The Coal Trader

Chinese steelmakers are trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma

While daily crude steel production stood at 2 million tonnes in mid-October, a 1.25% decrease from the previous year according to data published by China’s Iron and Steel Association (CISA), overall production has remained relatively firm following a strong first half of 2023.

With no clear indications of a rebound in downstream steel prices in the domestic Chinese market, what is keeping hot metal output supported in China?

Mill margins crimped by weak steel prices

Weak demand for steel products in the domestic Chinese market weighed on steel prices in October following a brief seasonal rally for steel cargoes in September

A trader based in Shanghai told Fastmarkets that they have yet to receive pre-orders for steel cargoes to be delivered ahead of the year-end holidays, reflecting an anticipated dip in consumption toward the end of 2023.

Consumption of construction-related steel traditionally dips further after October, in line with a slowdown in outdoor construction works during the winter season.

Fastmarkets’ steel reinforcing bar (rebar) domestic ex-whs Eastern China index averaged at 3,662.65 yuan ($500) per tonne on the midpoint in October, 32.60 yuan per tonne (or 0.88%) lower than in the previous month.

The October average is also 140.79 yuan per tonne (or 3.7%) lower year on year.

“The suspension of projects across China due to financing issues faced by Chinese property developers has resulted in poor steel demand,” a Beijing-based trader said. “Mills that are unable to switch production to products with stronger margins like flat steel are suffering significant losses.”

A slowdown in consumption was also noted in non-construction-related steel products in October.

Manufacturing activity in China shrank in October against market expectations, with the Caixin manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) falling to 49.5 from 50.6 in September, according to a trader in Singapore.

Data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics on October 31 also reflected a contraction in factory activity at 49.5, falling from 50.2 in September.

“Overall orders for materials during the Golden Week this year was significantly lower compared with previous years from consumers and most mills were forced to slash prices to keep inventory moving,” a second Shanghai-based trader said.

Fastmarkets’ steel hot-rolled coil domestic ex-whs Eastern China index averaged at 3,762.65 yuan per tonne at the midpoint in October, 113.85 yuan (or 2.94%) lower than in September.

The October average is also 57.67 yuan per tonne (or 1.5%) lower than in the same month last year.

Burgeoning raw material costs suffocate steelmakers

Lower iron ore shipment volumes from Australia in the third quarter have kept iron ore prices supported amid restocking efforts by Chinese mills before and after the extended National Day holidays

Iron ore port stocks in China slipped below the 100 million tonne mark in the third quarter for the first time since September 2020.

Fastmarkets’ iron ore 62% Fe index fines CFR Qingdao index averaged at $118.91 per tonne in October, a 1.52% decrease from the previous month.

The dip in October prices was relatively small following a firm rally in September.

Fastmarkets’ iron ore 62% Fe index fines CFR Qingdao index averaged at $120.74 per tonne in September, a 10.74% increase from the previous month.

A trader based in Shandong told Fastmarkets that active trading in the domestic portside market by Chinese mills kept prices supported throughout September and October, incentivizing further seaborne trades.

Steelmakers similarly had to grapple with the high cost of coke amid tight supplies.

Fastmarkets’ hard coking coal domestic China spot market, Shanxi-origin, delivered Tangshan index averaged at 2,368.13 yuan per tonne at the midpoint in October, 161.88 yuan per tonne (or 7.34%) higher than the previous month.

October average prices were also the highest since March 2023.

A mine accident in Guizhou province triggered a series of operational suspensions across various mines in the region, resulting in supply tightness in southeast China.

Stricter safety inspections at iron ore and coal mines across China following the accident are expected to result in tighter domestic metallurgical coal supply, according to a Shanghai-based analyst.

A trader based in Hebei said that steelmakers are seeing their profit margins squeezed on both ends, with steel prices continuing to slip further and high operating and procurement costs.

A steelmaker’s dilemma

Despite facing widening losses in steelmaking, most steelmakers in China have not made significant efforts to scale back production.

“Steelmakers are stuck in a vicious trap where they stand to lose out more if they cut existing production,” a second Singapore trader said. “It makes more economical sense in both the medium and long term for mills to continue production than to scale back their output to recoup their losses.”

Fastmarkets presents the three key factors incentivizing steelmakers to maintain production levels:

1. Production volumes in 2024

Production limits on steelmaking are often implemented based on a mill’s total production in the previous year, according to a trader based in Hong Kong.

There is little incentive for Chinese mills to post a significantly lower crude steel output for 2023 in the absence of production guidance from domestic authorities because this could cap their total possible production in 2024, the same trader added.

“It does not make sense for a mill to voluntarily cut production in a climate where its competitor is showing no signs of cutting,” a third trader in Shanghai told Fastmarkets. “As long as mills are able to maintain a positive cash flow through steel sales, they will continue to produce at current rates despite negative margins.”

Government-imposed production cuts are often viewed as lifelines for the smaller, less productive private mills in China, according to a third trader in Singapore.

The absence of clear production restrictions opens up a vacuum for market forces to come into play, creating a ‘survival of the fittest’ condition whereby less efficient mills are forced into bankruptcy, nudging the industry further toward consolidation, the trader added.

The trader also speculated that part of the premise behind the government’s passive approach toward steel production controls in 2023 could also be to support further mergers and acquisitions to take place to centralize China’s existing steelmaking capacity.

2. Low steel inventory supports production

Steelmakers are incentivized to maintain existing production rates with steel inventory remaining at relatively low levels.

Domestic rebar inventory slid for a fifth week in a row, to 8.7 million tonnes in the trading week ended on November 3, despite higher rebar production, according to a second trader based in Hebei.

The trader added that domestic HRC inventory has also dipped steadily over October, in line with stronger demand from both domestic and export markets.

Tight steel inventories motivate mills to maintain existing production capacity to capitalize on any upswings in steel prices triggered by an uptick in demand, according to a trader in Ningbo.

3. Robust steel exports spur production

Strong trading volumes in the Chinese steel export market have kept steel consumption relatively supported in 2023, resulting in a consistent drawdown of excess steel inventory, especially in the second half, according to a trader based in Xiamen.

China exported 8 million tonnes of steel in September, which is 3 million tonnes higher than in the same period in the previous year, according to data released by CISA.

Average export prices in September were, however, down by 41.8% year on year, at $814.20 per tonne.

Year-to-date steel exports from China totaled 66.8 million tonnes, up by 31.8% from the previous year.

A fourth trader in Singapore told Fastmarkets that steady demand for steel products from overseas markets motivates steel mills to continue production despite weak margins.

The trader added that while export prices are mostly compressed due to stiff competition from regional exporters and weak demand from major buyers, mills can still attain a steady flow of income from its exported products.

“Some steelmakers feel that as long as they can maintain existing blast furnace utilization rates while waiting for raw material costs to soften, they will be able to recoup their losses very quickly,” a fourth trader in Singapore said. “But only time will tell if this strategy will reap profits.”