About the Steel Industry
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Given the unique combination of strength, formability and
versatility in steel; it is deployed across various industries
including construction, transport, electrical appliances, food
packaging and others. Steel products are classified into four
broad categories: flat steel products, long steel products, scrap
and semi-finished products. Flat products include plates,
hot-rolled strip and sheets, and cold-rolled strip and sheets.
The long steel products are wire rods, beams, reinforced bars and
The steel industry in today's world is considered as the backbone
of the economy and is often indicative of economic progress, as
it plays a critical role in infrastructural and overall economic
development. World crude steel production went up from 851
megatons (Mt) in 2001 to 1,548 Mt in 2012. However, despite its
size, the steel industry remains relatively fragmented and is
highly cyclical and intensely competitive.
Within the Zacks Industry classification, the steel industry
falls under the broader Basic Materials sector (one of 16 Zacks
sectors). We rank all of the more than 250 industries in the 16
Zacks sectors based on the earnings outlook for the constituent
companies in each industry. This ranking is available in the
Zacks Industry Rank
The way to look at the complete list of 250+ industries is that
the outlook for the top one-third of the list (Zacks Industry
Rank of #85 and lower) is positive, while the outlook for the
bottom one-third (Zacks Industry Rank #170 and higher) is
We have three Steel related industries: Steel Pipes, Steel
Producers and Steel Specialty. The Steel Pipes industry currently
retains a Zacks Industry Rank #118, placing it in the middle one
third of the 250+ industry groups. The Steel Producers industry
is featuring in the bottom 1/3rd of all Zacks industries with a
Zacks Industry Rank #235, followed by the Specialty Steel
industry, with a Zacks Industry Rank #249. Looking at the exact
location of these Steel industries, one could safely say that the
outlook is on the 'Negative' side.
Please note that the Zacks Rank for stocks, which is at the core
of our Industry Outlook, has an impressive track record going
back years, verified by outside auditors, to foretell stock
prices, particularly over the short term (1 to 3 months). The
rank along with Expected Surprise Prediction (ESP) (Read:
Zacks Earnings ESP: A Better Method
) helps in predicting the probability of earnings surprises.
Industry Performance So Far
After witnessing sturdy growth for most part of the last decade,
the steel industry suffered a setback due to the recession in
2008 as consumers utilized existing inventories rather than
buying new stock. The industry witnessed a turnaround in late
2009 and continued to grow thereafter, in sync with the global
Demand for steel benefited from growth in the developing
economies that helped counter the sluggishness in developed
economies. Asia, particularly China, continued to be the
principal growth driver. Demand for steel products, nonetheless,
remained below the pre-recession levels.
However, China's economic growth has been subdued compared to the
robust levels over the last decade. The economic slowdown in 2012
unfavorably impacted infrastructure and construction spending.
Concerns surrounding China's growth and the European debt crisis
remain overhangs on the sector's outlook.
Global Production Numbers in 2012
World crude steel production was a record 1,548 Mt in 2012,
outperforming the 2011 level by 1.2%. Production in Asia improved
2.7% to 1,012 Mt. China retained its leadership position,
yielding almost 46% of the global output at 716.5 Mt. Production
in Japan, the second largest producer, remained flat year over
year at 107.2 Mt. The United States held the third position,
producing 88.6 Mt of crude steel, up 2.5% annually and accounting
for 6% of the total global output. Production in Europe and South
America were somber, declining 2.7% and 3.1%, respectively.
In Jan 2013, world crude steel production edged up 0.8% annually
to 125 Mt. China's crude steel production was 59.3 Mt, up 4.6%
year over year. Japan produced 8.9 Mt of crude steel, an increase
of 2.7%. The U.S produced 7.3 Mt of crude steel in Jan 2013, a
5.8% year-over-year decline.
Industry Capacity & Demand/Consumption
The average capacity utilization ratio in 2012 was 78.8% compared
to 80.7% in 2011. World crude steel capacity utilization ratio
further decreased to 71.2% in Jan 2013 from 73.2% in Dec 2012,
and also dipped 5.5 percentage points from Jan 2012.
Global apparent steel consumption increased 1.7% in 2012, down
sharply from 7.4% growth in 2011. Region wise, apparent steel
consumption decreased 9% in Europe, edged up 2% in China and
increased 7% in the United States in 2012 on a year-over-year
Steel prices are generally volatile, in line with the highly
cyclical nature of the global steel industry. Rising raw material
prices have a direct impact on steel prices as higher raw
material prices induces a corresponding increase in steel prices.
However, in the wake of lower demand, it becomes increasingly
challenging to pass on raw material price hikes to consumers.
Overcapacity, glut in cheaper Chinese steel imports, economic
conditions, shifts toward other substitutes significantly impact
Steel prices improved in the first half of 2012, but declined in
the back half due to a glut in imports, oversupply in the market
from zealous steelmakers, weak demand in Europe and tempering
growth in Asia. A sustained downside in steel prices will
materially and adversely affect margins of the steel companies.
The overall negative tone of Zacks Industry Rank for the Steel
industry reflects this underwhelming earnings outlook. We believe
that the eventual pricing recovery will need a reviving economy,
stabilization in the Euro-zone and a rebound in construction
activity in the developing countries, in particular China, India
and South Korea.
Raw Material Trends
The primary inputs for the steel industry are iron ore and coking
coal, as well as coke, scrap, alloys and base metal. The industry
also uses large volumes of natural gas, electricity and oxygen
for its steel manufacturing operations.
In the first half of 2012, prices were more or less stable before
plummeting to a three-year low in September. Nonetheless, prices
have been on the rise based on aggressive restocking drive by
Chinese steel mills. However, average iron ore prices in 2012
were much lower than the previous year.
