High prices, material shortages have dominated the last year in the specialty metals world, though how long those conditions last remains to be seen.
The fuzzy nature of the stainless steel supply chain was illustrated perfectly by veteran specialty metals analyst Markus Moll when asked about material availability.
“You’ll get a different answer if you ask mills and end users. And you’ll get a third answer if you ask service centers,” he explained.
The mills will say they can supply anything the market demands. The end users insist they’re still only getting 70 percent of the material they crave. And the service centers, fittingly, are somewhere in the middle. “The service center says it’s getting better.”
He’s largely correct. Getting better is just how most in the distribution sector generally describe the state of supply, coming on the heels of the unusual 2021, when material was tough to find but profits were robust.
“I think it’s a similar situation where it’s starting to catch up and adjust. Allocations are still around, but the imports have increased significantly since a year or two back,” says Sam Desai, vice president of RM Metals, South Plainfield, N.J.
“You’re starting to see supply catch up a little bit, but it’s nowhere near where it needs to be,” says Bill Gouveia, vice president of Atlantic Stainless, North Attleboro, Mass. “The domestic mills are still in the early stages of catching up to where everybody needs them to be.”
But others aren’t so sure the supply situation is improving, as much as the chain is simply better at dealing with the tight conditions. “There seems to be a good understanding of where we are in terms of availability and allocations opposed to two years of shocking market conditions,” says Jason Matuscin, president of Camalloy, Washington, Pa. “I would say it’s definitely still allocated and tight, but we have our hands wrapped around it and everybody seems to be more understanding of the ups and downs of the supply chain.”
Obviously, the matter can vary by product type. Michael Graham, Western region sales manager for Roda Specialty Steel, Buffalo Grove, Ill., says strong demand coupled with production problems at some of the long product stainless mills have made it a very tight market for stainless bar. “We’ve been a beneficiary of this, but we continue to go hand to mouth with containers coming in from the mill and going right back out the door. Most of our ‘general’ type of inventory is being sold many months before it is even scheduled to arrive in our warehouses.”
For Jeff Haas, president of Cleveland Metal Exchange, the supply shortages of 2021 had a dramatic impact on the buying patterns of his customers. Companies that would normally purchase metal as they needed it were buying ahead, fearful of not having the material down the road. That’s left more material downstream than is typical.
“For the first time since I can remember, there’s more metal sitting with the manufacturers, with the OEMs and end users than there is at the distribution level,” he says.
All of this leads to a bit of a conundrum on what exactly is real demand and how much is driven by kinks in the supply chain. Consumption is not directly connected to real demand, but also influenced by efforts to stock up or down depending on the market.
Still there’s no question that consumption was robust in 2021, which undeniably contributed to the production community’s difficulty keeping up. The numbers tell the story.
Moll says after U.S. consumption fell 5 percent in 2019, it tumbled another 15 percent in 2020 due to coronavirus-related shutdowns. But the market came roaring back in 2021, a surge the supply base wasn’t equipped to accommodate.
Stainless steel consumption grew 22 percent in the United States last year. And the country’s North American peers saw even greater growth, with consumption up 26 percent in Mexico and 30 percent in Canada.
Moll says the growth is continuing in 2022, at least for the first six months. He anticipates the industry is looking at a bifurcated year, with strong demand in the first half followed by a giveback on most of those gains in the third and fourth quarters. He forecasts the total North American stainless market to grow 4 percent this year, with stronger results in long products than in flat products.
Digging down, Moll believes that consumer-related goods, such as appliances, will slip in the second half, a byproduct of the inflationary environment we’re in. Building and construction will see a similar dip due to rising interest rates.
In contrast, the energy market will serve as a bulwark against greater decline, figuring to grow in the second half of the year given the incredibly high prices for energy. Chemical process industry may also hold off any declines until 2023.
Houston-based Premium Alloys is primed to benefit from those stronger project-driven markets. “Being involved in oil and gas, power generation, aerospace and space exploration, all of those industries are on the rise and we’re hearing it should be a couple of years out for all of them. We’re growing at a quick pace,” says CEO James Coursey, whose company is in the middle of expanding to meet that growth.
Most other service center participants aren’t seeing the slowdown in demand Moll forecasts. “Every market seems to be strong, aerospace and medical especially. There doesn’t seem to be any weaknesses,” says Graham.
