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State of scrap steel

Q&A with Michael Marley

Michael Marley has been covering scrap metal markets for about 40 years. He started with Iron Age magazine in the late 1970s, eventually becoming the Editor. Iron Age no longer exists as a publication, but it did spawn, with Marley’s involvement, what is now known as the weekly Scrap Price Bulletin (www.scrappricebulletin.com) which reports on scrap prices for ferrous metals in the U.S. market. In 1990 Marley moved to American Metal Market as the Scrap Editor, then a sister publication to Iron Age, and following that went to work at World Steel Dynamics. From there, Marley moved to Metalprices.com, a market intelligence service for the international metals industry.

Can you talk about the downward trend in scrap steel prices since the beginning of 2014, and give us some insight into the market factors involved?

Michael Marley: Prices have been in a spiral. We’ve had prices seesawing up and down for much of the past year. They were as high as over $400 a ton at the beginning of 2014. Shredded was trading at about $400 and busheling [the widely traded form of steel scrap consisting of sheet clips and stampings from metal production] at about $425. They seesawed down to approximately $350-$375 about mid-year. Then we got into the last quarter of 2014, as flat-rolled steel prices started to weaken, and oil prices weakened and started to affect demand from companies making products for the oil field.

Since demand from those sectors started to weaken, prices dropped by about $20 in October, $30 in November, and then were flat in December. Then came January 2015 when most of the traders and dealers expected prices to rebound, as they often do at the first of the year. This didn't happen. They were flat. Maybe they were up $5 or $10 at most, for some grades in some locations, but not everywhere. In February, companies drastically cut back the amount of scrap they were buying and the price virtually collapsed.

In February, the prices for heavy melt and shredded scrap, the two key main grades of obsolete material, dropped by $80. The prices for busheling and bundles, the main grades of prime industrial scrap, dropped by $100 a ton.

Simultaneous with all of this, we have been seeing a steady decline in exports over the last three years in the U.S. market. We had peaked somewhere around 2011, at about 24 million metric tonnes. In the last three years, it dropped below 20 million, and for 2014 the figures are 15.3 million metric tons of exports. When you look at this compared to what it had been averaging in the previous decade (from 2002 to 2012) exports averaged about 20 million tons per year. So it’s currently off that average by about 25 percent.

[The drop in exports] leaves a surplus in the market of obsolete scrap, which had been in tight supply in some regions like the East Coast and the Southeast. So now all of a sudden, you have a surplus of about 5 million tons of old scrap that isn't being consumed by steel mills overseas, and is now available to steel mills in the U.S. market. That has contributed to lower prices and has driven down demand.

The stronger U.S. dollar is also a factor, as it has made the U.S. market very attractive to many offshore steel producers. But with many global economies being relatively weak, the steel demand for export overall has been weaker.

A big problem that a lot of countries are dealing with is the flood of steel exports from China, which is now the world’s largest steel producer by leaps and bounds. China produces about 700 million tons of steel a year, whereas in the U.S., if we produce 100 million tons, that’s a lot. And Japan, maybe 120, 150 million tons, maximum.

How has the scrap steel industry changed in the last 30 years?

MM: Companies who process scrap steel are working much differently today compared to the past. This is an industry that was based on small, family-run companies that were started just two or three generations ago and then inherited by family members. There were some that became big, successful companies. Proler Steel International was one in Texas. They helped develop the shredder as we know it today. Hugo Neu Corporation in New York was a family-owned company that became very successful as an exporter of scrap out of both New York and Los Angeles. And there are other big companies that are still family-owned and privately held.

In the late ‘90s there was a wave of consolidation in the industry, by which a lot of the big, well-run, family-owned companies disappeared into large, usually publicly-owned corporate entities, such as Sims Metal Management, Phillips Services, Schnitzer Steel and some others.

Sims or “Metal Management,” as it was called at that time, played a large part in consolidating the scrap industry. They bought a lot of the big-name family owned companies in the U.S., companies like Cozzi Iron and Metal, which was one of the biggest scrap yards in Chicago, as well as Naporano Iron & Metal Company on the East Coast, and a number of others. The next trend came about in the early 2000s, including very significant acquisitions by a couple of large, steel and scrap processing and trading companies. This included Nucor’s acquisition of the David J. Joseph Company and Steel Dynamics Industries acquisition of OmniSource Corporation.

David J. Joseph was primarily a trading company or brokerage. They had a number of scrap processing yards, but they were primarily traders. When it was acquired by Nucor, it changed the character of the industry somewhat, because suddenly you had two big steel companies – major scrap consumers – who had their own large scrap processing operations. They didn't just own one or two yards. They owned a huge network of yards that they could rely on for supply.

How has trade in scrap steel between Canada and the U.S. changed in recent years?

MM: The Canadian scrap steel industry is similar to the U.S. in the East and in other regions where you have an urban economy, such as in Toronto and Montreal, and where you have big industrial complexes and industrial activity. There’s definitely not nearly as much scrap in Canada as there is in the United States, obviously, but it is a significant amount.

