In reviewing any year some weeks after it has ended, there is always the possibility of a significant change taking place in the interim. So it is that we spent a large part of 2021 expecting some sort of market correction – early signs of which duly arrived in early 2022 with a marked downturn in sentiment.
In my introductory comments to our World Mirror in October last year, I highlighted remarkable price increases for all stainless steel-related raw materials and consequently elevated sales prices for all finished products, but I also warned that final consumption patterns were sending clear signals that the markets were struggling to digest all the necessary increases.
Data from the International Stainless Steel Forum confirmed that global melt shop production rebounded significantly beyond pre-COVID levels last year, leaping 10.6% to 56.3 million tonnes. However, there were clear signs of a deceleration in the latter half of 2021: production of more than 14.5 million tonnes in each of the first two quarters of last year compared to less than 14 million tonnes in quarters three and four.
In Europe, the bubble certainly started to deflate rather than burst at the start of 2022. Producers reported thinner order files as customers resisted the higher sales prices brought about by the steepling costs of everything from energy to electrodes and from ferro-silicon to stainless scrap.
Demand has also continued to be impacted by pandemic-related effects on the stainless steel supply chain. During BIR’s webinar programme late last year, we learned that the time gap at ports between anchoring vessels and unloading containers could be up to 12 days and that two out of three ships worldwide were suffering delays to their schedules. Shipping certainly became no easier in the remaining months of 2021 and in early 2022.
Other factors have also served to dampen European mills’ order intakes, including high stocks at home and an increase in imports of stainless finished goods from the Far East where price levels are well below the European and US markets.
At the time of writing this report, commodity prices are still riding high in most instances. Availability of stainless steel scrap was supported by nickel prices trading above US$ 20,000 per tonne in the latter weeks of 2021. And high, if volatile, nickel prices seem set to remain a reality for the foreseeable future: at our webinar last May, it was explained by guest speakers Olivier Masson of Roskill and Alina Racu of Nornickel that the stainless steel industry was likely to remain the leading nickel outlet but that units of the same metal required for electric vehicle battery production would surge by a factor of four or five in the years to 2030, thus fuelling swings in the nickel price.
According to the IMF, a typical electric vehicle battery pack needs some 35 kg of nickel and so climate change goals, among other factors, imply “soaring” demand between now and 2030. During this period, it says, nickel consumption could potentially quadruple while its price could rise “several hundred percent from 2020 levels”.
While high nickel prices boost stainless steel scrap values, this is a double-edged sword for our sector: although recyclers’ revenues are increased, money tied up in stock and cash-flow issues become a bigger factor in our daily business lives. Add in elevated energy and transportation costs and it becomes apparent that, while positive in many ways, 2021 was not a straightforward year. The same applied in related fields too: as explained by guest speaker Rosie Hill of leading superalloys producer Ireland Alloys at our November webinar, challenges that confronted her business last year ranged from labour and container shortages to higher freight costs and the lack of clarity surrounding China’s customs reclassifications.
The final point underlines the negative impact of assorted border rules and regulations on the free movement of our highly valuable raw materials. The most worrying prospect imaginable is that the European Commission’s proposal to amend the EU waste shipment regulation will hold sway. As argued by Sean Davidson of the Davis Index, also a guest speaker last November, it is nothing short of nonsensical for politicians to talk about cutting carbon emissions and for them then to propose export policies that would serve only to reduce recycling rates.
Stainless steel is an iron alloy that contains nickel and chromium to protect it against corrosion and rust. This material is remarkably strong and resistant to high temperatures, providing optimum performance under severe environmental and chemical conditions. Stainless steel’s inherent physical properties make it ideal for use in the construction, automotive and transportation sectors. Its versatility also makes it a popular material in household items such as kitchen appliances and cutlery.
Demand growth for stainless steel has outstripped that of most other metals over the last few decades. At a recent BIR Convention, it was noted that the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for stainless steel was 5.6% for the period from 2000 to 2018, with China recording a particularly strong CAGR of more than 14% over that same period. There was an increase of 4.8% in global crude stainless steel production to 52.43 million tonnes in 2018, with output becoming ever more dominated by Asia with its world production share of around 80%.
Besides nickel and chromium, other major alloying elements used in combination with steel include molybdenum, titanium, tungsten and vanadium. These metals are scarce and only available in very few parts of the world, which makes extraction costly and difficult. Recycling is therefore essential to minimizing depletion of the planet’s natural resources; as a result, the recycling industry has become a vital player in providing a stable supply of quality secondary raw material.
Most special alloys are very similar in appearance. Sophisticated identification technologies, including X-ray spectrometry, are used to separate and prepare each type. Recycling stainless steel is a similar process to the one used for other ferrous metals.
Sorting: Given that many forms of stainless steel are non-magnetic, this metal cannot be easily separated from other recyclables in a recycling facility with magnetic belts.
Shearing: Hydraulic machinery capable of exerting enormous pressure is used to cut thick, heavy stainless steel into smaller pieces.
APPLICATIONS & RECYCLING FACTS
Stainless steel is 100% recyclable and loses none of its original physical properties in the process. The most common applications include: