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US tariff hike to hit Indian steelmakers as EU, China plan retaliation

Weak domestic demand, international competition to hurt industry

Krishna Kant  |  Mumbai 

Flat steelmakers pause price hike in Oct over rate decline in China

Indian steelmakers could face a significant effect after US President Donald Trump imposed duties on steel imports to his country. Earlier, it was expected that the effect would be minimal, as the Indian steel industry does not have major exposure to the US market.

However, the US tariffs, coupled with retaliatory moves by the (EU) and China, have the potential to hurt nascent recovery in the domestic steel industry by making it expensive for steelmakers to export their surplus.

Any decline in exports is likely to exert downward pressure on domestic steel prices. India’s steel demand has failed to keep up with the fast-growing domestic production. Consequently, companies have to ramp up exports.

But, they will face competition from steelmakers in South Korea, China, Japan, and the EU, which will scramble to capture new markets as selling to the US becomes more expensive.

In 2016-17, the top five Indian steelmakers — Tata Steel, JSW Steel, SAIL, Bhushan Steel, and Jindal Steel and Power — had exported Rs 229 billion of steel, a jump of 269 per cent over Rs 62 billion in 2015-16.

JSW Steel topped the list in 2016-17, with exports worth Rs 101.5 billion — a fifth of its net sales (Rs 523 billion). Its exports were up 276 per cent over the previous year, against 42 per cent year-on-year standalone growth in net sales. Bhushan Steel was second on the list, exporting nearly a quarter of its output.

“In a commodity industry, a small change in supply and demand can lead to big swings in prices. Steel prices in the domestic market could come under pressure if metal supply rises,” said G Chokkalingam, founder and managing director, Equinomics Research & Advisory.

Low growth in domestic demand for steel is also adding to woes of the industry.

According to data from the joint plant committee (JPC) of the steel ministry, total finished steel production was up 11.9 per cent, year on year, in 2016-17 and consumption grew 3.1 per cent. Imports were down 38.3 per cent, year on year.

US tariffs on steel

Source: World Steel association

World Steel Association data showed crude steel production in India grew at a compounded annual rate of 5.1 per cent in past three years. The annualised growth in steel demand during the period was 3.4 per cent.

As a result, steel production exceeded demand by about 5.8 million tonnes during 2017, up from 3.8 million tonnes a year ago.

The surplus in the domestic market is likely to grow over the next 12 months as struggling steelmakers, such as Essar Steel, Bhushan Steel and Monnet Ispat are acquired by new owners under insolvency provisions. The new owners would want to increase capacity utilisation.

“Many of the plants are working at 40-50 per cent capacity,” said C Verma, former chairman of Steel Authority of India (SAIL).

According to industry estimates, the resolution of these cases will bring in 10-12 million tonnes of additional production, worsening the supply-demand situation in the country. This will, in turn, exert downward pressure on prices and these companies’ margins.

“There could be some financial headwind in the near- to mid-term if the demand growth fails to rise,” said Dhananjay Sinha, head of research, Emkay Global Financial Services.

Verma expects steel demand in the country to grow 7-8 per cent per annum over the next few years. “If this happens, there will be little surplus capacity left in India. This is not a tall order, given the recent trend in the country’s economic growth,” he added.

In 2017, 935 million tonnes of steel were traded globally, according to the World Steel Association. This was equivalent to 57.4 per cent of global steel production in 2016.

Most large steel-exporting economies are also big importers. For example, the EU, the world’s largest steel exporter, is also the world’s top buyer, with its import volumes equivalent to 87 per cent of its steel production in 2016.

“There are hundreds of different grades of steel alloy and no country manufacturers all grades of steel. This leads to a large global trade in steel, depending on the specialisation,” said Chokkalingam.

First Published: Tue, March 13 2018. 07:00 IST
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