More of Canada’s scrap is now coming into the U.S., partly because some of the steel industry in Canada, much of which was clustered around the Great Lakes area for a long time, has shrunk down.

Still, a good portion of Canada’s scrap material is being shipped into the United States and consumed here. This past year, more so than in the recent past. We export some scrap to Canada too. We’re an economy where, because of freight costs and other factors, it’s usually cheaper to ship scrap out of a city such as Windsor, Ontario into steel mills in Detroit. And the same for some of the industrial areas around Hamilton.

Scrap will also move out of upstate New York, Buffalo and places like that, into steel mills in Canada. We still export about 800,000 tons per year into Canada, and we bring in about 2,000,000 tons, most of it into the upper Midwest, into what we call “the Rust Belt”, stretching from Chicago over to New York. We see scrap coming into cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, because it’s attractive to ship there from Canada. And we see a great deal of scrap coming in from the Montreal area, much of it being specialized materials for foundries in Pennsylvania and similar cities.

Due to the low Canadian dollar currently, Canadian scrap is of course very attractive for a lot of U.S. companies. It is very, very attractive to buy, particularly prime scrap, because the price has come down so much, and there’s plenty of it available.

How has the rise of the mini-mill segment affected the overall scrap steel industry?

MM: It has changed the market quite a bit. More than half of the steel that’s produced in the U.S. is produced from scrap, because of the expansion of the mini-mill industry, which started out basically as small steel mills that made rebar and other construction products – products the bigger steel companies weren't interested in anymore. It wasn't really very profitable, and a lot of it was eventually taken over by importers who were buying cheaper steel from smaller countries and wherever they could get it overseas. Since it began however, the mini-mill industry has grown by more than half, and is now responsible for over half of the steel produced in the U.S. Of that total, about 50 to 60 million tons – close to 90 percent of it – is based on scrap or recycled material.

The mini-mill industry is also more of an integrated steel industry today, because they own so much of their processing capabilities on the raw materials side. Many of them are now very actively integrated in terms of buying and getting scrap from their own operations. Anybody who is in the electric arc furnace segment of the industry, whether it’s a mini-mill or specialty mill such as in the stainless business, where they use electric arc furnaces, rely very heavily on scrap as their primary raw material.

Additionally, with the development of what is called “continuous strip processing” for making flat rolled steel from scrap, along with the electric arc furnace process, many mini-mills have recently expanded into the flat roll business.

They’re not making quite the quality of steel that you’re getting out of big integrated steel mills like U.S. Steel or ArcelorMittal or AK Steel, which are based on the use of iron ore, coke and coal, but they’re able to make very high quality flat rolled steels for use in a lot of applications. So mini-mills have expanded into that segment.

Some will use imported pig iron from Brazil, Ukraine or Russia – mainly as something to help lower the amount of residuals in scrap. Because when you’re recycling scrap, you’re not getting pure iron. When you shred a car, you may get chunks of upholstery and some pieces of glass, things like that will stick to some of the ferrous. Even though it’s magnetically separated, there’s still going to be some dirt or other residual products, paint and things like that from the car that may contain some other elements.

When you’re making steel products from iron ore, you’re getting a very clean, a very low residual product – if not a zero residual product. Whereas, when you’re making a steel product in an electric arc furnace from scrap, you’re bound to get some residuals such as copper, aluminum and other non-ferrous elements. Scrap metal processors have to work harder to keep residuals to a minimum, so they have to operate within certain specs.

How have changes in global iron ore and steel markets affected the North American scrap industry?

MM: The recent slowdown in steel consumption in China has meant that some Chinese mills have had to look elsewhere for markets for their steel products. And they are very, very fearsome competitors in the world steel market, because they have a clear raw materials advantage at present. Chinese steel mills – as with any big process industry – operate on an economy of scale principle. In other words, to keep operating at capacity, they've had to sell more of their steel products overseas.

Because iron ore prices have dropped significantly over the last two or three years (down to about $60/ton for what’s called 62-percent ferrous content) when you figure out the cost for making steel from the iron ore integrated process using coke, coal and iron ore – there is a terrific cost advantage there now over scrap, because scrap prices have gone high due to the strong demand.

The U.S. steel industry is less dependent on the world iron ore market than other countries like China, South Korea and Japan because much of the steel produced in the U.S. comes from mini-mills and scrap. And the few integrated steel mills that use iron ore get all of their iron from the Mesabi Range in upper Minnesota, not Brazil and Australia where the major iron producers and their largest mines are located. However, more cheap Chinese steel is coming into the U.S., while at the same time steel mills in other countries that have lost market share to the Chinese are selling more of their steel in the U.S. That has contributed to excess steel supplies and helped drive down steel prices. Steel mills in the U.S. are producing less, buying less scrap, and have drastically cut the price they are paying for scrap in order to preserve this profit margins on their steel products.

