Steel stocks are trading at the highest since 2011 and it’s mostly thanks the industry’s biggest menace in recent years: China.
Demand in China, which produces half the world’s steel, has been surprisingly strong this year and the country closed some plants to ease a glut that had spread across the globe. That’s led to a steep drop in exports, helping steel prices extend a recovery and pushing a Bloomberg gauge of global steel stocks up 45 percent in the past year. That’s triple the advance in the Bloomberg World Mining Index.
China has been blamed by politicians including U.S. President Donald Trump and top producers in recent years for causing a price rout and forcing European and American plants out of business. That’s prompted nations from the U.S. to Ukraine to now have more than 100 trade restrictions on imports from China to protect their own industries from cheap steel.
At the same time, more Chinese infrastructure spending has boosted local demand, just as the government shuttered millions of tons of overcapacity. Those factors helped China’s exports plunge 28 percent in the first half.
“It’s been over a year and a half since Chinese steelmaking fundamentals bottomed, but they still seem to be surprising to the upside,” said Lee McMillan, an analyst at Clarksons Platou Securities in New York. “Robust steelmaking margins have encouraged ever-higher levels of production, yet pricing has remained robust—albeit volatile—thanks to very strong Chinese steel demand.”
The Bloomberg gauge of 41 global steel producers last week reached the highest since August 2011.
Less supply coming out of China has helped prices in Europe and the U.S. jump about 75 percent in the past 18 months. The rebound has also been driven by resilient demand, and top producer ArcelorMittal expects U.S. consumption to grow as much as 4 percent this year. European industry association Eurofer this month raised its forecast for demand growth in the region to 1.9 percent.
There are also hopes that the U.S. Commerce Department’s Section 232 probe into steel imports may prompt other nations to further restrict shipments from China. While only a small amount of American imports come directly from the country, the U.S. probably still ends up buying Chinese steel that has flowed via other places, such as Southeast Asia.
“If that pressure flows upstream, it will lead to less appetite for Chinese exports, which will put pressure on China to close more capacity,” said Seth Rosenfeld, an analyst at Jefferies International. “That’s the dream scenario. The smarter management teams are saying, let’s use this threat of 232 as a global rallying call to isolate Chinese steel.”