The iron ore industry is highly concentrated with only three
Rio Tinto Plc
) and BHP Billiton Ltd. (
), having significant pricing power. Iron ore prices are expected
to slump in 2013 due to the economic uncertainty in China.
Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) have remained an important
growth strategy in the steel industry providing additional steel
capacity, production efficiency and economies of scale. However,
consolidation was minimal in 2012, given the current economic
uncertainties in the developed economies as well as a slowdown in
the emerging regions.
In 2012, a landmark development was the merger of Japan's largest
and world's sixth-largest steel maker Nippon Steel Corporation
with 27th-ranked Sumitomo Metal Industries to form the world's
second largest steel firm -
Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation
). With a combined capacity of 46.1 million tons, the merger is
targeted to generate savings in the face of increasingly intense
We expect M&A activity to remain slow in 2013 until prices
stabilize and the industry strikes a balance between supply and
demand. Going forward, the abatement of the Euro-zone crisis,
recovery in the U.S. and Chinese economy will determine the fate
of such deals.
How Well Did Steel Stocks Fare?
Reflecting on the recently reported fourth quarter results of the
steel companies in our coverage --
U.S. Steel Corp.
AK Steel Holding Corp.
) -- we see revenues were constrained across the board due to a
drop in average steel prices. All the steel players have been
plagued by weak steel demand, oversupply in the U.S. steel
industry and increased steel imports in the domestic market,
which have affected steel prices, hurting margins in the process.
The weak global conditions are a deterrent factor for volumes.
Given the scenario in Europe, ArcelorMittal, the world's largest
steelmaker in terms of volume, announced its plans in Jan 2013 to
permanently close its plant in Liege, Belgium, owing to the slack
demand. These plans, however, faced protests from the country's
leaders. In response, ArcelorMittal has agreed to stall its
restructuring programs through June until the European Union
Commission publishes its plan to revive Europe's steel industry.
German heavy industry giant ThyssenKrupp also announced plans to
layoff more than 2,000 employees out of a total workforce of
27,600 at its Steel Europe division, thus generating cost savings
of 500 million euros ($671 million).
Looking Ahead in 2013
The U.S. steel market down remains plagued by oversupply and
increased imports. Although Chinese steel production growth,
which was responsible for causing the glut to some extent, has
somewhat slowed down; supply in the steel market still
overshadows demand. We expect continued increase in steel
imports, volatility in steel pricing, the European debt crisis
and its potential global impact, and sluggish growth in the
emerging markets to be deterrents for the steel industry.
Let's have a look at the performance of the major consumer
markets. Historically, the automotive and construction markets
have been the largest consumers of steel, consuming more than
half of the total steel produced. The industry caters to large
automakers such as
General Motors Company
Ford Motor Co.
Toyota Motor Corporation
Honda Motor Co. Ltd.
The automotive sector registered significant growth in 2012. The
momentum was carried forward in 2013 with auto sales in January
increasing 15% with the seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) at
15.3 million vehicles. This was the third straight month of above
15 million SAAR.
This performance creates the perfect start to achieve the
consensus expectation of 15.3 million vehicles to be sold in
2013, up from 14.5 million vehicles sold in 2012. The robust
growth rate in the sector has been fueled by strong pent-up
demand, rising credit availability, launch of several redesigned
and fuel-efficient vehicles and rebound in consumer confidence,
thanks to a growing belief that the housing market is recovering.
Another major market -- the Construction sector -- remained an
overhang on the steel companies' earnings. However, in 2012,
there have been evident signs of upturn in construction activity.
The architecture billing index (ABI), an economic indicator that
provides an approximate nine- to twelve-month glimpse into the
future of non-residential construction spending activity, after
remaining negative through most of 2012, climbed back into the
positive territory in Aug 2012 and remained stable till then.
Construction activity for 2013 has kicked off on a promising note
with ABI at 54.2, up sharply from 51.2 in December. This has been
the strongest growth witnessed in five and a half years. This
momentum is expected to persist and conditions are expected
improve, albeit at a slow and steady rate.
The American Institute of Architects projects a 5% increase in
spending in 2013 for non-residential construction projects, on
the back of higher construction of commercial facilities,
particularly for hotels followed by industrial construction
The residential housing sector is also showing signs of strong
momentum with housing starts and housing permits at highest
levels in more than four years as record-low mortgage rates,
rising rents and reduced prices of properties are luring buyers.
In Jan 2013, housing starts spiked 24% year over year to a
seasonally adjusted annual rate of 890,000. Building permits were
at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 925,000, 35% higher than
the year-ago figure.
The steel industry will thus benefit from the strong momentum in
the automotive markets. The turnaround in the so-far faltering
construction sector will definitely provide a much-needed impetus
to the sector. The outlook for other key markets --
transportation, energy, industrial and agricultural sectors also
To Sum Up
In 2013, the steel industry will continue to face headwinds in
the form of overcapacity and surge of imports. Global steel
demand is expected to improve gradually in 2013 compared to the
2012 levels. Growth in the United States will be supported by the
Federal Reserve attempts to sustain the U.S economy's momentum,
an improving labor market, strong momentum in the auto sector and
recovery in construction markets.
Emerging and developing economies will continue to drive growth.
In China, government pro-growth policies, rising loan growth and
a renewed focus on infrastructure spending will induce demand.
Prices could potentially stabilize on the back of a rebound in
construction activity in other developing countries, in
particular India and South Korea.
Steel selling prices will improve hand-in-hand with improved
demand across most regions, due to higher raw material prices and
an end to the destocking that was observed during the fourth
quarter of 2012. In addition to raw materials prices, the
sustainability of higher steel prices will continue to depend on
an increase in sustainable real demand, and no further worsening
of the Euro-zone debt crisis.