How closely is the price of scrap steel tied to geography in North America? Is that different from other commodity markets?

MM: For ferrous scrap, yes it is different because of the cost of shipping. If you’re looking at the cost of shipping a ton of scrap metal, the cost currently is anywhere from 1 cent per pound to, at the top, about 3 or 4 cents, because the purchase price ranges from about $200 to about $300 per ton. Prices have dropped by about $100 in the past month (January-February 2015). That’s a pretty drastic drop in one month.

And when you figure that freight costs can be a significant portion of total cost, as much as two cents per pound, you really can’t go too far before it becomes impractical to buy scrap and ship it from an area where there is a huge population, such as the Boston area for example. There are no steel mills in that region of the country. The closest steel mills are in northern New Jersey, and there is a Nucor mill in western New York. But if you wanted to buy scrap out of that region, you’d have to ship it by rail, train, and in some cases, because of the distance you’re travelling, cost can be as much as $50 per ton.

In most cases, it’s usually cheaper to just sell scrap to a port. It can be hauled down to the port and sold overseas, and sellers do not have to spend a great deal of time, unless it’s high quality material. But generally there’s limitations. That’s one of the reasons why much of the scrap industry in the U.S. on the West Coast, is largely an export industry. Virtually all of the scrap generated there goes to Japan, Korea, China, and now it is increasingly exported to smaller countries like India, Malaysia and others where they are scrap-poor but have more and more steel mills.

How has the Internet changed the way scrap companies operate and determine prices?

MM: In terms of scrap processing capability and what people do, it has not had much impact, because the scrap industry is still one that works outside in the weather, running shredders, balers, shears, processing scrap, loading it onto rail cars and shipping it to a steel mill.

What’s changed to some degree is some of the information aspects of the industry. In other words, most of the mills have a clearer idea of what scrap is being delivered to them every day, and how much is being delivered, because they now have computer programs that can show them the railcars that have arrived, how many tons they weigh and other parameters. So there’s a speed of information that’s available to the industry now that was not there previously.

Some of the trading companies have developed things called “optimizer programs,” by which they’ve taken basic spreadsheet programs and manipulated them in such a way that you can input prices from one of the published sources, like ourselves or others, make estimates and analyses, and come up with projections about what is the best mix of scrap to buy. Optimizer programs (as some of them are called) help the scrap industry make their buying decisions each month.

Still, in many cases, it doesn't matter how cheap busheling is. If the guy who is running a mill feels more comfortable using shredded and likes the density of shredded when he puts it in the furnace, then he’s going to use shredded, and you can buy him all the busheling you want.

“It is very, very attractive to buy Canadian scrap currently [due to the strong U.S. dollar] and particularly because the price has come down so much. And there’s plenty of it available coming from automotive plants as well as stamping plants and similar industries.” Michael Marley

We’re not asking you to predict the future, but is there any expectation that things may improve for scrap steel in 2015?

MM:It’s a pretty bleak outlook for the present. The problem is the steel market really hasn't settled. At this point, we don’t know whether the market is going to continue falling, because of imports and the strength of the dollar and what effect that is going have. There’s so many conflicting forces out there operating at the same time that we’re seeing this weakness in steel prices. The automotive industry is pumping out 16 million cars per year, which is great production, and that means consumption is high. You can’t get a better consumer of steel than the automakers.

But there’s just too much going on with the strong dollar and the level of imports. We’re importing close to 4 million tons of steel into the U.S. from overseas every month. That is close to half of the steel that’s produced in the U.S. This generates additional scrap and adds to the reservoir here. So there is some excess on the supply side that we are waiting on in the scrap market, both from the industrial side and from the obsolete side.

At the same time, there’s just this weakness in steel demand and nobody is quite sure when it will stop. One of the problems is that when steel prices are slowly spiralling down like they have been, the steel traders and warehouses and steel buyers tend to be very reluctant to make new purchases. They operate with very low inventories, or try to, because the prices may be cheaper next week.

What can MetalPrices.com offer to scrap processors, buyers and traders?

MM: We provide a number of services, including pricing information for a vast number of industries, including ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and not just with respect to metal prices. We provide huge amounts of data, and are prime providers for LME and for many of the terminal market prices for non-ferrous metals. We provide very, very precise information about specific grades. We don’t just cover prices such as “yellow brass” for example. We specify into alloys.

The other aspect, I think, that some people have begun to realize, including some of the major players in various manufacturing industries, is that our website and our information is interactive in the sense that our customers can go on to our website and set up an entire system for themselves to monitor and track prices.

We have a number of major manufacturing corporations that are looking at our site and telling us they can do all sorts of things in terms of tracking prices of materials and making comparisons on it that they can’t do elsewhere. Our system works on a subscription basis and we’re set up to allow our clients to take industry numbers and crunch them directly on our website. 

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