lower to be commercially viable for steelmaking.

Europe needs to build out its production of fossil-free electricity, but the volumes needed for large-scale electrolysis to produce green hydrogen are significant. Therefore, it makes sense to place the most energy-intensive operations close to where the electricity is available. A build out of green hot-briquetted iron (HBI) production could then feed steel mills where BFs have been replaced by EAFs. In the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, many companies are also trying to transition to greener production.

But such plans require significant investments and introducing them to the steelmaking process could increase costs, sources said, notwithstanding 2024’s unknown economic environment.

8. Volatile freight rates a key consideration

Uncertainty and volatility over global freight rates is a major concern that will likely spill over into next year, sources said.

The global shipping industry has been suffering from a tighter supply of ships amid a drought depleting water levels in the Panama Canal, with canal authorities limiting the number of vessels passing through the major waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

This has led to delays for ships passing through the canal, as well as some vessels bypassing it completely and taking longer routes.

Limited ships, especially in periods of high demand, have resulted in price spikes in 2023, which have, in turn, added to cost pressures for market participants.

9. Europe to remain one of the key outlets for Russian slabs and pig iron

The EU will remain a key destination for Russian slab and pig iron in 2024, because quotas provided by the European Commission (EC) are around historical levels of imports from Russia.

This stands out as a contradiction of wider European efforts to reduce reliance on Russia, in which Russian finished steel products have been banned.

The slab quota has been extended for four years due to lobbying from European re-rollers.

Russia has a number of re-rolling facilities in the EU. Large production volumes and employment opportunities mean it will not be easy to replace sizeable Russian slab volumes, sources say, with some consumers saying they can’t find suitable alternatives.

However, Ukrainian re-rollers operating in the EU managed to diversify their sources for imports of semis away from Russia, according to the European Steel Association (Eurofer).

 10. All eyes on supply chain transparency

Supply chain transparency will remain high on market participants’ agenda, including in the iron, steel and ferroalloy markets, even as the war in Ukraine drags on. The EU formally adopted its 12th package of sanctions on December 18, which included new import restrictions on ferroalloys, pig iron and spiegeleisen – a type of ferro-manganese – coming into the EU from Russia. Sources said they would be watching low carbon ferro-carbon markets in particular, because they have been heavily reliant on Russian supply.