The Chinese Metals Industry – a Roundup of 2008 and the Outlook for 2009

Written by admin on May 19th, 2011

The Chinese metals industry – a roundup of 2008 and the outlook for 2009 

The  year  has  been  a rollercoaster  ride  for  most  industrial  metals, culminating in sharp price drops  as  the global financial crisis gripped major economies. As the world’s  largest consumer and producer of metals, China’s demand was the main  factor  behind  skyrocketing  metals  prices over the past few years through  to  the  beginning of 2008. China’s metals consumption is expected  to  continue  to  grow  in  2009, but at a slower rate than in previous  years.  In  addition,  the  Chinese  government  is  likely to implement  positive  fiscal  and monetary policies to support the metals industry in 2009, in a move to maintain sustainable economic growth.

Iron ore and steel

In February,  Chinese  steel mills settled on benchmark iron price hikes of 65 percent  to  71  percent with Brazilian iron ore producer Vale, as demand for  the raw material went through the roof. In the middle of the year, Australian  iron  ore  miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton agreed to even larger  increases  in  contract  prices with Chinese steel mills of between  79.88  percent  and  96.5  percent.  The  separate deals were a breakaway  from  the  traditional  rule of agreeing to unified benchmark price changes.

However,  demand for iron ore has since dwindled, and there is a general consensus  in  the industry that benchmark iron ore prices will decrease for the  2009/2010  contract  year,  which starts on April 1, 2009.

Most insiders  and  industry analysts believe that benchmark prices will fall by between  30  percent  and  50  percent,  mirroring  the  gap  between 2008/2009  benchmark  prices  and  current  prices of Indian iron ore on China’s spot market.

Aside from  contract  prices,  the main news in the sector this year was the Aluminum  Corporation  of  China (Chinalco) teaming up with Alcoa to acquire  a  12 percent stake in Rio Tinto’s London-listed arm, which was widely interpreted  as  a  Chinese  government-backed  move  to  block a proposed  takeover  of  Rio  Tinto by BHP Billiton. The takeover bid was withdrawn  in  late November, much to the relief of Chinese steelmakers.

It is still expected that Chinalco will increase its shareholding in Rio next year  to  further  secure iron ore supplies for the country’s steel industry.

Meanwhile, 2008 saw Chinese steel mills begin to source iron ore from an increasing  number  of  emerging  overseas  iron  ore miners and enhance cooperation  with  domestic  suppliers after Vale suspended shipments in late September.  Both  trends  are  likely to continue into next year as Chinese  steel mills will swim against the tide to reduce their reliance on the three mining giants.

Looking to the downstream market, China’s steel product prices surged to record highs in June, driven by robust demand from both the domestic and international markets as well as high raw material prices. However, weak demand pulled  prices  down  over the second half of the year until mid-November, forcing steel mills to cut production in September.

Due to un inspiring  forecasts  for  the  global  economy,  China’s steel product  exports  are  set  to further slide in 2009 despite the Chinese government’s   scrapping  of  steel  product  export  taxes.  Meanwhile, domestic  demand for steel products is expected to recover in the second quarter of 2009 at the earliest, following implementation of the central government’s RMB 4 trillion (5.12 billion) economic stimulus package.

Steel product prices will continue to fall in early 2009.

During 2008,  China’s  steel  industry  witnessed further consolidation, which saw  the  establishment  of conglomerates Guangdong Iron and Steel Group, Hebei  Iron  and  Steel  Group, Shandong Iron and Steel Group and Guangxi  Iron  and  Steel  Group.  Further  sector  consolidation can be expected in 2009 due to encouragement from the central government and as steel mills look for a way to weather the downturn.

Part of   the   Chinese   government’s   consolidation   plan   includes establishing  steel  production bases in several Chinese coastal cities, and 2009  will see construction work start on Baosteel Group’s Zhanjiang project,  Wuhan  Iron  and Steel Group’s Fangchenggang project, Shandong Iron and  Steel  Group’s Rizhao project, and Nanjing Steel’s Lianyungang project.

In addition,  long-awaited  steel  product futures contracts may also be launched  on  the  Shanghai  Futures Exchange (SHFE) in 2009, which willhelp steel  companies  manage  large  price fluctuations on the domesticmarket.