“Demand is still at an all-time high. We have as many orders open as we’ve ever had,” says Lance Brown, president of Brown Metals Co., Rancho Cucamonga, Calif
While 2021 was characterized by some restocking, whenever possible, most service centers are not looking to pack their shelves now given legitimate fears of price erosion. “The service centers believe their material may have been bought at the peak of the market. That’s not a good psychological position going forward,” Moll says.
Pricing has remained at high levels, and most observers believe that it will ultimately come down, at least for more commodity grades.
“We’re fairly sure prices are going to drop. If it falls quickly, how much are we going to give back?” asks Jerry Cohen, president of Atlantic Stainless. “But, since we expect it, it’s not as painful.”
“I’m anticipating that we’re going to start see prices go back down. That’s the current feel, but that doesn’t mean something else wild isn’t going to happen,” says Parker Steel’s Purchasing Manager Jay Simler, noting how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has already changed the market multiple times. Initially, the war led to some supply shortages given the role both countries play in the European market, but it’s now leading to significant demand destruction on the continent.
Rodney Rice is anticipating pricing fears to put some hesitation in the market fairly soon, which hasn’t been the case for a while. “We had customers large and small who were desperate for material and price was a secondary consideration. People are now expecting it to fall and are not quite as ready to place orders yet. If there’s a project, they may be sitting tight and watching for price to fall away,” says Rice, director for UK-based Langley Alloys, which operates a facility in Houston.
“We’re still finding ways to supply our customers with a price that works for both sides,” says Coursey. “But it makes it a little uneasy knowing how quickly they’ve gone up and if something were to happen in the market, how quickly they could go down.”
Other distributors, those tied to more niche products, are less worried about price destruction. “I don’t [worry], especially in what we do in the lighter gauges,” says Brown. “There are fewer mills doing what we need. For the most part, as long as [prices] stay stable, we’re happy.”
“Prices will soften slowly. Those people sitting on their hands hoping for a big drop are going to be disappointed,” Rice argues.
The other side of the pricing coin involves surcharges, which have been historically high. Nickel, in particular, has been on a bit of a wild ride in the last 12 months, most notably in early March when the LME briefly closed trading on the material in response to the price doubling in the course of a day. And even that led to some unpredictable behavior.
“You would assume that would put the dead hand on the market, but no, customers went into panic mode and they needed to secure material by any means necessary,” says Rice. “For the subsequent three to four months, it’s been running really strong.”
The nickel price has come down a little since its peak, but Moll doesn’t anticipate much more decline given the increasing demand for nickel from car battery manufacturers. Additionally, while there’s a significant amount of available nickel pig iron in supply from China and Indonesia, pure nickel needed for many applications is still tight.
Among the major worries for the supply chain members, one issue is front and center: “No. 1 is transportation and logistics. It’s been a major disaster, and continues to be one especially with fuel prices on a rise,” Desai says. He notes that the worst of the labor market concerns may be over, but environment for transportation is not getting better.
Matuscin has a similar take. “I think the biggest [concern] has developed into transportation, with a shortage of vessels, trucks, drivers and rising fuel costs. “Some of the other cost centers may have reached their peak and the most difficult time is behind them, but I’m not so sure that’s the case when it comes to transportation.
Simler says there’s been some softening on the container rates for imported material, primarily due to strong lockdowns in China, but he’s not sure how long the reprieve will last. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to introduce more chaos into the market when China reopens.”
And the foreign marketplace remains an important one for the stainless supply chain. Moll says the U.S. imported a near-record number of tons of stainless product in 2021, and forecasts even greater amounts this year. Though 232 tariffs remain on the books, a number of exemptions have cleared the way for greater penetration of foreign material, and the supply shortages have curbed the push for measures to keep the material out. “It seems the willingness of the government to protect the upstream industry is fading,” he says.
Protective measures could be simply another casualty of the last year and a half of supply shortages, just as customers quickly backed away from complaints over rising prices last year when it became apparent that Priority 1 was simply securing metal.
Ultimately, of course, that will be resolved, and the normal give and take will return. How soon is anyone’s guess, though some anticipate the industry will soon slip into more traditional patterns. “We think the market will go back to a more normalized level, where demand is decent and supply will catch up. We’re not there yet, but we believe in the next six months metal will be available, and demand will still be there,” Desai says.
Until then, the industry will fight through challenging, but still-rewarding conditions. “I’d rather have the problems we have to deal with now than the ones we had to deal with five or six years ago,” Gouveia says. “It’s been a lot more profitable and enjoyable.” Caption:
The war in Ukraine, among other factors, has limited availability of stainless bar products.
(Photo courtesy Roda Specialty Steel)