US recyclers of stainless steel and special alloys have had to contend with a number of challenges this year, including falling nickel prices, rising interest rates, slower manufacturing output and now the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike.
Concerns about deteriorating property market conditions in China weighed on a range of non-ferrous metal prices in September, including LME nickel which dipped below US$ 19,000 per tonne late in the month. Benchmark grades for US recycled stainless steel were mostly flat to lower over the course of September amid the downturn in nickel prices and softer carbon steel market conditions, particularly for prime steel scrap.
Total US steel production during the first nine months of 2023 declined 1.3% year on year as the capacity utilization rate fell to 76%, according to estimates from the American Iron and Steel Institute. Manufacturing output overall has also been sluggish this year, with the Institute for Supply Management’s US manufacturing PMI coming in at 49.0 in September, signalling the 11th consecutive month of contraction in the manufacturing sector. Rising interest rates have impacted home and auto sales, with the UAW strike having the potential to further disrupt the US auto market. On September 29, the UAW added two additional plants to its list of strike locations, which already included 38 parts distribution centres and three assembly plants.
Export demand has been a largely supportive feature for US stainless steel recyclers this year. According to trade data from the US Commerce Department, more than 267,000 tonnes of recycled stainless steel was exported in the first half of 2023 - an increase of 78% over the same period in 2022. Improved demand from Mexico, India and Taiwan were the main drivers of this increase. However, the potential expansion of categories of “waste” under Annex I of the Basel Convention to include nickel and nickel compounds continues to be a source of concern.