In the first  half  of  2008, domestic aluminum smelters were hit by the severe snowstorms  in  southern  China,  power  shortages,  the  Sichuan earthquake  on  May  12 and high raw material prices, which all affected profitability.

Meanwhile,  aluminum  prices were volatile over 2008 and halved from the beginning  of  the  year  to  RMB  9,730 (,423.31) per ton on Dec. 25,falling  below  the  production  costs  of most Chinese smelters on weak demand and a market surplus. Many smelters will post losses for 2008 and with the  global  financial crisis yet to fully unfold, they will likely face a tough time again next year.

To date,  more  than  2 million tons worth of domestic aluminum smelting capacity have been suspended.

China(cnmining) is  expected to produce 13.50 million tons of aluminum in 2008, up8 percent  from  the  previous  year,  although  the growth rate is much slower compared  with  that  of  previous  years. It is likely that next year’s output  will  grow,  and  the  market  is  expected  to stay in a surplus.

But, potential  upsides  for  the  industry  in 2009 include power pricecuts, the  State  Reserve  Bureau’s (SRB) increase of aluminum reserves, and further cuts to export taxes and increases in export tax rebates for primary aluminum and certain aluminum products.


Domestic  and  global  copper  prices  continued an overall downtrend in 2008, and  were  relatively  volatile.  Chinese copper prices dropped by more than  60  percent  from  the  beginning  of  the year to RMB 22,880(,346.89) per ton on Dec. 25.

Long-term  contract  copper  concentrate  treatment and refining charges(TC/RC)  for  2008  reached  a  low  of  47.2/4.72, and spot TC/RCs even dropped  to  30/3.0  in  the  middle  of 2008, which put domestic copper smelters  between  a rock and a hard place. Many did stay afloat through profits  from  sales  of  sulfuric acid, a by product of copper smelting, although some small-sized smelters were forced to cut production by one-third to reduce losses.

Tight copper  concentrate supply at the beginning of this year has since developed  into a surplus in recent months, with spot TC/RCs shooting up to 90/9.0 in December. Chinese smelters are expected to settle on higher long-term  TC/RCs for 2009 of about 77/7.7, which would support a growth in Chinese copper output in 2009.

Copper prices  on  both  the  Shanghai Futures Exchange and London Metal Exchange  will  continue  falling on slack demand thanks to the economic downturn  and  even  lower  production  costs in the first half of 2009.

However,  a  recovery  is  expected  later  in  the  year,  as increased investment in China’s power grid projects will boost copper consumption.

It is also  expected  that  the Chinese government will reinstate copper tolling  in  2009  as  an additional support measure for domestic copper smelters, which would allow them to import copper concentrate and export refined copper at preferential tax rates.


In 2008,  spot  nickel  prices on the Shanghai Yangtze Nonferrous Metals Market fell  from a high of RMB 271,000 (,619.88) per ton on March 6,to between  RMB 96,500 (,116.03) and RMB 106,500 (,578.83) per tonon Dec.  25,  as  demand  from  the  downstream  stainless  steel making industry crumbled.

According to Beijing-based Antaike Information, China’s annual stainless steel output  is expected to reach around 7.1 million tons in 2008, down 2.2 percent  from the previous year. China’s nickel production, measured by nickel  metal  content, is expected to stand at 200,000 tons in 2008, down 6.1  percent  year-on-year, while nickel consumption, also measured by nickel  content,  is forecast to reach 315,000 tons, equal to that of 2007.

In late October, Jinchuan Group, Asia’s largest nickel producer, slashed its nickel production target for 2008 from 120,000 tons to 100,000 tons.

The fall  in nickel prices in 2008 and suspended operations of stainless steel factories  also  forced  Chinese  producers  of nickel pig iron to scale back  production in early September. By late October, more than 95 percent  of  China’s  nickel  pig  iron  producers  had  shut down their facilities,  which  resulted  in  huge stockpiles of laterite at China’s ports. On  Dec.  19,  laterite  stockpiles  at China’s ports reached 6.9 million tons.

In 2009,  China’s  demand  for  nickel may continue shrinking because of declining  stainless  steel 

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