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Defiant metals industry mocks recession calls at top gatherings

Feb. 13, 2023 Updated Mon., Feb. 13, 2023 at 4:42 p.m.

A worker handles a cold rolled steel coil ready for shipping at the Liberty Steel plant in Galati, Romania, on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.  (Ioana Epure/Bloomberg)
A worker handles a cold rolled steel coil ready for shipping at the Liberty Steel plant in Galati, Romania, on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. (Ioana Epure/Bloomberg)
By Joe Deaux Bloomberg

If a U.S. recession is looming, no one told the smiling well-suited women and men drinking top-shelf liquor at Miami’s rooftop pools and mingling along Tampa’s bayside terraces during two top metals industry events.

Florida became home to two of the largest U.S. industry conferences over a two-week period, where hundreds converged to discuss the outlook for steel and aluminum demand. The general mood was uniform: Don’t expect record growth witnessed the past couple years, but know that demand is normalizing to pre-pandemic levels.

At least two dozen people representing raw metals producers, service centers, traders, buyers, bankers, truckers, shippers and barge operators interviewed sounded a tone of relief that order activity and backlogs are solid. The upbeat outlook follows a brutal end to 2022, when every major industrial metal declined on worries that rising interest rates and slowing consumption were hurtling economies toward recession.

Participants at both events avoided saying the word “recession” and instead repeatedly referred to “the R-word” in the middle of private discussions about a potential economic downturn.

This year “could be a return to a more boring environment,” Timna Tanners, a steel and aluminum analyst at Wolfe Research, said at the Tampa Steel Conference this past week. “It’s been wild pricing, and we don’t expect any more volatile moves.”

Her firm expects an average benchmark steel price of about $731 a ton, well above the $600 average in 2019 - a year of steady growth before the pandemic struck in 2020.

Goldman Sachs analyst Nicholas Snowdon gave the rosiest outlook at both Tampa’s early February event and the S&P Global aluminum conference, held Jan. 23-25 in Miami. He predicted China’s economic reopening and much stronger global metals demand would push aluminum prices up by about 50% this year.

Comments from some of the most iconic names in heavy industry in the past two months have been cause for concern. Executives at Nucor and U.S. Steel, two of the biggest American steelmakers, warned investors that recession was possible. Alcoa, the largest U.S. aluminum maker, said shipments will be weaker than expected amid ongoing macroeconomic uncertainties. Even heavy-machinery maker Caterpillar said demand in China, the world’s second-largest economy, would soften.

Beneath such caution are strong fundamentals. Logistics firms in Tampa said their steel business is returning to pre-pandemic levels. Michael Ceravolo, chief commercial officer at Beemac Logistics, said truck shipping rates have bottomed out and will fluctuate in a tight range this year. Mercury Resources, which handles barge and ocean freight, sees a “surprisingly” active shipping market, Chief Executive Officer Anton Posner said.

Multiple service centers said they aren’t carrying high inventories – a sign buyers are consuming metal – and that they continue to book a steady amount of new business. Traders shrugged when asked about aluminum demand, saying they’re delivering on a consistent stream of contracted and spot orders.

U.S. domestic steel prices are up 8% this year, while aluminum has climbed 1.6%. Steel prices in Europe have begun to tick higher as the outlook for the continent’s economy has improved following a mild winter that saw energy prices slump, boosting sentiment among manufacturers and builders. China is gearing up for a brighter year, too, as an economic rebound and measures to revive the property industry are expected to boost demand for iron ore and industrial metals.

To be sure, not all metals-consuming industries are equal. Traders reported that automotive demand is softer than the market is anticipating, largely driven by higher interest rates that will price out many potential new car owners who borrow. Steel industry participants repeatedly pointed out that second-half construction demand will weaken, with many predicting sector contraction in the second half.

Still, demand and order books remain robust for end users of metal, Citi analyst Alex Hacking said. His firm learned that demand is “extremely strong” for Caterpillar and Deere, two of the most important heavy manufacturing companies in the country and huge metals consumers.

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