Stainless Steel & Special Alloys
A watershed year for nickel pricing?
During my time as Chairman of the BIR Stainless Steel & Special Alloys Committee, I have typically incorporated a summary of LME nickel highs and lows in my reviews of the previous year. But never before have I had to report a complete, albeit temporary, absence of LME benchmark prices.
Last year began with LME nickel at just over US$ 20,000 per tonne, dipping below this level only in July before ending 2022 at around the US$ 30,000 mark. But these figures fail to reflect the unprecedented drama in March last year when, shortly after the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, the LME was forced to suspend nickel trading after prices suddenly sky-rocketed to more than US$ 100,000 per tonne, with the finger of blame being pointed at short-covering by a leading producer.
For eight days, we found ourselves in the unfamiliar and destabilizing position of having no reference prices available from this metals industry institution of almost 150 years’ standing. And despite the relatively quick resumption of trading on the Exchange, the shock waves are still being felt today.
During the undoubtedly timely meeting of our Committee in Barcelona last May, we were able to gauge the immediate impact of this trading hiatus. Robin Martin, the LME’s head of market development, acknowledged that the Exchange’s nickel volumes were 15-20% lower than in the corresponding period of 2021 and that it had work to do to rebuild confidence and trust.
As we learned at the meeting, however, some companies had already incurred significant and irretrievable financial losses, such as through paying out huge amounts in margin calls. There were also suggestions of a significant trend towards direct negotiations rather than using an LME nickel price that, many believe, can no longer be relied upon to reflect the physical market.
In essence, 2022 could prove to be the watershed year in which the LME’s status as a global nickel price reference point began to unravel. Already, LME-deliverable nickel is occupying a significantly smaller share of the world supply and consumption universe.
Even before this controversy, we in Europe were experiencing lower order intakes as a consequence of pandemic-related effects on all parts of the stainless supply chain and therefore on demand. Rising costs relating to the production of stainless steel – such as for energy, electrodes, ferro-silicon and scrap – were pushing finished goods prices ever higher and duly impairing demand.
The start of the Ukraine conflict tipped the balance even more sharply towards the negative: soaring energy costs and interest rates fuelled talk of recession and convinced the public to be more cautious in their spending. Europe’s stainless steel producers have seen a worrying downturn in demand for their products, not least because of a record level of imports. With sales prices falling more rapidly than ever before and plenty of finished goods in stock, producers have been working to some of the lowest capacity utilization rates ever known.
Against this discouraging backdrop, demand and prices for stainless scrap have remained very low. Soft market conditions have dominated in the USA and Asia too, not helped by India’s 15% export duty on finished stainless products which has slowed demand for scrap imports. In China, by contrast, stainless scrap demand was healthy in the second half of last year owing to its price advantage over nickel pig iron.
By the time we met in Dubai last October, we were craving some good news. Guest speaker Robert Messmer of Steel & Metals Market Research did his best to oblige by reflecting the broad span of applications for which stainless steel was the material of choice. Rather more disconcertingly, however, he pointed out that some of the traditional uses of stainless steel within the automotive industry – such as in exhaust units for internal combustion engines – were diminishing as the industry stepped up its transition to electric vehicles.
Confidence levels in the LME and the effects of
the Ukraine crisis are among the key issues to have carried over from 2022 into 2023. Indeed, nickel price forecasts for the current year have been made even more unstable as a result of risks surrounding Russian supply.
As we all know, lack of confidence and uncertainty are poisonous for business prospects. So in anticipation of another difficult year, we can do no better than fall back on our most trusted allies: resilience and an eye for opportunity.
“The start of the Ukraine conflict tipped the balance even more sharply towards the negative.”
Joost van Kleef
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:
- Construction: Excellent corrosion resistance, strength and malleability allow for the construction of attractive, low-maintenance and durable curtain walls and roofs.
- Food storage and production: Stainless steel resists colonization of bacteria, does not alter the taste of foods, and is easily cleaned and sterilized.
- Transport: Passenger rail cars of today’s high-speed trains are often constructed of stainless steel, which offers structural strength and improved crash protection.
- Healthcare: Most surgical instruments are made of stainless steel because of its strength and resistance to regular cleaning and sterilization.
- Households: Stainless steel has been traditionally used in cutlery, cookware and appliances.
- Recycling one tonne of steel saves 1100 kg of iron ore, 630 kg of coal and 55 kg of limestone.
- The average stainless steel object is composed of around 60% recycled material.
- Approximately 90% of end-of-life stainless steel is collected and recycled into new products.