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Since February this year, the nickel price fell as low as US$ 15,840 per tonne before recovering to around US$ 19,300 on news of Western countries imposing sanctions on metals of Russian origin, including nickel, copper and aluminium. At the time of writing, nickel has been moving slightly higher over recent days.

In the first quarter of 2024, Taiwanese mills’ demand for stainless steel scrap became even weaker. Imports of hot coil returned to the sizeable 2023 average of approximately 75,000 tonnes per month. Taiwan’s stainless end-product demand remains low and factory activity slow although there are signs the latter has been picking up since April, hopefully leading to a better second quarter. Analysts feel the second half of the year will be better than the first six months.

South Korea’s stainless steel scrap demand was stable in the first quarter but several furnaces are scheduling annual maintenance for the second quarter and so demand for stainless scrap cargoes from overseas will be reduced to minimal levels. Overall, stainless steel plants are performing well and scrap demand appears stable.

China’s ongoing real estate problems are proving a deep worry for the global economy. The government has initiated its third funding injection into the banking and building sector in the hope of stabilizing the market, although this will not be easy.

Pricing of stainless steel coil in China is range-bound, with 304 grade stainless coil futures in Shanghai starting February at around US$ 13,500 per tonne and dropping to a low of US$ 13,200 in late March before increasing sharply to US$ 14,600 in April. Demand for stainless steel end products is varying from month to month, while exports of stainless steel coils increased approximately 10% year on year in the first quarter of 2024 to some 1.06 million tonnes. 

Japanese stainless scrap demand for domestic consumption has gradually increased, leading to a drop in exports. There are signs that this demand will hold for the second quarter.

India’s stainless steel scrap imports have been slower for several months now. A few mills have continued to import semis rather than scrap as part of a trend that has been ongoing for nearly a year; this is very worrying for overseas stainless scrap processors who would otherwise be selling to the Indian Sub-continent.

India’s national elections are taking place; the results will not be out until early June, by which time the markets will hopefully have some clear direction. For now, the trend is to wait and watch, which is why mills are not being at all aggressive; most are importing only limited quantities of scrap and are depending on locally-generated supplies to meet their remaining requirements.

Stainless steel plants’ order books have not been very strong when compared to previous years owing to several factors such as low margins on finished goods because of higher interest and operational costs. Some mills in India are using substitute products instead of scrap, making it an uneven playing field. Also, imports of Zurik, ferro-nickel and nickel pig iron have taken some share from the scrap market.

As for the Indian economy, good indicators include some healthy results from the capital markets. There is plenty of positive feeling in India about the country’s overall growth and performance, leading hopefully to a good second half to the year.